By Kathleen Passanisi
In the most famous attic of all time, Anne Frank wrote, “We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same.”
And in his very first speech as President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt assured a depression-crippled nation, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Now, decades later, the study of “Positive Psychology” has shown us that these famous quotes are not only timeless, they are connected.
In his book, What Happy People Know, Dan Baker, Ph.D., reveals that fear is the mortal enemy of happiness. He explains humans have only two primal emotions: love and fear. According to Baker, “Fear impels us to survive, and love enables us to thrive.”
Unfortunately, in a “fight or flight” world, it’s impossible to focus on the joy of your accomplishments or love from those around you. It is clear that fear must be overcome.
Why We Fear
Overcoming is not an easy task, as fear is a hard-wired evolutionary response. As Baker points out, fear is an impulse rooted in the simplest of all brain parts, the “reptilian” brain stem. The ability to fear evolved over 100 million years ago! What separates our fears from those of a lizard is that our fears are generally coupled with emotion. This coupling takes place in the amygdala, or “mammalian brain.”
The amygdala is the basic home of memory. It is precisely why some adults never outgrow their childhood fears. The amygdala stores them for easy recall. The mammalian brain also triggers the physical side of fear. It signals the release of stress hormones in the brain, which, in turn, raise blood pressure and heart rate and cause queasiness and the jitters.
At one point, this three part fear response was what kept humans alive. First, the danger would approach, the human would recognize it as such, and then the brain would kick the human into “high gear.” Nowadays, however, the root of our fears are rarely physical dangers. There are very few hungry lions in our midst. So why do we have the same type of response?
What We Fear
Baker divides all modern fear in two categories, the “fear of not having enough” and the “fear of not being enough.” At the root of both fears is the myth of scarcity. Dr. Michael Beckwith, featured in the recent self-help phenomenon The Secret, attributes all human suffering to the idea that there is not enough good to go around.
Many people believe there is not enough money, not enough love, not enough oxygen for everyone. Every day, therefore, is a struggle. When we don’t get what we want, we blame some flaw in ourselves, “If only I were smarter, I would make more money. If only I were cuter, somebody might love me.”
This constant self-berating causes a deep sadness in many of us which triggers a terrible cycle. We begin to feel we are unworthy of happiness. Because we are sad, we cling to the little happiness we already have. Because we feel unworthy, we fear the loss of these joys. These fears trigger negative actions.
Believers of the law of attraction and quantum physics will assure you “what you focus on expands.” Soon you’ve created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Imagined loss reaps real loss. Happiness becomes something we futilely chase for instead of something we readily enjoy.
Fighting Fear with Gratitude
Baker assures us that the antidote to fear is gratitude. Instead of dwelling on what we don’t have and/or what we have to lose, we need to focus on what we do have. This will gradually create a shift in perspective that will reap large rewards.
In his book Happier, Harvard Professor Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D. recommends keeping a gratitude journal. He cites a study by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough which found that people who wrote down five reasons to be grateful daily experienced better physical and mental well-being.
Most psychiatrists will tell you that overcoming fear is a gradual process, best started in small doses. You can’t get much smaller than five things per day! Evolution has set this up as a fail-safe plan. All appreciation is based on love, and love is a product of the neo-cortex, the most evolved brain part. The reptilian fear doesn’t stand a chance!
Start focusing on what you appreciate today, and a brighter, happier tomorrow is yours.
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