How To Be Constantly Happy
A couple of weeks ago I woke up to find in my email inbox the good news that I have been waiting all year for! No, it isn’t the news that I can now get the Covid-19 vaccination. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased that I will have the opportunity to be vaccinated soon. The vaccination is a big injection of light into the tunnel. But you see, I’ve found that the only way to get out of any tunnel I’ve ended up in, however dark, is to swim my way out. So it was with jubilation that I read the news that my local swimming pools will be re-opening on April 19th.
In the past few months I’ve noticed that my level of cynicism has multiplied, as has my disappointment in us humans. How could we be playing politics with vaccination in a pandemic? Why is it that only the rich countries’ populations are getting vaccinated? Like Covid-19 knows borders or economic status? Why is it so hard for people to wear masks in public places? It’s not like we haven’t known forever that wearing masks prevents spreading disease, hence why healthcare workers wear them. You could say it is normal that I feel this way, we are in a pandemic after all. But here is the thing: the old me (ok, the younger me) would have focused on the positives, like how fortunate I am to have a job I can do from home, that my family and friends are well, that I have plenty of parks around me to visit daily and that I live in a country with universal healthcare. So why the gloom?
For years, whenever anyone asked me why I love swimming so much, I would reply: “it makes me a nicer person.” I never gave my response much thought or questioned it. Since I’ve had over a year living with myself without swimming I can confirm that it is absolutely true—I’m a better person when I swim! When I think about the toughest period of my life, when everything was imploding, I had a higher level of optimism and love for mankind than I do now. Back then, I swam 6 days a week! I recall how it didn’t matter how low I was feeling before I flopped into the pool. After about a couple of laps I would feel that life wasn’t so bad, and a few more laps later I’d feel that life was good. By the time I finished an hour later, I would come out of the pool feeling that life was beautiful. This sentiment has been constant for the almost two decades swimming has been my main exercise.
I’ve been pondering what it is about swimming that makes me feel like this. I found some answers in Nichols, Wallace J.’s Blue Mind: How Water Makes You Happier, More Connected and Better at What You Do. As the title of the book suggests, the power of swimming on the mind stems primarily from water. We know that being in or by water makes us calm and happy, hence why we are willing to pay a fortune to travel thousands of miles to visit beaches and take on huge amounts of debt to buy properties with ocean view. Reading that water covers more than 70% of Earth’s surface, and that the adult human body is 60% water and the brain 80% made me understand why swimming is the only time I truly disconnect from stuff. In water I sense that I’m flowing into my true self, unencumbered by any troubles. I’m reminded that the most free I have ever felt in my entire life was when I went swimming alone, naked, surrounded by fish in the Mediterranean sea. How do I make the sense of well-being I get from water last?
Nichols and other scientists have pointed out that our human brains are wired to be Teflon for the positive and Velcro for the negative: we notice and react more strongly to negative experiences than to positive ones. Not a bad thing as it ensures our survival and keeps us alert. At the same time we are also in constant pursuit of happiness. Nichols defines happiness as many different emotional gradations that trigger different neurochemicals in different parts of the brain. For example, novelty, intensity of experience, and anticipation of reward cause dopamine to flood the areas of the brain associated with arousal, motivation, pleasure, and motor control. The Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), produces feelings of calm and well-being by slowing down synaptic impulses throughout the brain. Serotonin (found in the brain, digestive tract, and blood platelets) creates feelings of tranquility, confidence, and safety. And oxytocin, is a “bonding” agent that contributes to our feelings of closeness with others. But happiness can be both fleeting sensations and emotions and a more permanent disposition of the mind, a constant sense of well being. I believe that we strive more for the latter. To achieve it we have to understand if and how we can be constantly happy.
According to research psychologists Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon Sheldon, and David Schkade, how happy we are is 50% determined by our DNA, 10% by circumstance (culture, country where we live, age, etc.) and 40% by voluntarily pursuing personal goals through meaningful activities. The good news is that positive activities combined with the brain’s neuroplasticity–its ability to create new neural networks and eliminate old ones–means that we can rewire our brain to set off happiness neurochemicals. The neuropsychologist Rick Hanson postulates that to hardwire them into our brain, thus enabling a constant state of well-being, the positive activities we undertake must be intense enough, novel enough, occur often enough, or require focused attention to them long enough, that they will strengthen the brain’s happiness neural pathways and therefore make it easier for us to feel positive emotions. Reading this I realized that for me swimming is such an activity. I swim with intensity—once I get in the pool I don’t stop until my time is up or I pause to put on props. Every time I swim I do a different routine with a combination of several strokes. I first started doing this when swimming was my only exercise, to introduce variety. Even after I took up other forms of exercise, I still continued with the rule of swimming a different routine each time because I realized that it was good training for dealing with change both anticipated and unanticipated (I never know what routine I’m going to do until I’m in the pool).
Now that I understand that swimming is the pathway to my constant happiness, April 19th can’t come fast enough.