Newswise — AMES, IA -- Everyone gets stuck in negative patterns. We find ourselves dreading an upcoming family reunion, expecting we’ll feel disappointed or frustrated with certain relatives. We wonder why the same worn-in argument continues to resurface with a partner, and late at night, we replay an interaction from last week or last year that we can’t let go.

Finding the Freedom to Get Unstuck and Be Happier aims to help people break out of these patterns, engage more fully with the present and trust that whatever comes next is truly workable. Author Douglas Gentile, a distinguished psychology professor at Iowa State University, weaves Buddhist philosophy and psychological science with personal anecdotes and the story of a friend.

"There are lots of paths to wisdom. Some of them are traditional, some are religious, some are your own experience, some are science. When we can see that the different wisdom traditions are saying a similar thing, I think it's worth paying attention to,” said Gentile.

Central to Gentile’s book is the idea of karma, which he quickly explains is not some sort of cosmic balancing of good and bad. Rather, karma, in the Buddhist tradition, is the idea that everything that brings someone to a particular moment is the result of millions of previous actions that individual has taken or not taken, as well as those taken or not taken by others.

"We are the inheritors of not only our karma but also the karma of others.”

Gentile uses the game of chess as a simplified example. Once the players move their pieces, their actions and the actions of their opponent lead to a certain configuration on the board. They cannot undue their previous decisions, but they can learn from past mistakes and work with what they have.

Deep grooves

Gentile explains in the book that negative patterns often emerge because people choose something that feels more comfortable in the short-term. They ignore, lash out, run away, or post passive aggressive sticky notes to make themselves feel better in the moment rather than confront a problem.

“If that problem continues to pop up again and we react a similar way, we’re essentially digging a deeper groove that makes it harder to do anything different than what we have done before, especially when we’re stressed. The options that most easily come to mind are the ones we’ve practiced in the past,” said Gentile.

Sometimes we don’t know how past experiences conditioned us to react in certain ways. Gentile gives the example of feeling anxious at age 20 when his grandmother asked him to light some candles. After seeing his reaction and realizing he didn’t understand why matches made him nervous, Gentile’s grandmother shared with him that when he was four, older kids in the neighborhood pressured him to steal matches and light them behind the garage. His father made him light 1,000 matches as a punishment, causing him to burn his fingers.

It's an example of classical conditioning psychology, the process of learning to pair two stimuli, says Gentile. In the well-known Pavlov’s Dog Study, the researcher’s canine salivated whenever it heard a bell because it associated the sound with food. In another, the Little Albert study, an 11-month-old baby learned to connect a white rat with the sound of a hammer hitting a steel bar. The fear he developed with the rat transferred to other furry objects (e.g., rabbits, dogs, a Santa Claus beard).

Whether we were rewarded or punished in the past, Gentile says we carry the associated emotions with us, reinforcing how we react or interpret similar experiences.

Free will and getting unstuck

Gentile says free will does not simply mean doing what we like. It’s learning how to “surf on the waves, rather than being swamped by them.”

“When you feel an impulse, like ‘Oh, I want to say this mean thing to you right now,' recognize that feeling; don’t reject it or bury it. Then think about the times you said something unkind in the past and whether it made things better in the long run,” said Gentile.

Although saying something mean may feel good in the moment, it often causes more trouble in the future. By recognizing the consequences of past reactions, assessing other options and thinking through the best and worst outcomes, we stop “running on habit energy” and give ourselves time to choose our next step.

Gentile emphasizes reflecting on previous outcomes is not the same as ruminating over past errors or injuries that cannot be changed, and even though we can try to make decisions that will lead to good outcomes, being overly anxious about what may happen rarely helps.

Gaining free will is learning that we don’t need life to be a certain way to be OK. We can plant seeds for the future but be flexible with what improvement looks like and how to get there.

Book Link: Finding the Freedom to Get Unstuck and Be Happier