Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Switch

This blog has seen some interesting exchanges in recent days on the topic of happiness and how easy or difficult it is or can be. One thought I had right away upon reading these stimulating thoughts and responses is that words are such fascinating things. Just four letters – e, a, s, y or any such string, take your pick – can conjure up a whole world of meaning unique to the person contemplating them. It is not common for people to be precise in their use of words and language in general, simply because most of us aren’t very conscious of or intentional about our communication. But that’s a whole ‘nother area.

What I want to offer at this point of our discussion is the idea of the cognitive change. (Actually I want to scream from the rooftops, but it’s still just an offering). A disclaimer first: I use the term ‘cognitive’ rather loosely, without claiming to know everything involved in cognition. I’m using that term to refer to a change in a fundamental building-block in the way we think, something that really shifts our view of the world, or our impression of how things work. I first mentioned this in a post way back when, and I often return to that analogy as a reminder of how quickly and comprehensively shifts can happen. They say it takes only a billionth of a volt, and a mere millisecond, for an impulse to leap across synapses in the brain. That’s all it takes to cause that cognitive change, to go from difficult to easy, even historically difficult to forever effortless.

I shared one example of a game-changing cognitive switch for me in a past post (HERE). There’s another one that sticks out brightly in my memory – this one again many years ago. I can’t remember all the details now, but as I drove to the Detroit airport to board a flight, I recall a wintry February morning, with low clouds extending to the horizon in all directions, dirty snow lining the streets and a uniformly gray landscape. This was back in the days when winters in Michigan were a lot harsher than they are nowadays, and I was enveloped in the weary and gloomy mood that grips most Midwesterners around that time. But when the plane took off and broke through the low cloud ceiling in a matter of seconds, I entered a dazzling new world – brilliant sunshine everywhere the eye could see and a fluffy, billowy floor fit for the heavens. It was astounding to experience this magical domain coexisting with the ‘dreary gloomy’ wintry wasteland I inhabited just a few hundred feet below. Since that day, I have never been more than superficially affected by the day’s weather, and only need an upward glance to evoke a sunny disposition.

If you have been unsuccessfully trying to make a lifestyle change of some kind, knowing about this mechanism may not make a difference. Indeed, if I knew how to flick that mental switch at will, I’d be Superman. But I have to tell you, having personal experience with transformations in one area, however narrow, certainly makes you more open to transformations in other areas, and that certainly increases the chances of them happening.

To be sure, not all changes are wrought by the effortless, instantaneous flick of a switch in the brain. Many, if not most, seem to be the product of a long process, often accompanied by great effort, struggle and even pain. Certain changes I have made in my parenting methods fall in that category. For instance, I have learnt to employ the easy, relaxed mode even when confronting my strong-willed nine-year-old on hot-button issues, but that came after innumerable tantrums and power struggles in those nine years, and much reflection and angst on my part.

But I strongly suspect that even in cases of extended struggle, the actual change is made as the flick of a billionth-of-a-volt switch. Maybe it just sets up the right conditions for the switch to happen. I remember that upto the winter of 2006, I was arguably a “night owl”, and “not a morning person”. I remember consistently dragging myself to bed well past midnight, constantly having to rush in the morning to get ready for work on time, multiple hits on the snooze button, etc. Most importantly, I remember having this sense of powerlessness around awaking early or on time. All that came to a head in the final days of 2006, and I made a resolution to awake early in 2007. You have to know that until then I had never had great success with New Year’s resolutions, and a fairly weak record with resolutions overall. But the Switch had been thrown in my brain. The first couple of days – still on holiday - I arose early, and life was great. But then the first few workdays arrived, and with them the late-waking habit. I could have very easily given up, but mentally I knew I couldn’t go back to business as usual, and it was just as easy to not give up, grit my teeth and press forward. Within a couple of months, arising early had become second nature, and today, five years on, I am a confirmed morning lark, and love it. (Now, earlier this week I pulled an all-nighter, and it was great to know that I haven’t lost my night-owl-ness in the process).

That example may or may not inspire you to attack a particularly nagging challenge, but I can’t tell you how much that victory means to me. I know nothing is impossible. I will tell you this – if *I* can become a morning person, I – and you - can accomplish ANYthing.

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