People V. The State of Illusion, a new docudrama from Samuel Goldwyn Films, is a mixture of fiction and brain science that, despite these awkward bedfellows, was compelling enough to keep me up late on a Friday night. Although most of the well-worn findings parroted by the movie’s parade of experts were not new to me, the filmmakers helped me see them in a new light. The result was at the very least thought provoking and might, in fact, inspire some people to change their outlook on the world for the better.
The movie tells the story of a single father, Aaron Roberts, who destroys his life in an instant, in an accident portrayed as a culmination of stress and sadness. Roberts was driving while intoxicated and ran a red light, leading to a crash that claimed the life of the other driver. He ends up in prison and his daughter becomes a ward of the state. The prison walls become a metaphor for the confining boundaries we build in our minds and from which, the movie suggests, we must all try to escape if we want to be happier and reach our full potential. As Roberts gradually transforms his outlook inside the prison cell on the movie set, the experts tell the rest of us how to do this in a more metaphorical sense.
The film, which was written and produced by a former attorney Austin Vickers, invokes a good deal of science to back up the simple, uplifting argument that we all have the power to change our lives by changing our own minds. The message is not unlike that of many life coaches, but the arguments are more subtle and interesting than the platitudes I usually hear. Here are some lessons the film extracts from the science along with a few untethered snippets of advice for becoming a happier person:
- We perceive a tiny fraction of the information impinging on our senses. The brain employs a filter: neural processes focus our attention on the data that seem necessary and important to us at that moment. The sheer amount of data that exists, however, underscores the theoretical possibility of choice. If we are paying attention to something that makes us unhappy, then, we could, in theory, choose to focus on something that would make us feel good instead. The film doesn’t initially tell us exactly how to train our attention differently or even what we are supposed to be looking for, but the idea of being able to live in a different perceptual universe from the one we currently inhabit is kind of cool.
Many of us have incredibly busy lives that often feel stressful. The stress, the film suggests, has the effect of making our world seem smaller, of making our mental walls close in. The suggestion is reasonable, although I’ve never heard it put quite this way. Stress hormones are known to suppress the function of our brain’s chief executive, the prefrontal cortex. This area, on the brain’s surface just behind the forehead, governs numerous decision-making, thought-juggling tasks. Stress inhibits those processes. As a result, children who grow up in stressful homes have trouble in school. It somehow never occurred to me, though, that my own stress could shut down my thinking capacity, or that, more generally, the epidemic of adult busyness (or worse) might be having that same impact on an entire culture. The film indicates, moreover, that if we don’t slow down and figure out how to limit the stress in our lives, our brains could be dangerously compromised. When you can’t think clearly, you could end up like the film’s protagonist: a victim of impulses that lead to dangerous behaviors such as drinking and driving. I am not sure the slope is usually that slippery, but the advice to slow down and take it easy for these reasons did resonate with me.
No matter how mellow our lives or how well our brain’s CEO is operating, the film reminds us that emotion is what really guides our behavior. Our fears, loves, ambitions direct our attention even down to manipulating the eye muscles that govern our gaze. People often feel that their feelings are immobile, that they are stuck with them and so simply need to cope with them or somehow, work around them. But in truth, like everything else in the brain, the emotional system is flexible. We can train ourselves to feel differently about things. Strangely enough, one way to accomplish this about-switch is though practice, or so the movie’s experts tell us. People who practice suffering every day do the same thing as people who practice their golf swing: they get better at it. Conversely, if you practice optimism, you may well get better at that. Programs for children such as Goldie Hawn’sMindUP, an initiative spreading through schools around the world, help instill such emotional habits and patterns at an early age.
- Another way to influence your emotional reactions is to retell your life story. Think about the story you are in, how you cast the narrative of your existence. Ask yourself, the film advises, “What might be a different perception of the same facts that would change my life for the better?” Assemble the pieces of your life that are dark, broken or dirty into an attractive mosaic or cast them off to the side as unworthy of inclusion. Psychotherapists frequently help their clients recast upsetting events in a new way. The technique can be very helpful, although perhaps difficult to accomplish on your own.
- Sometimes we need turn off that internal storyteller. Lighten up. Relax. Be in the moment. Research suggests that practicing mindfulness, a state in which we focus fully on the present moment without elaboration or judgment, can lower stress and increase happiness. Or as one talking head put it, “We are all in a deep slumber.” So let’s wake up.
- Once we open our eyes, we should also be willing to take risks. To achieve success, people need to say yes to the unknown, and embrace the discomfort of unsafe territory.
- Another piece of related wisdom the movie tosses out: Be gentle with yourself. Take the time to pat yourself on the back. Be kind to others as well. Love, we learn, is the act of me allowing you to be you.