Prospects for the Nonlobotomized: Happy, 4

With our frontal lobes we play out various future hypothetical scenarios, and through connections to the limbic system, where emotion happens, those scenarios compel attention. The frontal lobes, in other words, create imagined futures and generate anxiety about our futures. This explains why the frontal lobotomy – that is, the destruction of some part of the frontal lobe -- “became a standard treatment for cases of anxiety and depression that resisted other forms of therapy.” Lobotomized patients were indeed calmer and less depressed. They also “performed well on standard intelligence tests, memory tests, and the like.”

Yet, as doctors began to notice, these patients “showed severe impairments on any test – even the very simplest test – that involved planning.... They found it practically impossible to say what they would do later that afternoon” (Gilbert 13).

So here we are -- we nonlobotomized humans -- with this amazing capacity to envision our futures with a level of scope and detail far beyond other primates -- and at the same time so seized by our own imagined future scenarios that we spend the better part of our waking hours slavishly in the service of future selves who can never repay us and will scarcely acknowledge that we gave them the best years of our lives. Would we be happier if we weren't so enslaved to our future selves and carpe diemed ourselves a few more paper hats and pistachio macaroons?

Our capacity to think about the future allowed us to invent agriculture, plan cities, build civilization so that we can inhabit this glorious world of cable TV, garage-door openers, smart phones, ipads, spam (both the canned meat and e-mail versions), traffic jams, and strip malls. Because of these hugely enlarged frontal lobes, our lives are, as John Lennon said, what happen to us while we're busy making other plans. Living in the future, we miss the joy of our present moments.

What's the answer? Lobotomies for everyone? There must be a better way. We like the job that the frontal lobe does. We need the frontal lobe to do its job, and we also need it to take breaks and vacations so that we can have some time to get out of living in the future and spend some time living right here, right now. Take more breaks from serving your imaginary boss, your future self, and do something nice for a concrete real other person in the present.

Again, notice when you like something.


Take up a meditation practice. Find the stillness within which the busy-ness of our mind takes place -- the context of silence surrounding the mind's chatter. By taking a break each day from being dominated by, consumed by, and identified with the frontal lobe's fabrications, when you come back, and the planning function resumes, you are better able to hold your own planning activity within a mindful awareness.
“Happiness isn't just the limited positive states we strive for, but rather there is a larger openness that includes sorrow and joy. That's true happiness.” (Ferguson)
“When we live our life as a whole, there is no longer an aspect that gets singled out as 'suffering.'”
So what have we learned?

Don’t chase after happiness. But do take a look what you are allowing to make you unhappy. It tends to be wanting things that aren’t, and not being mindful of what is. These are skills.

There are good evolutionary reasons that those skills don’t come naturally to us, but we can train ourselves in the skills of harmonizing with reality. With discipline, we can cultivate the habit of happiness.

Well, 40 percent of it.

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This is part 4 of 4 of "Happy"
Previous: Part 3: Curse of the Frontal Lobe
Beginning: Part 1: The 40 Percent

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