[Happiness & Well-Being, Part 2] by Audrey Berger Ph.D. – Life Coach at Turning Point Life Coaching
“So what kind of reality do you want to create for yourself?” Tal Ben-Shahar
Not that long ago, scientists believed that we are born with all the neurons we will ever have, and that our brains are incapable of creating new neurons or developing further in any substantial way. But, in recent years, scientists have determined that we create new neurons throughout our lives, that injured neurons can repair themselves, and that new connections between neurons are routinely established. Thus, we now know that our brains are regularly being rebuilt, rewired and reorganized. This amazing process of on-going change in the brain is called neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity has staggering implications for almost every aspect of our lives, including our happiness. Just think about it: we literally have the ability to change our brains for the better – every single day. Rather than focusing so much of our energy on changing our life circumstances, we have the ability to work on becoming happier by changing our brains. To be clear, I am not suggesting that it is never important to change life circumstances. There are some life circumstances – especially those that impact the amount and quality of your social support – which can significantly impact happiness in an ongoing way. But, my point is, if you’re not as happy as you would like, you can begin right now to change your brain in ways that can actually raise your “happiness set-point.” [For an explanation of the happiness set-point concept, see the first article in this series, Happiness and Well-Being, Part 1.]
I am not recommending that you deny any painful realities in your life, or that you ignore negative or distressing things that need your attention. However, when you focus your attention on negative experiences, you strengthen the brain structures underlying negative emotions. By recognizing and appreciating what is positive in your life, you can help yourself manage your negative emotions, strengthen your internal resources, and cope better with any challenge or adversity.
When you focus your attention on positive experiences, you enhance your brain’s ability to perceive positive situations and the positive emotions they promote. Because of the relatively weaker physiological impact made by most positive experiences, if you want to strengthen the brain structures underlying positive emotions, you need to prolong and even intensify your awareness of positive experiences. In this way, positive experiences and happiness-increasing activities lead to more brain wiring for happiness, which leads to more positive emotions and improved well-being, which increases the likelihood of positive relationships and experiences, which leads to more brain wiring for positive emotions, which promotes more happiness and well-being, and so on in an upward spiral.
Although the process of establishing new happiness habits requires a lot of diligence at first, the amount of effort required decreases over time as your brain wiring changes. There are numerous strategies that have been shown to help increase happiness and well-being, and all of them contribute to changing underlying brain wiring. Many of the future articles in this series will include descriptions of different strategies that you can try for yourself.
REFERENCE LIST AND SUGGESTED READINGS
Biswas-Diener, Robert; Diener, Ed (2010-01-22). Happiness: Unlocking the mysteries of psychological wealth. Wiley Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Frederickson, B. (2009) Positivity: top-notch research reveals the 3 to 1 ratio that will change your life. N.Y.: Three Rivers Press.
Hanson, Rick (2013-10-08). Hardwiring happiness: the new brain science of contentment, calm, and confidence. Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Lyubomirsky, Sonja (2007-12-27). The how of happiness: a new approach to getting the life you want. Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
Seligman, Martin E. P. (2002-10-02). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. Free Press. Kindle Edition.
[Originally posted on May 15, 2014 at http://www.thetransitionnetwork.org]