Create a Happy Brain!
Research shows that we are all born with a baseline level for happiness. It’s true that some people are born with a natural tendency towards happiness, while others find happiness a struggle. However, the research also shows that this genetic predisposition only accounts for approximately 40 percent of our happiness levels. That leaves 60 percent that we have some control over. Within that 60 percent includes things like environment, our habits and routines. Furthermore, the recent research in the area of neurogenesis and neuroplasticity shows that we can use our habits and routines to change our brains thus rewiring our brains for more happiness. Now, rewiring our brains is not an overnight process. It is something that takes consistency and lots of repetition. But with concerted effort one can change their natural baseline.
So, what are some behaviors and routines that can lead to brain changes that increase happiness?
1) Getting regular exercise. Exercise has been proved to be as effective as anti-depressant medication in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. “Our bodies are meant to move and when we don’t move it is like taking a depressant,” says Dr. Tal Ben Shahar. In addition, regular exercise helps create new neurons in the hippocampus which allows us to deal with stress better and sends signals to other parts of our brain to turn off the stress reaction cycle.
2) Using the HEAL method by Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness. What’s the HEAL method? HEAL is a method of focusing on our positive experiences and allowing them to truly soak in, in order to change brain structures that allow for more felt happiness. First you bring up a memory of a positive experience. Then you focus on enriching that memory with as many details and sensations as possible. Finally, let it soak in to your experience, feel it with every sense of your being. As an advanced step, you may try linking this positive experience with its opposite negative experience. This is a tricky step, but if you allow the positive feeling to engulf the negative one it can set up a pattern of being able to experience the positive even when negative feelings arise.
3) Keep a Gratitude Journal. I know some think this exercise trite now, but research has demonstrated positive effects for people struggling with depression. I personally like this exercise because I believe it rewires the brain to look for the positive. If you know that at the end of each day you are going to have to make a list of what you are grateful for, then throughout the day you will begin trying to find the things you will write down. Instead of scanning your environment for what is wrong, you will start scanning for what is right. With repetition you will build new pathways in the brain. The more you do something, the stronger the pathway and the more automatic the behavior becomes. You can use this for your benefit or for your detriment, it’s up to you.
If you take one thing away from this article, know that your brain is a plastic and every changing organ. If you are unhappy, if you are not functioning at your best, look towards consistent repetition of positive behaviors to change your brain and change your baseline for happiness. Don’t expect overnight results, but know that the more consistent effort, however brief it may be, you put towards developing this state of being, the easier it will become because your brain will support it.
For more information, I highly recommend Dr. Hanson’s new book Hardwiring Happiness. If you are looking for more individual help to work with this process and to create a happier more fulfilling life, please contact me so I can get you started.