I’m confused. Which is not unusual for anyone trying to understand modern life.
But I was pondering a paradox. We prize intelligence. We regard ourselves as the most intelligent species on the planet. And we are better educated than ever before in human history. Yet if we have the biggest brains (only the Neanderthals had bigger, but that’s another story!) why are so many people unhappy? Most people are dissatisfied with their lives; more than a few are downright unhappy and only a very few feel fulfilled. The quest for sustained happiness eludes us.
Many desire — but few — only very few — achieve lasting changes in their lives. Why is that, if we are so clever? Why are we so challenged by the thought of trying to make lasting change in our lives?
We can make a decision to change direction, but … we each have an inner voice. And that inner voice often tries to undermine us. Not that it wants to deflect us from worthy aspirations. But somehow it always manages to remind us of what we habitually do.
For example: “Dieting again? Oh no, not again! You have tried so many times and you never succeed. You’ll be really miserable for a few days. Then you’ll cave in. Why set yourself up to fail? Forget it! Have some more chocolate; it will make you feel better!”
Does that sound familiar? If not weight loss, then feeling healthier, having more wealth, more energy, more confidence, stopping smoking, a better relationship, less stress — and yes, more joy!
Although deep down, we often consider these to be lost causes. But we often persist. We try. And we fail. Again. And as we reach our middle years we decide we don’t like to keep on failing. So we stop setting ourselves up to fail.
I think there is good evidence that although we may well set realistic goals, lap up inspirational quotes and carefully plan personal development strategies — all of these are missing the target.
They are rational. They are all directed at our logical, intelligent mind. We (blithely) assume our rational brain is running the show, that it’s in charge and just needs the right logical instructions. After all, as a society we have for centuries poured untold sums of money into a school system that assumes that education is all about developing the rational mind.
But we forgot something. We fail to recognise that how we FEEL governs how we behave. And so much of what we do is done on autopilot. Not driven by rational decision making. Or logic. Or the intellect, of which we are so proud.
Think of our conscious mind as the captain of a large ship. The captain decides to change course, and tells the crew in charge of the helm. Unless the crew — i.e. the subconscious — IMPLEMENTS the order to change course, the ship will continue on its original course. It really doesn’t matter what the captain WANTS to happen: unless the subconscious is willing and able to maker the course change, the ship remains on its old course. Taking the analogy further, think of an autopilot.
Have you ever been driving and you suddenly realised you have arrived at your destination without consciously recalling the last several miles? Commuters habitually do this. We run on autopilot when the brain is usually happy to process information with which it’s familiar. Maybe this is the reason why time passes more quickly when we are older: the mind processes so much information routinely level. And only perks up when we enter the unfamiliar world of the recondite.
Of all the myriad information we theoretically COULD process at any moment, most is actually filtered out. The part of the brain that does this is the reticular activation system: it alerts us to whatever our brain asks us to focus on. But it’s very limited in the possible range. The brain can only consciously detect 7 +/- 2 bits of information at any one time
So how do we ensure our aspirations for change are aligned with how our subconscious feels about change? How do we switch off the autopilot that keeps us doing what we have always done — so we always get what we always got?
Change, particularly for those of a certain age, has to overcome spirited resistance from deeply ingrained hard-wired habits represented by the pronouncements of our inner voice. As Aristotle wisely observed a couple of thousand years ago, we are what we repeatedly do.
It will be a challenge, but it’s not as difficult as you might imagine.