Don’t blame yourself for seeing the glass ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’. A large body of research tells us that our brain is hardwired to think negatively. Scientists call it the “negativity bias”. That’s why we find it hard to forget negative events. For example, if you had experienced being bitten by a dog when you were still a child, chances are, you have developed fear of dogs from that day until the present. Maybe you couldn’t recall how many ‘happy’ birthdays you had but you can clearly remember your nth birthday when you cried all day because no one has remembered it or your family wasn’t there to celebrate with you.
Our strong attachment to negative memories was a product of evolution. Back in the days, our ancestors focused more on the scenery rather than the predators in the forest, they will become the prey. So they had to stay alert day and night against potential threats.
But in the present world, we need not focus too much on the negative as we are not much vulnerable to physical danger all the time. Learning to be optimistic is also important for a healthier and happier life. But how do you train your brain to favour happiness? Here’s how:
Let the positive experiences linger. No matter how small and ‘insignificant’ they may seem to you, the positive moments you encounter each day, such as the warm water touching your screen as you take a bath, the bitter-sweet smell of your morning coffee, the sweet scent of your perfume, the beautiful roses you pass by on your way to work, the smile from a stranger, and the pleasant remark from your boss – all these can have a significant impact on changing your perspective. Be mindful of the positive experiences you encounter. Feel them, savour them, and let them linger. By lingering on them for longer, you are effectively ‘wiring’ happiness on your brain.
Balance negative thoughts with positive ones. Try to focus more on positive experiences that bring the greatest impact on you. For example, if you are scared about the possibility of getting cancer because you had a few relatives who had struggled with the disease, look for things that give you a sense of security and wellness, like joining a fitness programme or improving your eating habits. If you tend to worry about work-related issues, ‘turn on’ the happiness network in your brain by doing things that improve your skills and give you more confidence.
Try something new. When was the last time you travelled? Experiencing moments as fresh and new allows them to stick to your brain for longer. Keeping a sense of ‘wonder’ can really improve your happiness levels and make your brain less likely to cling to negative thoughts.
Pay more attention. No matter how wonderful the sight is in front of you, you won’t get to enjoy it completely if you don’t pay attention. There’s a great deal of research suggesting that mindfulness, or the focused awareness on the present moment, is perhaps the greatest tool in literally rewiring the brain for happiness. For instance, researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital at Harvard Medical School found that participants who went through an 8-week mindfulness programme showed measurable changes in the grey matter, particularly in the hippocampus – the part of the brain involved in the regulation of emotion, arousal, and responsiveness. Mindfulness can be cultivated through meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, and the like.
Be with happy people. In 2008, scientists from the Harvard Medical School and the University of California, San Diego showed that happiness spreads through social networks, like some sort of a virus. Meaning, the happiness a person feels can spread to others, even to those he or she has never met. By increasing your interaction with optimistic, happy individuals, you are teaching yourself to be happier as well.
Show a little kindness. Receiving a reward, support or help can certainly make you happy. But did you know being the one who gives is more satisfying and fulfilling? Our social norms suggest that accomplishments, money, and possessions are the key to happiness. Whilst these things create a sudden increase in our well-being, their effects are only temporary. In the study led by Professor Michael Norton of Harvard Business School, participants who spent money on others felt significantly happier than those who spent money on themselves. One reason why practising compassion makes us happy is that it broadens our perspective beyond ourselves. For years, psychologists have known that anxiety and depression, which undermine happiness, are common among highly self-focused individuals. Furthermore, compassionate individuals are well-loved and admired by others. This means they have stronger, larger social support which in turn increases their happiness levels.
Just because you are feeling down today doesn’t mean you are going to feel that way forever. By lingering on small positive encounters, focusing on positive experiences that bring the greatest personal impact, trying something new, being mindful, interacting with optimistic individuals, and showing a little kindness, you can rewire your brain to focus more on happiness!
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