When it comes right down to it, everything in life is a matter of perspective.
From the moment we wake up, on through the day, and into the dream filled night, our thoughts shape the world we perceive. Our senses take in millions of clues around us and sort them into an invisible framework that our minds use to form our thoughts.
But what is really behind those perceptions? Philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and neurologists are among those who dedicate themselves toward finding the answers. Is it a matter of the mind, past experiences, environment, or chemicals in the brain?
Or is it a combination of them all?
Feelings of pleasure or distress come from chemicals in the brain. Evolution has given us a reward system that infuses our brains with dopamine when anything good happens, just as our amygdala activity increases in negative situations to bring feelings of anxiety. Advanced technology such as fMRIs allow researchers to actually watch different areas of the brain activate while a person responds to various stimuli.
Yet, our personal experiences — particularly those during our formative years — affect the way our brains will process events and release the chemicals that produce feelings of happiness, sadness, or anxiety. Also, our environments can sensitize, or desensitize, us to future events, further modifying our chemical responses.
So are we merely slaves to our chemical responses? Do the experiences of our formative years shade our feelings for the rest of our lives? If so, does the why behind our emotional responses matter at all?
While our chemical responses motivate our actions, evolution has also given humans the ability of metacognition. We have the ability to think about thinking. Metacognition allows people to analyze and understand both their thoughts and emotions.
This could lead to better understanding of our own emotions and of the actions of others. It could lead to self-awareness and greater compassion. Perhaps we could become more tolerant and less judgmental. If we learned to think about our thinking and appreciate our decisions, perhaps the world could be a better place.
Unfortunately, people are not taught to think about their own thinking. Despite our advanced technology, we live in a society that is largely ruled by superstition and faulty logic. People are given conflicting advice on how to deal with their own feelings.
Gender-typing attempts to define the proper traits for the sexes, just as racial stereotypes try to further pigeon-hole people. We are not taught to see beyond those misconceptions to the underlying chemical reactions occurring in our brains.
We all search for happiness through external sources: love, money, friendship, job satisfaction, travel, adventure. Yet perhaps the real path to happiness lies at the end of a more internal journey. After all, a state of happiness is often a matter of perspective.