Would You Like To Rewire Your Brain for Happiness?
The first steps in balancing the negativity bias & feeling happier.
How we start and end our day can have a powerful impact on our well-being and productivity. Protein breakfasts, exercise, cold showers — all recommended things we can do.
However, this little step towards better well-being is mental rather than physical and doesn’t need any changes in your schedule.
I think it’s safe to say that most of us would like to feel more content in our lives. We’d like to be less stressed and anxious, and for our lives to have more energy and meaning.
With the pressure of all that we have going on — finances, family, health, 24-hour international news, and a job in there somewhere too — it can feel as though it all drains the life right out of us.
That’s what negativity does.
Ironically, scientists now believe that our brain has a natural ‘negativity bias’ that developed to save and improve the lives of our early ancestors. Yet however great automatic awareness and sensitivity to danger are in the bush, it doesn’t improve our modern quality of life on a daily basis. Especially if our goal is move beyond surviving to thriving.
Let’s try a little experiment here.
Can you remember a particular moment from your youth that still makes you cringe today?
Or the best thing that happened to you last week?
Which memory felt emotionally stronger or had more detail in your mind’s eye?
Often, it is easier to recall the negative memory and we can do so with greater clarity than our positive ones.
We store the emotion along with the mental video of the event. They seem to be imprinted on our minds, whereas our positive experiences pass through with less affect, unless they are those that affect us deeply like the birth of a child or similar life changing events.
By keeping a stronger record of negative experiences or outcomes, our brain is trying to save us from repeating them by scanning for patterns and signals that were similar to the previous negative events in our current situations.
We can readdress the negative bias of our brains by reprogramming it to notice and engage with the positive things in our lives. This rebalancing of positive and negative is key to our happiness.
A previous article, ‘How To Make The Power of The Subconscious Mind Work For You’, included points on how our mental input affects the output.
Simply put: positive input leads to a positive focus resulting in positive outcomes, feelings, and experiences.
‘Counting your blessings’ is an old practice, but maybe those oldies knew something.
Now it is called ‘positive psychology’.
“What positive psychology endeavours to do is to make us flourish in our life.”
Daniel Tomasulo, PhD writing at Psychcentral.com
‘Neurons that fire together, wire together’.
This is a popular concept among neuroscientists. It’s possible to not only change our minds but to change our brains. Our thoughts and experiences create neural connections, which if repeated over time, become a pathway. If used regularly, these pathways become our normal way of thinking and responding.
By adjusting our mental focus and states, these can then become mental traits as we reprogram our mind and brain to think differently. We can reap the benefits of this without a major life overhaul or a degree in psychology.
As Dr Rick Hanson, Neuropsychologist and author of ‘Hardwiring Happiness’ says:
The mind can change the brain, to change the mind.
It’s said to take 5 positives to rebalance the influence of a negative, especially in relationships. It’s time for some positivity maths.
The magic of finding 5p.
No, not five pence down the back of an Englishman’s sofa, but rather in our day. These 5 Ps are 5 areas in which to look for things to be thankful for, where we can find our blessings. Where we can find our gold.
It may often feel as though people equals problems, however, is there someone to be thankful for today?
Maybe someone who smiled at you. Your partner who brought you a cuppa. The friend who tagged you in a video and gave you a giggle amongst the routine rodeo of your day.
I live with three teenagers. It can be crazy fun or sometimes it can be just plain crazy. It’s easy to be thankful and see the positive in them when it’s fun, but when crazy hits the fan it can be more difficult.
My daughter and my husband clash sometimes, but at one point it was daily. There are moments when I think, ‘Why did he say that? Now she’ll go nuclear!’ or ‘If only she’d explain clearly!’ and I am frustrated with them both and have to resist intervening.
Although it can appear nothing but negative, I can choose to remember the positive, even in a situation like this.
For example, he’s desperate to be a good dad. If he says the wrong thing sometimes it’s better than being indifferent, in my opinion. I can be thankful for his heart.
Where have you been today?
Did you really see it and experience it?
Personally, I know that nature is one of my soul foods and that I need it.
Even in a crowded city, I can see beauty: the sky, the flowering weeds, someone’s window box. Beautiful architecture can inspire us or even great graffiti, a pleasant coffee shop or a comfortable car.
The key is to look and intentionally see and experience what is around us. To look for what is good or beautiful, something we can be grateful for or enjoy.
We can do this in the moment or later as we close our day and look back over what we’ve done and where we’ve been.
Yes, you read that right.
You can be thankful for problems, or rather the challenges and opportunities that can come about because of them.
Problems have solutions. Challenges expand us and make us stronger. Sometimes a problem can remind us how far we’ve come. As Bing Crosby sang,
‘ When my bankroll is getting small,
I think of when I had none at all.’
Bing Crosby, ‘Count your blessings instead of sheep’.
If our natural inclination is to focus solely on the problem, we can practice raising our eyes and looking for the outcome.
Sometimes this has to be an outcome that we intentionally create.
In the example of friction between family we saw previously, the problem can be used as a springboard to look for ways to strengthen a relationship under strain, or even to look within ourselves to see why a situation is recurring.
We now have the golden opportunity to learn and develop ourselves and improve our situations. Those principles can be applied to other areas of our lives as well, not just family relationships.
Ever had a day where you spent all day waiting for other people to arrive or get back to you?
At the end of the day, it’s easy to feel no satisfaction from things accomplished. We can feel we have accomplished nothing. Zip. Nada.
We all have days like that from time to time. Yet even when we have days chasing our tails — or someone else’s — we can still be one step nearer to our goals and our desires.
Simply because Progress comes through Process.
I so often just want to skip straight to the progress part, but there is always value in our process. We can find something we can be thankful for or see beyond an event or situation towards a positive outcome.
It is common to measure our progress by how much nearer we feel we have moved towards our goal.
Rather, it is more positive and confidence building to compare ourselves to where we were when we started — how much further away we are from our starting point.
Keeping a regular journal or some kind of record of your starting place and progress is great for this. Okay, so maybe you can’t run a marathon/go a week without arguing/don’t have 10,000 subscribers or customers/ (fill your goal here) yet. And ‘yet’ is our keyword.
If we set up our mindsets and routine well, our process will take us where we want to go.
#5 Be Present
The present is all we’ve got: the past is gone and the future is yet to arrive. The past is history and the future is a mystery.
It doesn’t benefit us at all to live like the Roman god Janus, constantly looking into the past and the future. When we live like this, we miss the present because we are not being present.
Letting go of the past and the need to try and control the future is very freeing. We can then live in expectancy and wonder in the present as we intentionally create our future. We can truly experience the people and places we have in our lives with greater depth.
In all our rushing and worrying we can miss the golden moments and opportunities that are beside us in the present.
Start Well, Finish Well.
Finishing our day by being thankful sets our mind on a positive setting while we sleep. As your day draws to a close today, take a moment to think of things you are thankful for.
Joeel Rivera, psychologist, life coach, and trainer, goes one step further. The first thing he sees when he wakes up in the morning is a note that says, ‘What will I be thankful for today?’.
It sets his mind on a course to be looking for the positive things in his day. That sounds so much more wholesome, more soul-nourishing, than a lengthy to-do list and international (bad) news.
This is not about being like Tinkerbell: just think happy thoughts and we’ll fly.
It’s about retraining our minds, little by little, to not focus on the negative but to see the positive in our lives.
Doing that will provide the energy and impetus for us to move forward, and it will nourish our souls and our psyche.
It takes away negativity’s loud-hailer and rebalances our negative/positive bias.
By shifting our focus onto the positive in our lives, our minds will notice more of the positive and be taking that in as material to work with. The effect for us is a greater experience of happiness and enjoyment in our lives, with a greater ability to see creative solutions and opportunities.
Practical Application Ideas.
- Post it. Follow Joeel Rivera’s example and post yourself a note on your mirror, your phone or desktop, above the kettle…wherever you will see it and can ask yourself, ‘What will I be thankful for today?’
- Focus on one ‘P’ per day. There are five areas listed to look for our positive moments and experiences, why not take one per day to train yourself to be mindful of these things?
- Evening routine. A powerful habit to end and start your days in a positive frame of mind is that of writing three wins or positive things for your day. Writing them down in a notebook allows you to see overall themes for your week/month.
I also use the free habit tracker from Coach.me.
A notebook, a pen, a free habit tracker app, and 10 minutes a day — minimum investment for great dividend in your happiness and mental health.