Man is fond of counting his trouble, but he does not count his joys. If he counted them up as he ought to, he would see that every lot has enough happiness provided for it. -Fyodor Dostoyevsky
We can choose happiness.
Seeing that statement in writing annoys me. Shouldn’t happiness just happen?
How can we expect to wake up in a depressive state and just will ourselves to be happy in the same way we will ourselves to get out of bed and brush our teeth? It just doesn’t seem that simple.
But one of my grad school mentors was quick to remind me:
“The cure is maintenance.”
Greg Crosby taught that just as we need to have practices to maintain good health such as healthy eating, exercise, and getting enough sleep; there are also practices that help us maintain emotional health.
An important practice is challenging our brain’s natural predisposition to negative thinking. In his new book, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence, Rick Hanson Ph.D., Neuropsychologist, international speaker says it is possible to lower anxiety and stress, lift mood, grow confidence, calm, and contentment, and fundamentally, hardwire happiness into the brain.
The brain has a negativity bias according to Dr. Hanson. “It’s like Velcro for bad experiences but Teflon for good ones,” he writes. His research shows that by drawing on the positive experiences available in life we can “weave strength and happiness into the fabric of” both our brain and our lives.
“Because of your brain’s built-in negativity bias, it is SO IMPORTANT to consciously, deliberately help your brain register positive experiences.
You have to compensate for the hard-wired tendency of your brain to over-value negative experiences,” Dr. Hanson writes.
He recommends the following steps to help the brain “take in the good:”
- Pay attention to the positive in your world.
- Allow yourself to feel pleasure and experience positive activities, emotions and thoughts.
- Deliberately create positive experiences.
- Keep your attention focused on the positive.
- Imagine your positive experiences soaking into your brain.
- When you go to bed at night, recall the positive you experienced that day.
My daughter Rose is a hard worker. She works on a farm where the meat and poultry is pasture fed, made into a plethora of products, and then sold on the weekends at farmer’s markets. In a day she might butcher a lamb, make homemade butter or cheese, bottle milk, and gather and package eggs. Her work is fulfilling and her energy seems to be endless because if that isn’t enough she is ready to create adventures on a whim after work.
Last week she called me and begged me to take off work early and drive up to the Seattle area to see a Blondie concert! I was feeling responsible and ended up giving her some resistance. She was persistent. She would not take no for an answer. So there I was on a beautiful autumn night, the air crisp, the moon a magical golden orb hanging in a black velvet sky. The concert was in a park – strings of lights hung everywhere, gourmet food carts offered succulent dishes like range fed beef hamburgers with blue cheese and bacon jam!
Music filled the air and my daughter and I danced under the moon to this glad celebration of yet another rock revival. How inspiring it was when I am on the cusp of age 60 to see another woman on the cusp of age 70 still able to belt out her hits while swinging her hips on stage. The concert was just ending when Rose grabbed my hand and pulled me across the grass. “Hurry,” she said, “We can beat the traffic and make it in time to see the new Woody Allen movie!” Twenty-five minutes later we were in a historic movie theater eating popcorn and watching the movie.
I slept in my clothes in the farmhouse when we finally got back to her home. The next morning I got up early, caught the ferry, and drove two and half hours straight back to work. Part of me questioned my sanity. But that didn’t last for long. I’m still humming along to that concert . . .remembering the night, my daughter, the bliss of it all.
Taking in positive experiences can be subtle as well. Walking outside first thing in the morning to smell the newness of the day and revel in the hot pink of a sunrise. Calling a friend we haven’t talked to in a long time. Indulging in reading a favorite book again.
Choosing happiness requires deliberately using our ability to make choices, to create positive thoughts and experiences. Practicing this over and over again creates new neural pathways in our brain and can hardwire us for happiness.