It’s generally accepted that happy people are more optimistic… or are optimistic people happier? Either way, we all know people who see the world as their oyster, the glass is half full, life is good. And then there are the “Eyesores” of the world. Their world is gloomy and gray, and they just can’t seem to see the sunshine.
Happiness Part 1 was all about the intersection of engagement, happiness and collaborative contributions at work, and Happiness Part 2 dug into the science that explains why our brains just work better when we’re happy. If we know that optimistic people are happier, and happier people are more successful, why can’t we all just tap into that inner optimism and happiness to achieve success?
The answer to that lies in… yup, you guessed it… more neuroscience. Think of happiness in terms of inner strength – that which enables us to manage unhappiness. This is the strength to navigate the orange cones of life, survive disappointments and failure, and heal from hurt and loss. On average, approximately 30% of our inner strength comes from our personality, temperament, and genetic disposition. The remaining 70% is actually developed over time. Great news… we have the capacity build inner strength, nurture optimism, and grow happiness.
Experiences Change Your Brain
To understand how this happens, we need to understand how experiences change your brain. Right now, you have about 100 billion neurons that are sending signals in your brain called synapses. The busiest regions need more oxygen and glucose so they get more blood. The more energy they get, the more synapses they create. All of this neural activity is continually changing the brain.
Experiences that are intense, prolonged, or repeated will physically change the anatomy and chemistry of the brain.
Neuroscientists refer to this process as experience-dependent neuroplasticity. The brain is a learning muscle. The more we use different regions of that muscle, the stronger those regions get. For example, studies show that taxi drivers in London have developed thicker neural layers in their hippocampus, the part of the brain that helps with visual-spatial memories. Because they use this part of the brain day in and day out, they’ve worked this part of the brain muscle and actually changed its anatomy.
Similarly, if you make mindfulness and relaxation techniques a part of your daily routine, you’ll not only increase the synapses required to calm down in stressful situations, you’ll actually change the genes that enable you to address stress.
Neurons that fire together wire together.
Likewise, intense, repeated, or prolonged positive and negative experiences also change your brain. Emotional experiences such as happiness, worry, love, and stress create synapses that create an imprint in your neural structure. The longer you focus on the experience, the more intense it is or the more you repeat it, the more likely that mental state will become an imprinted neural trait. If you’re in a bad mood (mental state) day in and day out, it will eventually become a characteristic of your personality (neural trait).
We’ve all had those days that nothing seems to go right – when it feels like the universe is out to get you. You’re probably not experiencing more bad things on that particular day; it’s more likely you’re just more tuned in to the negatives. The more you focus on the negatives, the more the brain creates neural pathways designed to deal the negatives by producing the bad chemicals that stop productive brain function to address the stress (fight, flight or freeze).
On the other hand, the more you focus on the positives, the more your brain will accommodate to enable you to see the positives and produce the good chemicals that create optimum conditions for cognitive function. The happier you are, the happier your brain will let you be.
While some people experience more tragedy, loss, or disappointment than others, the real difference between the pessimist and the optimist lies in their brain chemistry. The optimists’ brains are wired to focus on the positive experiences because that is what they look for, and the pessimists’ brains are wired to focus on the negative experiences – because that is what they look for.
The Negativity Bias
The fully developed brain has a built-in negativity bias that is designed to help us survive. It’s the protective shield in the brain that is constantly on the lookout for danger or trouble. This is what separates adults with executive functioning skills from toddlers who know no fear.
This construct is demonstrated in studies that show we recognize angry faces faster than we recognize happy faces. It also explains how one can immediately dislike a person, but it takes a little longer to determine that we like someone. Even when we’re relaxed and happy, a part of your brain is always on high-alert for danger or disappointment that could be right around the bend.
Psychologist Daniel Kahnemann received the Nobel Prize for his work in behavior economics as it relates to our perceptions of bad experiences vs good ones. Among his findings was that most people naturally go to greater lengths to protect themselves from a bad experience than they do to experience something good because the brain tends to respond more intensely to negative things than to equally intense positive things. And because we respond with a stronger emotional response to negatives, it takes more positive experiences to balance out one negative experience.
It’s like taking a 2-week vacation to the Turks and Caicos Islands, eating something that doesn’t agree with you, and spending a day in bed sick. While the other 13 days of the vacation may have been wonderful, that one negative day is likely to create a much more powerful memory than the other positive days. This is all part of the negative bias in our implicit memory that shapes the way we perceive experiences.
Kahnemann also explores the concept of time in terms of our perceptions. He maintains that the psychological present is 3 seconds. If you do the math, there are about 25,000 (give or take a few thousand for sleep time) of them in a day. How many leave a trace? Unless they are intense or surprising, most of the good things leave no lasting effect on the brain without intentional focus.
Conversely, the negativity bias fast-tracks the bad things into memory. It’s like a built-in security system that says, “remember this bad thing so you can be on the lookout for it next time.” The brain doesn’t automatically remember the good things so that you’ll notice them next time.
The good news is that you can rewire the brain to overcome the negativity bias and take control of the 70% of your inner strength that isn’t defined by your personality or genetic makeup. Here are four simple, intentional ways to take control of your happiness, nurture your optimism, and experience greater rewards.
1. Project Positivity
Remember that mental states become neural traits when they are intense, prolonged or repeated. You can train your brain to see and experience positive things and create the conditions for the happy chemicals as soon as you wake up in the morning. Before you put your feet on the floor, take 5 minutes in that groggy state to think about what lies ahead. Visualize yourself going through your day. Imagine yourself killing that presentation or contributing to a project. Create an “internal forecast” of at least one positive exchange. Visualizing a positive day while in alpha state will produce enough dopamine and serotonin to have a significant impact.
2. Practice Positivity
Studies show that when we demonstrate positivity through kindness, the brain produces happy chemicals that make us feel more optimistic and in control of our lives compared to the learned helplessness that comes from an overproduction of stress-fighting chemicals. Random acts of kindness, for example, releases oxytocin. In addition to making us feel more socially connected and loved, oxytocin actually reduces stress and lowers blood pressure.
When you make positive acts an intentional practice, you train your brain to focus on positive interactions rather than negative ones. Simple things like sharing positive praise or expressing sincere appreciation to a colleague in the form of an email will not only give someone else a boost of serotonin, but will give you an oxytocin boost, as well.
By the way, if you want to add an extra shot of happy chemicals, send a handwritten note instead of an email. Email is the norm these days, and the surprise of a handwritten note can intensify positive emotions by 400%. Neuropsychologists call this the emotional intensification theory. In simpler terms, it’s the difference between getting expected flowers on Valentine’s Day and getting surprise flowers on some random Tuesday.
3. Extend Positivity
When you notice something good, how often do you take the time to make it a positive experience? How often do you extend your attention to that good thing for more than 3 seconds? It could be something as simple as a compliment from a colleague or the warmth of sunshine when you leave the office.
If you want to convert a good thing into an experience that actually shapes your neural structure, you have to extend the psychological present beyond 3 seconds to create an imprint. With deliberation and intentionality, embrace that good thing for 10 seconds, 20 seconds or longer. Shift your focus back to that good thing throughout the day. Each time you do, you produce more positive chemicals that keep your brain humming and you train your brain to look for the glass half full.
4. Reflect on Positivity
Gratitude journals are the simplest way to beat the negativity bias. When you end each day with an intentional focus on those things for which you’re grateful, you begin a positive repeated cycle that, over time, will change the physical structure and chemistry of your brain. In addition, just reflecting upon an accomplishment or the belonging you feel when you are part of a team is enough to give you another little boost of oxytocin or dopamine the same way you got a surge when you actually experienced it.
Understanding the what happens in the brain when we experience certain emotions is just part of the process. Understanding that we can control the neural activity that creates the brain conditions conducive to optimism and happiness is the key.
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