Emilia Zhivotovskaya on cultivating happiness
May 21, 2013
"Happiness is something more than simply the absence of neurosis or sickness," said Emilia Zhivotovskaya. "To build a flourishing life, you want to minimize -- not eliminate! -- the negative and build the positive." Emiliya spoke with my cohort of Rabbis Without Borders fellows today about positive psychology and about happiness. (Those of you who follow my Twitter stream may have gotten some glimpses of her remarks -- I did a lot of tweeting during her presentation.)
"Practicing lovingkindness meditation actually changes us," Emiliya told us. "When we feel loved, the body calms down, and cardiovascular health improves." (She cited some studies about the vagus nerve, lovingkindness, and compassion.) I can't speak to the science of her claims, but I know that the spiritual practices I've taken on have changed my lived experience of my world; I'm not surprised to hear that practices such as lovingkindness meditation actually change the people who practice them.
She had some interesting things to say about what she called "negativity bias" -- the ways in which we're hardwired to experience negativity differently than positivity. Imagine that you write a blog post or offer a sermon and you get five pleasant comments and one nasty one: what sticks with you more deeply? If you're like me -- like most of us -- you'll remember the negative comment, the nasty email, the hateful review, far longer and in more detail than the positive ones. What's that about? Emilia suggested that evolutionarily we're wired to experience bad more strongly than good. Maybe this goes all the way back to tasting unfamiliar berries on the savannah.
The human brain seems to default to negativity (as she notes, when was the last time you were kept awake at night thinking about things that are awesome?), and overcoming that default state takes some work. Happiness requires effort. Most of what she said here was pretty intuitive to me: "To become happier: consciously practice positive thoughts, feelings, actions." Positive emotions, she argued, broaden and build; negative emotions narrow and focus. So a person who's inhabiting negative emotional space will experience both literal and metaphorical tunnel vision; and a person who's inhabiting a positive emotional space will experience a broadening of perspective, an opening of the heart. Both of these states can be self-reinforcing.
Emiliya noted that "[w]hen people express gratitude before going to bed, they sleep better." (Seriously! Studies have shown!) I love that. Gratitude is probably the practice I've worked the hardest at cultivating in my own life. (See Totally optional poem: Gratitude, 2007; Modah ani with floating rainbows, 2011; this four worlds gratitude practice, 2012; and lessons in gratitude from a three-year-old, 2013.)
I find myself thinking about a lot of these ideas in terms of what kinds of grooves I want to be carving on my heart and in my mind. We're all creatures of habit. I try to cultivate the habit of seeing myself, and seeing everyone around me, through generous eyes. I try to be kind to myself to and to everyone around me. I try to say thank-you to God, at least every morning and every night, for the many blessings in my life. This sounds a little bit corny, I know! But I've found that when I make a practice of saying thank you, when I make a practice of trying to give people the benefit of the doubt, when I stop to notice what's beautiful in my life and in the world, I am calmer and kinder as a result. I am a better person, a better mom, a better rabbi, a better spouse. And the more I do those things, the more well-worn that path becomes in my mind and heart, the easier it is to keep doing those things.
After our day of discussing happiness, meaning, and the searches for both (in our own lives and in the lives of the people we serve), we walked to a Persian restaurant and savored some excellent food and fine conversation. Remembering Emiliya's exhortation to end one's day with gratitude, I'll close with this: I'm grateful for the opportunity to connect with these colleagues; to do this learning; to have off-the-cuff conversations about congregational life, Hasidut, Torah, science fiction; to walk the warm spring streets of this blinking, busy city after a long full day; to retreat to my hushed hotel room for a good night's sleep.