Is there a secret to happiness? Yes, but the secret won’t be a secret for long.
First of all, we need to understand that yes we want to be happy, but it’s the brain who we should be trying to please. This is where neuroscientists come in- they study and work with that special grey blob called the brain, and they’re notoriously good at it.
Secondly, the things that we often believe will make us happy are pretty inaccurate.
The brain is a natural pattern-recognition machine, looking for what works and what doesn’t, generalizing experience, making predictions and registering feedback.
But sometimes it makes a wrong turn, we develop bad habits and we don’t even know what street happy is on anymore. The good news is we actually have a lot of control over our happiness — if we can get past that vague word and think about the concrete actions to take to get there. Studies show 40% of our happiness is within our control.
So how can we add some happiness to our lives?
1 Start Challenging Unhelpful Thoughts
What does that mean? Well, when you start to have negative thoughts that don’t benefit you very much, shut them out. Sure they may be true, but are they helpful? “We are going to die one day.” “My shoe is broken.” “Cancer exists.” Is an excessive amount of time thinking about these things helpful if happiness is your goal?
We think happiness is about money or love or success but the truth is your happiness is most determined by the thoughts in your head because that’s what has your attention the vast majority of the time. Now you can’t control what thoughts pop up but you can decide what is helpful and choose not to give the unhelpful thoughts any more attention than they deserve.
The Upward Spiral says, “But your thoughts are just thoughts—the whisperings of your limbic system and your striatum. Thoughts are something you have, but they are not who you are. You are not your limbic system. You are not your striatum. Identifying, acknowledging, and reframing unhelpful thoughts will be something we’ll revisit throughout this book. Taking these small steps helps the prefrontal cortex get a runaway limbic system back under control.”
2 Listen To Music That Makes You Feel Good
Sounds ridiculously simple, but it works. Especially if you listen to music from a certain time in your life when you can remember being happy. Were you happiest in college? Play the music you loved then and it can transport you to that happier place and boost your mood.
The Upward Spiral says, “One of the strong effects of music comes from its ability to remind us of previous environments in which we were listening to that music. That’s really mediated by this one limbic structure called the hippocampus which is really important in a thing called “context dependent memory.” Let’s say college was the happiest time of your life. If you start listening to the music that you were listening to at that time, it can help you feel more connected to that happier time in your life and makes it more present.”
3 Change Your Activities
Or rather, DO MORE ACTIVITIES. We associate depression with lethargy and happiness with energy — accurately. But it’s a two-way street. A feedback loop. If you’re active and doing things, you’re less likely to be bogged down ruminating. And if you’re idle, it can be easy to dwell on the negative.
The Upward Spiral says, “Your actions, whether intentional or unintentional, have consequences for the activity and chemistry of key neural circuits. A fact that you can take advantage of to create an upward spiral. This idea is exploited by one of the most effective treatments for depression: behavioral activation therapy. Behavioral activation focuses on changing unhelpful behaviors that contribute to depression and incorporating more helpful ones. This type of approach has been shown to alter the activity in the emotion regulation, motivation, and habit circuits in the brain—the medial prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, and dorsal striatum, respectively.”
4 Get Enough Sleep
Ah yes, it was too good to be true…we almost didn’t mention how your sleep patterns can affect your happiness. Sorry to be a downer, but you have to take control of your health if you want to be happy, and that includes…your sleep.
So how do you improve your sleep? The Upward Spiral has a number of suggestions:
“Get bright sunlight in the middle of the day. At night, try and stay in a dimly lit environment. Having a comfortable place to sleep and having a bedtime ritual so that your brain can prepare to go to sleep are also good. Trying to go to sleep at the same time every night and keeping a gratitude journal can also improve your sleep.”
You are in control of your brain’s happiness. It’s a lot of responsibility, but you can handle it. Yes, certain chemical receptors and foods and medications can have an impact on our happiness, but we can do things to combat those effects.
Alex says if there was one piece of advice to help us with our daily routine of creating more happiness, it would be this:
“I think the simplest way to kick start an upward spiral is to go for a walk outside every morning, and if possible, do it with a friend. The walk engages the exercise system and when you’re walking outside the sunlight you’re exposed to has benefits on the sleep systems and can impact the serotonin system. If you do it everyday, then it starts getting ingrained in the dorsal striatum and becomes a good habit. If you can do it with a friend, that’s even better because you get the social connection.”