Martha Washington, the first First Lady of the United States, once said, “I am determined to be cheerful and happy in whatever situation I may find myself. For I have learned that the greater part of our misery or unhappiness is determined not by our circumstance but by our disposition.”
This may be easier said than done for most of us because, as we know, situations and stresses arise which directly impact our happiness.
It would be nice to always stay cheerful and positive in all situations but heartache, tragedy and loss touch us at some point. But was Martha onto something here – that it’s our dispositions that can determine our happiness? Are some of us just less in tune with how to be happy?
Our emotions and feelings play a large role in our overall health. Our mental state can either improve our health or hinder it, and so it’s important to keep a cheerful state as much as possible. And although everyone has their own unique perspective on happiness, whatever that meaning is for you, you should try and achieve it whenever possible.
It’s all in your head
Emotions don’t only affect how we act or interact with others, they actually change your brain as well. When we are depressed or anxious, that’s taking a toll on your brain.
Let’s examine the emotion of anger, for example. At some point you’ve been angry whether it’s because you were stuck in traffic or something didn’t go your way – we can all relate to being angry.
Anger can manifest itself in many different physiological responses. Our heart rates increase, we may begin to sweat and even clench our teeth. But anger also changes our brains as well.
Anger is triggered and released in the brain from the amygdala. This is the part of the brain which sends out the signals to the other parts of the body to respond accordingly to the emotion of anger. This can lead to louder speech, a higher production of testosterone and more blood being pumped by the heart. As you can see, the initial signals of emotions that start in the brain then create a chain reaction to other parts of our body which can have a serious impact on our health.
Depression, on the other hand, has its own unique affects on the body. Not only does it promote sadness, emptiness and hopelessness but it can also affect weight, aches and pains, weaken the immune system, and increase the risk of heart disease. This is just another example of how our mental state can reflect in poor health overall.
We want to do all we can for our health, so to combat the effects of negative emotions, it’s important to do things to instill happiness as much as possible. And once again, we understand this may be easier said than done, but with some guidance and a few helpful tips you can achieve improved brain health and feel better in all situations.
Rewire the brain
Think of your brain as a home undergoing renovation. It may have looked the same for many years but it’s now time to make some upgrades so it can work more efficiently. Maybe you want to add some more lights in the home and so with the help of an electrician you begin the rewiring. Sure the work may take some time, but eventually it gets done and you now have a brighter, better lit home. This is similar for brain health.
Rewiring the brain takes time, but with enough practice and work you can achieve brighter thoughts and a happier outlook.
When you give in and reinforce negative emotions they become your go-to when you experience that scenario again. For example, if you get a coffee every morning and every morning they somehow make an error with your takeout order, you likely will get angry in that situation.
If, however, you turned the situation around to promote happiness you can rewire your brain to act differently. So instead of being angry that the coffee was decaf instead of regular, appreciate the fact that you able to purchase such coffee and that the person making it is probably in a stressful situation. Then the next time you go back and the same error occurs you can be more mindful and less angry.
Seem impossible? Well, it really isn’t. In fact, with the help of brain imaging, scientists are revealing that brain rewiring is possible. It’s referred to as “neuroplasticity.”
Examples of neuroplasticity were revealed in two different studies: One on London cab drivers and another on violinists. The cab drivers’ brain scans revealed that the part of their brains that stored memory was far thicker than those of non-cab drivers because they need to memorize maps. In the case of the violinists, the part of their brains which controlled the motor skills in their left hands – the hand which holds the neck of the violin – was much more developed than that of non-violinists.
These studies were published in the 2015 book Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business from the Inside Out by New York Times reporter David Gelles who explores how practicing mindfulness can change people, businesses and the world for the better.
10 tips for happiness
The solution then for a long, healthy life is to be happy and it can be done through rewiring the brain. The following are a mix of 10 tips which can help you rewire the brain and experience more happiness in your life:
1. Use affirmations: Affirmations are a way to provide yourself with emotional support, encouragement and affirm your happiness. For example, maybe every morning you wake up groggy and complain about the days tasks. Instead, wake up with some positive affirmations like, “Today will be a good day,” or “Today I will accomplish a goal.” Affirmations are best first thing in the morning as they set the tone for the remainder of the day which in turn can rewire your brain to be happier.
Having a list of affirmations is handy so you can already be prepared. And don’t fret if you can’t make up your own; even reciting motivational quotes is still helpful.
2. Complete complicating tasks first thing in the morning: Commonly referred to as “eating the frog,” getting the most daunting task out of the way first thing can create a sense of ease later on. Prioritize your to-do list and use the majority of your energy to get that complicating task out of the way first. You’ll have a greater sense of completion and satisfaction of a job well done.
3. Eat well: Did you know your diet can affect your mood? Well it’s true. Think of the times you experienced sadness. Did you reach for some kale and tomatoes or did you reach for junk food? If you feed your negative emotions with junk, you’ll be heading down a slippery emotional slope.
Rather than having fatty foods as part of your diet, opt for whole grains, fruits and vegetables and lean proteins. These foods will nourish your body and emotions and can create a more uplifting mood.
4. Meditate: When the stress is piling up and you’re starting to feel frantic, take a few moments to meditate. Further, daily meditation can be useful to help you manage stress and approach situations in a calmer state.
A study from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) revealed that meditation gives you the ability to think more clearly and rationally, so instead of yelling at others you can approach stressful situations more mindfully.
5. Be grateful: An easy way to rewire the brain is to be grateful. What good things to do you have in your life? What abilities do you possess? These are just some of the questions you may ask to truly be grateful for your life. Think of what could of went wrong. Instead of coming home at night upset about what did go wrong, appreciate the situation by noting that it could have been worse and the situation is probably fixable. Therefore, stressing about it won’t make you, or the problem, any better.
6. Curb the negativity: This one may be the hardest point to make when rewiring the brain for happiness. It seems easier to jump the gun and think of the worst, but the energy it takes to think of the positives can have you feeling better in the long-run. Even if it involves pausing for a moment before unleashing your emotions, that minor pause could be the difference between unhappiness and happiness. Curbing your negativity may also play a hand in being grateful as well.
7. Exercise: Benefits of exercise are endless, and if you are able you should be trying to get some amount in on a daily basis. Exercise can also help rewire your brain because it releases positive endorphins in the brain making your feel happier. Even a 20-minute stroll outdoors is enough to elevate mood and promote clearer thinking.
8. Surround yourself with happy people: Happiness is contagious, Harvard Medical School reports. Research shows that just as negativity can rub off on you, the same is true for happiness. One study revealed that even if your happy friend lives a mile away from you, your odds of being happy are still quite high. So even if you’re not at your happiest, surrounding yourself with those who are will promote feelings of happiness in you.
9. Be kind to others: Now that we know that happiness is contagious, don’t just absorb the happiness from others, but be a carrier yourself. Small acts of kindness, like holding a door or tipping the barista, is enough to cause a ripple effect of the spread of happiness.
10. Look to the light: Sunlight is a natural means of promoting happiness. Ever notice in the darker winter months people tend to be angrier and sadder? Well the sun doesn’t stick around much during the winter and that can affect our mood. As long as you’re heading outdoors safely – wearing sunscreen and protective clothing – enjoying the sun’s rays is an easy way to rewire the brain and promote happiness.
Health isn’t primarily decided from medical conditions and genetics. Our emotions have a lot to do with how long and how healthy we will live. Being mindful of your happiness is very real a solution to improving your overall health.
With this in mind, these 10 tips can be easily practiced daily to help rewire your brain to promote happiness. Just like electrical wiring won’t necessarily be installed overnight for that home reno, neither will happiness. Keeping an ongoing goal to be happy is the key. Practice makes perfect.
So if you’re looking to promote better health, look no further than beginning with your brain – the rest of the body will follow.
I’m not the most high-tech person when it comes to carrying around a smartphone or iPad as if it was a life-support system (like some young people I know). But I do recognize the value of staying connected with friends, family and others, and using technology to your advantage.
We all experience bad days that have us feeling down and low, leading us to reach for sugary comfort foods. However, those feel-good foods could actually be making you feel worse. Diet has an enormous impact on your health, and also plays a major role in your general mood.