Loud crackling gunshots from the sky. Pitter-patter from the roof drain. And the warm aroma of freshly brewed soil. It rains and two distinct memories come flooding in:
  • One is of being a carefree child who loved playing soccer in the rain. The sudden downpour, back then, was always a blessing. Instead of being bothered by it, I played in it till my clothes were drenched and my shoes reeked of muddy water.
  • The other is of being an anxious adult. Making my way to business school in a creased formal white shirt, I worried a bit too much about my shirt getting stained and my shoes getting wet.

How the times have changed? What was once a blessing, later became a curse, all because of my altered perception.

No wonder Marcus Aurelius once quoted:

“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

Thoughts=Habits

Well equipped with the adage “seeing is believing,” we believe we see the world as it is. There is, however, a lot more to it than meets the eye.

In his book ‘The Power of Habit’, Charles Duhigg confides in a simple loop that forms all habits: a trigger, a routine, a reward. To better explain this with an example, let’s consider the habit of unhealthy eating.

The trigger: You scroll through your social media feed and come across pictures of drool-worthy junk food. The dopamine rush makes you salivate and triggers a reaction.

The routine: Despite being on a strict diet, you react to the above trigger and fall back into your routine of eating every time you crave food.

The reward: You order a Big Mac and stuff a big chunk of it into your mouth. You’re rewarded with the simulating taste of a beef patty, the aroma of pickle slices and cheese, and the crunchiness of onions and lettuce. As a result, your brain floods with dopamine.

The above loop makes it evident that the brain seeks patterns. And when it finds one, it holds on to it like a child to a plush animal. In other words, our brains are designed to conserve energy and thus, use recurring patterns, during familiar situations, to trigger a habit loop.

Although habits are often associated with actions, they control our thoughts as well. We don’t see the world as it is, but through the skewed perception of our thought patterns. These thought patterns — or rather mental habits — are beneficial as they help us conserve energy. However, they are often limiting and contextual.

For instance, since I need nutrition to stay alive, my brain associates hunger with survival. So every time I feel the urge to eat something, it triggers a reaction that convinces me to get a well-deserved meal. But, as mentioned in the example above, my urge to eat can be triggered by mere images of food on social media, regardless of whether my body needs nutrition or not. So, a habit that was supposed to help me survive actually started killing me by unnecessarily triggering my urge to eat.

Here lie the limitations of perception and the habits surrounding it. They are singular, one dimensional, and often misinterpreted. Hence, to align our perception with happiness, we must first be aware of how it restricts us, controls us, and unfortunately, even misguides us.

Upgrading Thoughts=Upgrading Perception

Stephen Hawking referred to the human brain as a complex piece of machinery. And why wouldn’t he? After all, the brain thrives on complex algorithms, just like the smartphone in the palm of your hand.

Speaking of smartphones, let’s say you upgrade from an android phone to an iPhone; or vice-versa. Your first challenge is to adapt to the new user interface. You struggle to find simple things like your contact lists and for a while, you even curse the new interface while praising the old one. However, with time, you adapt. You learn to interact with your new phone and before you know it, you leave the old one behind. A month later, Apple announces a new product and although it took you a while to learn how to use it, you now root for it and look forward to adding another phone to your iPhone collection.

Not just with phones and software, but with pretty much everything else around us, our brains initially struggle to adapt to change. And since our mechanical machinery is a lot more complex than that of a smartphone, our “upgrades” are harder to adapt to. This explains why we struggle to change our habits, and in turn, change our perception.

You hit upgrade on your phone, knowing that, at most, it’ll take you a week or two to get used to the new interface. However, for a brain, that has taken years to embed patterns in its subconscious, it takes a long time to adapt to new ones. That explains why “upgrading” your thoughts, and consequently your perception, isn’t always easy.

The good thing is that once you realize that your phone needs an upgrade, you subconsciously start preparing for the change that lies ahead. Similarly, the more you’re aware of how closely your perception is tied down to your thoughts, the closer you get to change it. Hence, goes the proverb, “the first step toward change is awareness.”

Change Your perception=Change Your life

“The first step towards change is awareness,” said Nathaniel Braden. “The second is acceptance.”

Powered by his insight, we must not only be aware of how our perception influences our reality but also accept it. Instead of going on ahead with the rest of your life believing that you know it all, accept that you know nothing. That way you open up to diverse thought patterns and consequently, develop complex habit loops. As you stand on the tip of your toes and begin questioning your perception, your malleable mind rewards you with upgrades after upgrades.

Sure, not all issues can be resolved with a mere upgrade. After all, even in a smartphone, an upgrade almost always has a bug or two. But every time you upgrade your thoughts, you move on to a whole new level in this Game of Life.

And the more you level up, the happier you get because you realize that Marcus Aurelius was right on the money when he quoted:

“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

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Dhruv Sharma

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