Haidt is right by mentioning that there is too much wisdom out there and not enough time for a person to try them all out. It’s plastered on our coffee mugs, tote bags, and Instagram feed. We’re so lucky to be in the information age where so many minds are able to share beautiful ideas. Yet as consumers of those ideas, we are subjected to the tyranny of freedom. The implicit expectation to have to know everything. With freedom comes choices and that includes letting go of perfectly potential solutions to our problems. Thus, giving ourselves the chance to savour the wisdoms we already know and engaging more with them rather than continuously distracting ourselves with other potentially brilliant ideas.
Human beings are, you could say, at the top of the food chain (at least we believe so). I’m not an expert in food chains but I am human and an expert at being one. So, as a fellow human being, I encourage you to use your own experience to think with me on this one notion, that human beings are special because of our consciousness.
We are the only ‘animals’ that have the ability to reflect on what is in our minds. That ability comes with millions of years of brain evolution resulting in something that is both wonderful and a curse. The philosophy of yin and yang encapsulates this beautifully. Nothing in this world is neither good or bad, it is both. One doesn’t exist without the other, thus comprising a holistic unity.
These two ideas, the special consciousness, and the balanced life are the two ideas I’ve chosen to savour from the many Happiness Hypothesis that Jonathan Haidt cleverly put together in this book. I’ve come to realize that as humans, we’ve overrated our consciousness above our subconscious. The ability to be in control of our thoughts and think logically. While at the same time, we have the subconscious mind, the part of that’s automatic and somewhat beyond our control. The two support each other to carry out their common purpose in governing our bodies. Sort of like yin and yang, they complement one another.
What is the subconscious mind? Isn’t our whole brain a conscious organ? Apparently not. To put it simply, our minds have a control room and a production line. The production line doesn’t stop while the guys at the control room make decisions, it keeps the motor running. The brain is so complex that it’s able to process between 18–640 trillion neuron signals in one single second. That’s one million-million signals every second! All happening without us having to put effort into it right that moment. All thanks to our automatic system, the subconscious.
This automatic system is mature because it’s been through evolution longer than the controlled system. It’s where our habits, gut feeling, and ability to breathe come from, things that are effortless to execute. This very quality has encouraged us to overlook this powerful nature of our brain and glorify our conscious mind. The part that among many abilities, enable us to think critically and communicate with language. These abilities need our full attention and gets easily tired, it’s limited. The consciousness is like the granddaughter to the subconscious, it gives fresh perspective, but granny knows the best way through experience.
Before reading the second chapter of the book, Changing Your Mind, I thought that my conscious, critical self, is the pessimistic one. I am so happy that he’s proven me wrong. My subconscious is the pessimist by design, in the sense that it sees the worst aspect in things, it’s sensitive to negative outcomes and is less responsive to positive possibilities. The popular fight or flight response is one of the best illustrations for this. I used to believe that I consciously procrastinate the tasks I don’t like, but then Haidt suggested the rider on the elephant metaphor. The rider is by no means in control of where the elephant walks but sees various possible pathways while the elephant takes the step toward the path it knows is safe to take. I am automatically procrastinating and to will, myself into not procrastinating isn’t how the elephant is trained.
The rider helps me identify that procrastinating things that matter to me isn’t going to bode well for my future, however for some reason my elephant is comfortable encouraging this behaviour. I don’t know why because I’ve trained it for years and it’s effortless to do now. I just do it without telling myself, “Hey, go procrastinate now!”. The elephant works with the power of habit, while the rider uses will power to work. As proposed in the last chapter of the book, On Balance, I see that it takes both to change a habit that no longer serves me.
The mind is a mere interpretation of what it makes of the world around it, therefore, changing it requires the rider to gradually reframe the elephant’s ways rather than impatiently abolishing its ways. Instead of arguing and denying myself (the elephant), I better begin by consciously noticing that I am automatically procrastinating. The two proven ways to do this is through cognitive behavioural therapy and meditation. Both have catalyzed and become the basis of an abundance of positive psychology techniques that engage both the rider and the elephant, the conscious and subconscious mind. Combining the analytical strength of the consciousness with the sustainability of our subconscious.
Your thoughts are neither good nor bad, it’s your interpretation of it. Learn to be a rider that understands the limited capability of an advisor but always look out for what future is best for the elephant to walk to. For the elephant is experienced and knows your underlying self, more than you’re aware of, so listen and observe it while you continuously teach it to go down the path you both can agree on.
By: Vanessa Dietzschold