I want to be more happy! I’ve noticed a breakdown in my happiness level as I’ve become a full fledged adult, despite the fact that my life (while not easy) is full of blessings. I have decided to cultivate my happiness. I have had some helpful (by no means comprehensive) training on brain science, growth mindset, and the way our brains learn which will help me do this.
When we learn something we create neural pathways, small connections in our brain. As we practice the skill, the neural pathway becomes stronger and stronger. When we learn something for the first time, it creates a connection, but if we never try the same skill again, we will never become expert at it, or we may lose it altogether. When we practice the same skill over and over again, our brains become wired to do that skill more easily, until at some point we no longer have to think so hard to do it.
Think of riding a bike. The first time you tried it, it was difficult, but as you practiced you built muscle memory. The neural pathways in your brain became stronger and stronger until you got to a point where even if you haven’t ridden a bike in years, you’d probably still be able to ride a bike. I assume the idiom “it’s just like riding a bike” comes from this concept.
Our brains don’t only build pathways of information and skills, they build pathways that make up our default thinking. The more you pick out and talk about the negatives of a situation, the more hard-wired your brain becomes to do that, until your brain is trained to see the world through a negative lens. The same applies with positive thoughts. The more you practice finding the positives in everyday situations, the more you build those neural pathways, until eventually, your mind tends toward positive thinking. Pessimism and optimism, based on this information, I believe are not inherent traits, or maybe they are, but they can be trained away.
How Brain Research is Helping My Happiness Levels
I was always a positive person, an optimist enthusiastic about life. However, after some negative experiences, and being in a workplace that was conducive to complaining and sarcasm, my optimism slowly broke down until I was genuinely unhappy. I didn’t even notice this was happening! It was a slow breakdown over several years of constant negativity. Even after five years out of that job, I find I am generally pessimistic or anxious about the bad things that could happen. Now that I have noticed my negative tendencies and have some tools and brain research to show that this can change, I am actively working to be more happy.
For instance, when my team at work gets into a pattern of complaining, I try to reposition the conversation. We all need to vent, but if I feel it is affecting my mood, then I assume it is affecting their moods as well and I try to be the driver of positive thinking. Or when I find myself playing out some horrific scenario of possibility in my head, I stop myself before I let it create fear and take over my mood (more about this will come in a later post), and I force myself to think of the most likely scenario, which is usually positive. If I am thinking of a car accident, I immediately remind myself that I get home safely every day and most likely I will get home safe again today. This doesn’t mean I am not cautious, but that I need to be more realistic about the positive outcomes of everyday situations.
In my quest to be more happy, I came across the Self Journal which includes some of these findings. The Self Journal is a daily planner meant to help you establish and maintain goals. One key component is morning and evening gratitude. To reflect, even if for only a minute each morning and evening on things we are grateful for helps to build those neural pathways to positive thinking. I’ve heard and read this concept in a number of other places, so the concept was not new to me… but I’d never held myself accountable for it. Now that I am being intentional I find that it does help to create a subtle shift in my thinking for the day. It helps me start and end on a positive note, which will surely help me to reawaken the optimist inside.
I’ll be posting my gratitude often to help me realize my happiness potential. Hopefully it will help you to shift your thinking as well. Be grateful for the gifts in your life. They are there, big and small, should you choose to find them.