Four Neural Networks that Underlie Well-Being
Updated: Apr 11, 2022
In The Book of Joy, Douglas Carlton Abrams lists 4 independent skills that, if encouraged, contribute to our well-being. These are:
The ability to maintain positive states
The ability to avoid mind wandering
The ability to be generous
The ability to recover from negative states
The strategies listed here are hardly exhaustive. Find what works for you. What works translates to a way of being that is natural, fulfilling, graceful.
The Ability to Maintain Positive States
To maintain positive states, we can begin with fundamentals. We are custodians of marvelous 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 to our physical, psychological, and emotional well-being. The body is resilient enough to endure neglect for decades. You might even get away with ingesting tobacco, drugs or alcohol. Eventually, all debts come due.
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 the self!
The Ability to Recover from Negative States
"A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships." -Helen Keller
Of the 4 independent neural networks that can be intentionally trained, this ability, if neglected, has the power to undermine the others. I can saturate my mind with positive affirmations, but a catastrophic setback can torpedo my efforts.
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 come to my mind during times of distress. The words of Christ ring deep in my soul. "Be not dismayed... Fear not!" Or we might find consolation in the words of the poet Landinsky:
I wish I could show you
when you are lonely or in darkness
the astonishing light of your own being
Suffering is universal. We all suffer. Suffering can drive us to drink, to drugs, to madness; or suffering can drive us deeper within. We can gain insights, we can grow. "Don't wish it was easier wish you were better," Jim Rohn coached. "Don't wish for less problems wish for more skills. Don't wish for less challenge wish for more wisdom."
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.
Research suggests that people are bad at predicting what will make them happy, something psychologists call affective forecasting. One classic 1978 study compared the happiness of recent winners of the Illinois State Lottery — whose prizes ranged from $50,000 to $1 million — and recent victims of catastrophic accidents, who were left paraplegic or quadriplegic. In interviews with the experimenters, the two groups were asked, among other things, to rate the amount of pleasure they got from simple, everyday activities: chatting with a friend, watching TV, eating breakfast, laughing at a joke, or receiving a compliment. When the researchers analyzed their results, they found that the recent accident victims reported gaining more happiness from these everyday pleasures than the lottery winners. They also found that both groups- after the initial euphoria of winning the lottery or after the shock and despair of losing their mobility- returned to baselines. On average, the winners’ ratings of everyday happiness were 3.33 out of 5, and the accident victims’ averaged answers were 3.48.
The author's wrote:
Eventually, the thrill of winning the lottery will itself wear off. If all things are judged by the extent to which they depart from a baseline of past experience, gradually even the most positive events will cease to have impact as they themselves are absorbed into the new baseline against which further events are judged. Thus, as lottery winners become accustomed to the additional pleasures made possible by their new wealth, these pleasures should be experienced as less intense and should no longer contribute very much to their general level of happiness.
Those who can reframe tragedies into triumphs inspire us. In an interview, the late Ray Charles explained to Dick Cavett that, given a choice, he would not choose to regain his sight after losing it to juvenile glaucoma.
Nick Vujicic was born with tetra-amelia syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by the absence of all four limbs. He reframed his disability as a gift which enabled him to connect with others in a unique and powerful way.
In his 1999 book, Echoes of the Maggid, Rabbi Paysach Krohn shared the following story that illustrates the power of reframing:
In Brooklyn, New York, Chush is a school that caters to children with learning disabilities. Some children remain in Chush for their entire school career while others can transfer into conventional schools. At a Chush fund-raising dinner the father of a Chush child delivered a speech that always be remembered by all who attended. After extolling the school and its dedicated staff he cried out, “Where is the perfection in my son Shaya? Everything God does is done with perfection. But my child cannot understand things as other children do. My child cannot remember facts and figures as other children do. Where is God’s perfection?”
The audience was shocked by the question, pained by the father’s anguish and stilled by the piercing query. “I believe,” the father answered, “that when God brings a child like this into the world the perfection that he seeks is in the way people react to this child.” He then told the following story about his son Shaya: One afternoon, Shaya and his father walked past a park where some boys whom Shaya knew were playing baseball. Shaya asked, “Do you think they will let me play?”
Shaya’s father knew that his son was not at all athletic and that most boys would not want him on their team. But Shaya’s father also understood that if his son was chosen to play it would give him a comfortable sense of belonging. Shaya’s father approached one of the boys in the field and asked if Shaya could play. The boy looked around for guidance from his team mates. Getting none, he took matters into his own hands and said “We are losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we’ll try to put him up to bat in the ninth inning.”
Shaya’s father was ecstatic as Shaya smiled broadly. Shaya was told to put on a glove and go out to play short centre field. In the bottom of the eighth inning Shaya’s team scored a few runs but was still behind by three. In the bottom of the ninth inning Shaya’s team scored again and now, with two outs and the bases loaded with the potential winning run on base, Shaya was scheduled to be up. Would the team actually let Shaya bat at this juncture and give away their chance to win the game?
Surprisingly, Shaya was given the bat. Everyone knew that it was all but impossible because Shaya didn’t even know how to hold the bat properly, let alone hit with it.
However, as Shaya stepped up to the plate, the pitcher moved a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shaya should at least be able to make contact. The first pitch came and Shaya swung clumsily and missed. One of Shaya’s team mates came up to Shaya and together they held the bat and faced the pitcher waiting for the next pitch.
The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly toward Shaya. As the pitch came in, Shaya and his team mate swung at the ball and together they hit a slow ground ball to the pitcher. The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could easily have thrown the ball to the first baseman. Shaya would have been out and that would have ended the game.
Instead, the pitcher took the ball and threw it on a high arc to right field, far beyond reach of the first baseman. Everyone started yelling, “Shaya, run to first. Run to first.” Never in his life had Shaya run to first. He scampered down the baseline wide eyed and startled. By the time he reached first base the right fielder had the ball. He could have thrown the ball to the second baseman who would tag out the still-running Shaya.
But the right fielder understood what the pitcher’s intentions were so he threw the ball high and far over the third baseman’s head. Everyone yelled, “Run to second, run to second.” Shaya ran towards second base as the runners ahead of him deliriously circled the bases towards home. As Shaya reached second base the opposing short stop ran to him, turned him in the direction of third base and shouted, “Run to third.” As Shaya rounded third the boys from both teams ran behind him screaming, “Shaya run home.” Shaya ran home, stepped on home plate and all 18 boys lifted him on their shoulders and made him the hero as he had just hit a “grand slam” and won the game for his team.
“That day,” said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face, “those 18 boys reached their level of God’s perfection.”
First published 6/13/20. Edited and republished 12/30/21