The Gut Wants What It Wants

“Happiness is a choice” — I saw this on Twitter recently.

Is it? I was under the impression that happiness is a chemical.

Despite thousands of years of looking, no one has ever found a “soul” or “spirit” inside a human being. And we learned quite some time ago that the heart pumps blood rather than managing emotions. It turns out that what humans once thought of as the soul, spirit, heart, or bowels (at least in the King James Bible) all turned out to be just the human nervous system. Everything we once thought was caused by demon possession is really brain issues.

We learned that head injuries can cause personality changes and why certain foods affect our moods.

Thanks to science, we now know the causes of at least some mental illnesses, and how to mitigate the some of the effects. New studies regularly discover more.

But these tired tropes keep coming.

“Happiness is a choice.”

“The heart wants what it wants.”

And maybe the one that bugs me the most is when a TV or movie character points to his head and then his chest, saying something like: “Not just in here [head], but in here [chest].”

Ever since I realized how utterly stupid it is, I see it all the time.

Our language is littered with these notions, some ancient and some medieval. I’d wager that most of the time we use these words we’re not thinking of the actual meanings. When we say “my heart hurts” after some tragedy, we really mean “I’m overcome with grief”. The problem is that the words reinforce wrong thinking.

More than half the people in our country believe love is a mystical guiding force that brings soul mates together.

On the other hand, most of us might say, these phrases — and even the incorrect underlying beliefs — are harmless. Is anyone actually harmed by believing or saying any of these things? Perhaps not in a tangible way.

I suspect, however, that someone suffering from depression or anxiety could experience an extra bit of unnecessary pressure if they come across the “happiness is a choice” bit. “Oh really? If only I had chosen to be happy, then I would be. Darn it.”

On the third hand, some of these phrases can actually be at least partially true if looked at in a less than literal manner. While I can’t simply choose to get certain chemical combinations produced in my body — to feel happy — I can learn which behaviors and experiences lead to that production. And I can calculate the risk/reward ratio for each. For example, eating a pile of M&Ms makes me happy, but doing it often isn’t good for me. Writing and thinking about these topics makes me happy, and really has no downside, so I engage in it when given the opportunity.

Science continues to learn about the connection between the gut and the brain, and how selective dosing of bacteria can alter behavior and mood — at least in laboratory mice. It wouldn’t surprise me if 20 years from now, a whole host of mood and behavior disorders are regularly treated with bacteria cocktail injections.

  1. I’m astounded at the magical, mystical, and often contradictory beliefs of people around me — people who pose as educated adults. Ghosts, fairies, Destiny, Jeebus, luck, horoscopes, Republicanism, etc. At least one person I met a year or two ago believed in all of those at the same time, and probably more.

    But yeah, I try to avoid phrases that make the “heart” sound like a thinking, controlling organ. People still utter ancient incantations when other people sneeze, which boggles my mind. And when cashiers say “Have a blessed day” I want to smack them. Blessed by what? Trickle-down economics?

    It feels like I’m the only sane person trapped in a mental ward sometimes — except for the few people like you I’ve met online. :-)

  2. I hope this isn’t too off topic, but one important relationship pro tip I learned lots of years ago (before Abby) when I went to my girlfriend’s treatment center (ling story) was to always say, “I feel happy when you 123,” instead of “You make me happy when you 123.” It takes ownership of your feelings. Sadly, that girlfriend did not learn this very basic lesson.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      That’s an interesting point.

      It reminds me of my tendency to say “I feel that…” when I mean “I think that….” I’ve been trying to correct this mis-use of the word “feel”. (Not entirely related to your point, but showing how using slightly different phrasing can be empowering.)

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