Mind over matter

Australian Natural Health Magazine , May 2015

050 053 happy habits

Happiness might seem like an uncontrollable emotion but there is evidence that we can choose to be happy by re-training our brains and the way we look at the world, MIRANDA LUBY writes.

Happiness is something we all aim for. It’s seen culturally as something to be obtained through an accumulation of positive things in our lives. Good friends, a tight-knit family, a successful career, wealth and beauty — this is what we’re often told will make us happy. But what if achieving happiness has nothing to do with the world around us and everything to do with how we perceive it? Can we, in fact, choose to be happy?
This may seem like an absurd concept at first, and it’s no wonder. We’re not exactly programmed to be happy. It turns out that most humans have what’s called a natural negativity bias. Dr Timothy Sharp is the ‘chief happiness officer’ at the Happiness Institute, a team of psychologists who aim to teach people to become happier by applying the principles of positive psychology in their lives. He explains the theory. “The idea comes from evolution. Psychologists argue that in our previous cave-dwelling days, our survival instincts told us to keep an eye out for danger. To do this we had to expect the worst and stay fairly pessimistic about the risks surrounding us in order to stay on our toes,” he says.
“The people that survived were the ones that could identify and protect against risks and were naturally more negative about the world around them.”
This means our natural responses to the world are geared towards unhappiness. But it’s important to point out, Dr Sharp says, that not everyone thinks in this way and if we do consider ourselves a so-called pessimist, we can change. Neuroplasticity (changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behaviour, environment, neural processes, thinking and emotions) means we can re-train our brains to make happiness a more automatic response in our lives.
“We’ve known for 40 or 50 years now that previous theories about the human brain not being able to adapt and change are wrong. We can,” he says. “We can actually change our thinking to be more optimistic.”
The first step is become aware of the way our brain thinks about the world. Most people are not even aware of their thoughts and live automatically throughout the day, responding to situations without thinking.
“We generally don’t pause to reflect on all the things going through our head,” Dr Sharp says. “The first step is to stop every now and then and ask yourself, ‘what’s going through my mind?’”
We might discover our thoughts are overwhelmingly negative and while some of these may be warranted, others may be exaggerations or completely false perceptions of our reality.
“You must decide which of these thoughts are helpful to you and which are not,” Dr Sharp says. “Remember, just because we think something, that doesn’t make it true. Thoughts are not facts and just because we think a situation is negative, it doesn’t make it so. You have to challenge or question your thoughts, like a debate.”
When we manage to identify these negative and unhelpful thoughts, we can begin to change them.
“You have to think, ‘what would be a more helpful way to think about this situation? What sort of thoughts will lead to a more positive outcome for me?’” Dr Sharp says.
Of course, this is all much easier said than done. Like any skill, it needs practice on a daily basis.
“The more you practise responding positively in your life, the better you become and if you can get to a stage where you’re doing it automatically, then you’re doing very well,” Dr Sharp says.
Some simple daily exercises to increase your happiness include allowing yourself to linger on positive little moments, even something as simple as your morning coffee, and practising gratitude by reminding yourself what you’re thankful for. It’s important to note, though, that no one can be happy all the time, every minute of every day.
“That would be totally unrealistic and very inhuman,” Dr Sharp says.
Part of being a human being is experiencing a whole range of emotions.
“It’s perfectly normal to experience distress when something distressing happens,” Dr Sharp explains. “We just don’t want this distress to go on too long unnecessarily. The idea is that you are able to make the best of the good times and are also able to get through the tough times.”
While it may sound oxymoronic, Dr Sharp says, part of choosing to be happy is choosing to accept that we will be unhappy sometimes, too.
“The sooner we realise life comes with some unhappiness then we can accept this and focus on how to deal with the way we feel about that in the most positive way possible,” he says.

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