• J Felix

Four Neural Networks that Underlie Well-Being

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

In The Book of Joy, Douglas Carlton Abrams lists 4 independent skills that, if encouraged, contribute to our well-being. These are:

  1. The ability to maintain positive states

  2. The ability to avoid mind wandering

  3. The ability to be generous

  4. The ability to recover from negative states

The Ability to Maintain Positive States

To maintain positive states, we can begin with fundamentals. We are temporary custodians of bodies. The body requires a good night's sleep, exercise, rest, and a mostly plant-based diet to optimize and sustain performance. We can, and often do, compromise on these at a cost. The body is resilient enough to endure neglect for decades. You might even get away with ingesting tobacco, drugs or alcohol.

Good health is a resource we would be wise to manage. I add fasting, cold exposure therapy, heat (saunas, steam), and breathwork to my regimen. Massage, acupuncture and other holistic practices might also benefit.

To maintain positive states, consider intentional practices like gratitude. The mind has a negativity bias. Gratitude provides a counter-balance. Affirmations are another practice people use to condition the mind. Our core beliefs inform our perspective. These are often inherited, not intentionally chosen. We accept them and hardly bother examining them with any rigor. We may even protect those which we know are dangerous. Suicidal ideations are an extreme example of this misplaced allegiance to thought. It is not uncommon, moreover, for people to invest in thought forms with diminishing returns. When I was a boy, for example, I would withdraw to my room when my father was angry. What was a reasonable strategy to keep me safe at 8 may not be at 18 or 28. Learning to communicate assertively would be a more effective approach to conflict.

I would recommend a periodic review of our portfolio of beliefs. Investing time to identify and affirm those qualities which are truly native and most authentic can be a most creatively positive act. Identifying and working our signature strengths daily is another useful technique. You can begin by taking the signature strengths survey.

The Ability to Avoid Mind Wandering

Meditate. I've explained the how and why elsewhere: the stages of attentional training; focused attention & the attention cycle.

The Ability to Be Generous

A generosity of spirit can be applied, first, to the little self you imagine yourself to be. What we call ego works hard to keep us safe. I appreciate its efforts and respect its self-will. I don't trust that it knows what it's doing, its purpose, or where it's going, but I embrace and love the little self as it is. The dramas it co-creates with other little selves are absorbing and entertaining, so long as I don't take them too seriously. The mistakes and offenses it commits are forgivable. The weaknesses and flaws it strives to correct or hide point to a vulnerability that is endearingly beautiful. The little self is an earnest seeker. I appreciate its efforts, even the meaningless ones.

Connect to that Generosity of Spirit that allows the little self to be, to stumble, to suffer, to grow. And, of course, we can extend kindness to others, nurture our social connections, serve, share our talents and resources with others- acts we often associate with generosity. But love begins with you, beautiful child of Mystery!

The Ability to Recover from Negative States

Of the 4 independent neural networks that can be intentionally trained, this ability, if neglected, has the power to undermine the others, or to support them (if the buttresses are there).

There are many ways to recover from negative states. I start by recognizing negative states as subjective experiences. What I perceive as "bad" may not be inherently so. I can reframe an experience if I remain open.

Next, I relax into the experience, allowing it to be. If strong emotions arise, I embrace them. I've shared several specific approaches here. The present moment is our point of power. At any given moment, there are many possibilities. Rather than react from fear or habit, I can reappraise events in order to select a response and with an energy I choose to create from.

My spiritual faith and beliefs often circulate during times of distress. The words of Christ ring deep in my soul. "Be not dismayed... Fear not!" A poet, like Hafez or Landinsky, might comfort the soul:

I wish I could show you

when you are lonely or in darkness

the astonishing light of your own being

Perceived negative states are often based on cognitive distortions. Investing time to study them helps us identify them when they arise.

Ten of the most common are:

1. All-or-nothing thinking: pigeon-holing events into absolute, black-and-white categories.

2. Overgeneralization: a few instances or examples become generalized.

3. Mental filter: all sensory information is filtered through mind. Our biases, assumptions, and beliefs render perceptions that we mistake for "reality." Here is a powerful account of how 2 men perceived and approached an apparent threat.

4. Discounting the positives: Ignoring or minimizing positives (e.g. accomplishments, talents, victories, blessings, etc.)

5. Jumping to conclusions: concluding events are "bad," by inference, not evidence. Mind-reading (assuming that people are reacting negatively to you) and fortune-telling (predicting that things will turn out badly) are variations on the theme.

6. Magnification or minimization: evaluating negative appraisals as bigger than they are and positive appraisals as smaller than they are.

7. Emotional reasoning: reasoning from how you feel: “I'm worried, so the situation must be threatening.”

8. “Should” statements: criticizing yourself or other people with moral imperatives like “should,” “shouldn’t,” “must,” “ought,” and “have-to.”

9. Labeling: “I made a mistake,” becomes “I’m a failure.”

10. Blame:  directed at one's self or others for events which one may not be entirely responsible for, or overlooking ways one may have contributed to the problem.

The strategies listed here are hardly exhaustive. Find what works. What works translates to a way of being that is natural, fulfilling, graceful.

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