Happiness & the Rat: More Similar Than We Might Think

There are two ways to live your life: one is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle.

– Albert Einstein

This week takes me back to the rat, the brain that dictates all we do, and the choices we make along our road toward happiness or wherever we’re headed.

You might remember the super-MOOC [massive open online course] Understanding the Brain: The Neurology of Everyday Life I signed up for back in April: Dr. Peggy Mason, professor of neuroscience at the University of Chicago, teaches this 10-week course.

After a 25-year focus on the cellular mechanisms of pain modulation (how does morphine work?), she now focuses on the biological basis of empathy. Some current research looks at “empathy in rats.” Watch this short video to see one of her experiments!

In her findings, it appears that a rat will choose to free another rat from captivity before choosing to eat a yummy treat. In other words, the rat empathizes with his comrade and helps relieve this other rat’s seeming misery before feeding himself chocolate and butterscotch.

Often, we humans think we’re quite different from others life, but we have a lot in common–especially with other mammals. In fact, says this research, the kind of help this one rat gives to the other rat crosses species: Though a rat won’t likely help a prowling cat, anyone who’s has a pet feline or canine knows that this animal-friend may show up first to your pillow when you’re stuck in bed with a tummy-ache or feeling blue. Some of you have seen what great companions a dog and goat can be–or what about Dorothy, the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion?

Oops–that might not be scientific!

Today I read an excerpt from Awakening Joy: 10 Steps That Will Put You on the Road to Real Happiness by James Baraz and Shoshana Alexander (Huffington Post). Baraz tells about a visit with his then 89 year old mother. He’s telling her about an article he read en route that offers evidence of the positive effects of gratitude on one’s well-being. Although impressed by the report from The Greater Good magazine, she says she’s an old dog.

“I know I’m very fortunate and have so many things to be thankful for, but little things just set me off,” says Mama Baraz. She says she has a lifetime habit of looking at “the glass half empty.” “I’m just more used to seeing what’s going wrong.”

She wishes she could change the habit but doubts whether that is possible, she tells her son.

“You know, Mom, the key to gratitude is really in the way we frame a situation,” Baraz says. “For instance, suppose all of a sudden your television isn’t getting good reception.”

“That’s a scenario I can relate to.”

“One way to describe your experience would be to say, ‘This is so annoying I could scream!’ Or you could say, ‘This is so annoying … and my life is really very blessed.’ ”

… And my life is really very blessed.

To his delight, his mother agreed to try the mantra, to say it often for the duration of their visit.

The next month his sister, who had been out of town during the visit, called to ask, “What did you do to Mom?”

The old woman had continued her practice. She persevered–even as her eyesight deteriorated before her 90th birthday. In fact, at age 93 Selma Baraz became a YouTube star–and you might take a listen to this short clip!

Someone else I’d like to tell you about is Julia King Tamang: Years ago she worked at Portland State University and hired an over-qualified assistant. She watched as the man answered phone calls, wrote letters, coordinated meetings and remained calm, cheerful, and forever pleasant–regardless of her own mood. She grew curious and began to ask questions.

“What’s that book you’re reading?” He was always reading a book on breaks.

Turns out he was a teacher in town at a Tibetan Buddhist center called KCC. Long ago he had lived as a Peace Corp Volunteer in India, and more recently he had spent three years in cloistered retreat before returning to the world to guide others into a happier life.

“I wanted that,” she told me. “He seemed so content.”

She began attending KCC, volunteered wherever she could, and created a children’s program–so she could bring her own two kids on Sunday.

Now Julia is an assistant teacher to Michael Conklin–the over-qualified assistant she hired 20 years ago. Next spring, she will be one of up to 16 people to begin their own cloistered three year retreat near Goldendale, Washington at Ser Chö Ösel Ling—“Land of the Clear Light Golden Dharma”, a center KCC built over the course of 11 years (thinking it would take only three to finish.)

Why would anyone choose to step away from the world of job and family, cell phones and super-fast internet for three years to sit in meditation some 12 hours a day–and study?

Adrian Feldmann of Western Australia offers a powerful reflection of what she gained during her own three year retreat: “Seeing the shortcomings of selfishness, it is clear that the only reliable source of happiness is unbiased love for others in every situation, even when one is hated and rejected.”

In other words, caring about others is more important than worrying about whether they like me. Helping the other rat out of his captivity is more important than me getting my own treat pronto–or at all.

According to this tradition, the three-year retreat is a rare opportunity to “go deep.” It’s a rare opportunity “to explore the inner space of the mind, seek a cure for the suffering of the world, and find a repeatable path toward the goal of bringing peace and happiness for all who seek it,” says one explanation.

Whether a neuroscientist, a stubborn Jewish mother, or a meditator–Buddhist or not–there’s always so many more questions to ask and so much to learn.

Gratefulness can become a habit–and I’m working on it! (I’m more thankful than ever for my cerebellum and my basal ganglia, Dr. Mason–now that I know what they are!)


Links You Might Like:

Selma Baraz became a famous YouTube star showing thousands it’s possible to change. Her transformation from complainer (kvetch in Yiddish) to gratitude teacher in her last years was one of her great gifts to me and so many others. She showed that continually appreciating the blessings in your life is a key to happiness.

Inspiration & Joy Amongst Suffering & Loss,” by James Baraz’s Blogpost on the Huffington Post, 3.17.14:

Frame It With Gratitude,” by James Baraz, 3.3.10 on the Huffington Post

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