The blame game

It’s jarring to watch a breakdown on a big screen. The emotional struggle of Beach Boy Brian Wilson is realistically portrayed in the new movie, “Love and Mercy,” which comes on the heels of the hyper-real “Amy” story. As you watch helplessly, you grasp for a simple lesson so no one has to suffer like that again.

You can pick your lessons from a familiar list. Blame the paparazzi, the heartless industry, the artistic soul. Blame abuse and neglect and inadequate treatment. Blame the pull of addiction. This is certainly enough tinder for a conflagration, but it leaves something out.

Bigger and better

We all have animal impulses, and we struggle to keep them in check. You needn’t check your impulses if wealth suddenly pours at you and minions are suddenly waiting to do your bidding. You think you’ll be happy if you act on your impulses because that’s the job they evolved for. Your mammal brain releases a happy brain chemical when you approach a reward. This releases the reserve tank of energy and propels a mammal toward things that meet its needs. Rewards are scarce in the state of nature, so this happy spurt doesn’t come all the time. But the brain is designed to seek it all the time.

Alas, it doesn’t make you happy when you get it. The brain quickly adjusts to rewards. It stops releasing dopamine when a reward becomes predictable. It takes bigger and better rewards to trigger the feeling again.

What’s next?

Here’s a very simple example. I felt ecstatic when I walked into a coffee-roasting shop in Shoreditch. I’d been looking for good coffee for days and was thrilled when I found it. I said “Wow, this is it!” to the person behind the counter. She had no idea what I was talking about. She didn’t smell the coffee because her brain adjusted to the fabulous smell. If I thought staying in that shop would bring constant ecstasy, I’d be disappointed.

If my artistic creation made the top ten, I’d enjoy a huge surge of dopamine. But the dopamine would soon be metabolized, and my brain would start looking for more. Experience would have wired me to expect another surge from creating another hit. But after an intense struggle, I would be confronted with the awful fact that it doesn’t feel as good the next time, because it’s no longer “the best experience ever.” What if I hit the top 5? Maybe #1? And what if I fail?

Natural ups and downs

Our brains are not designed for constant ecstasy. They are designed to turn happy chemicals on and off in response to the opportunities around you. If you think you need an ecstatic surge all the time, you end up doing things that don’t serve you in the long run.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. You may not think of popular musicians as powerful. You may think of them as innocent victims of the entertainment industry. Here’s another way to look at it: you would not be happier if you had millions and minions. You would not be happy if you released all self-restraint. You can be happy by making sense of your natural ups and downs.

About the Author: Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD is founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which helps people re-wire their brain chemistry naturally. She’s the author of Meet Your Happy Chemicals, Beyond Cynical, and I, Mammal. Dr. Breuning is Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay.

‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’


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