There’s a lot of research into happiness right now. You know it’s serious when even the government wants to know how happy we are!
The success of any nation can no longer be judged just on Gross Domestic Product (GDP). A lot of time, money and resources are now being focused on measuring our Gross Domestic Happiness too.
There are various ways of measuring well-being. The current one favoured in the UK asks people their:
Last year, an international study identified mental health, meaningful work, loneliness and the physical environment as some of the key drivers of happiness or unhappiness which often get overlooked by policy-makers.
The secret of extreme wellbeing
But what if there was a direct route to happiness?
What if you could ‘rewire your brain’ for optimum happiness, and the ‘secret’ of extreme wellbeing could be reduced to something like an algorithm?
Might there be one ‘master-key’ which could unlock the ‘mechanism’ of happiness?
A new book by Paul Dolan, Happiness by Design suggests there is.
He describes a kind of ‘black box’ theory where stimuli are constantly being received by the human brain through sight, sound, touch, smell and taste and says it’s how we pay attention to these stimuli which equate to our potential for happiness or distress.
We all watch TV, read books or newspapers, eat food, sleep, do work, hang out with other people and have aches and pains.
We all have hundreds and thousands of experiences a day and are on the receiving end of billions of bits of incoming data, all jostling for our attention. But we have more choice about where we focus our attention than we realise.
Simply put, if we focus on the positive, we will feel happier, so we need to learn to allocate more attention to the positive stimuli and less to the negative.
We are shaped by our surroundings as much as we also shape and influence our environment. Dolan suggests we should consciously influence our surroundings to maximise our potential for happiness.
This certainly fits in with what I have observed in 30,000 hours’ work as a psychotherapist.
Yes, it does require effort to make change, but small changes in your routine can make a big difference, such as scheduling a regular phone call to a special friend, making sure you take time for things you enjoy, not taking your cigarettes to work or changing your bank password to #£saveM0ney.
These small changes have the potential to improve our perception of our own happiness says Dolan.
He has a point. Attention is a limited resource. Latest research suggests that we can only consciously process 120 ‘bytes’ of information at one time. That’s the ability to listen to two conversations simultaneously.
So, if we get a bit more organised, we can learn to maximise our potential for well-being by having a daily ‘system’ for living and focusing our attention on the positives will then become our regular ‘happiness habit’
Follow these tips to rewire your brain for optimum happiness
Start with flowers
Research shows that people who wake up to the sight of flowers are happier than others.
Put some fresh flowers by the side of the bed, not too many as they eat up oxygen overnight. One beautiful rose is enough to raise the spirits.
Try keeping the bedside area as clean and tidy as possible too, so that you wake up to a calm and clear environment; a great ‘happiness habit.’
Wake up slowly
Does your alarm clock shatter your happiness before you’re even fully awake?
If the ear-busting shriek of your alarm clock wrestles you into consciousness with a jolt, try replacing it with a radio alarm and the sound of some gentle or cheerful music, or get one of the clocks which simulate dawn by gently increasing light.
Have your affirmation ready
Many people’s first thought of the day is ‘Oh no. Work again! or ‘Too much to do.’
Choose instead to say something really motivational to yourself. Have an affirmation ready that will ‘set your mind’ and positively affect your ‘mindset’ for the whole day, something like ‘This is a day of opportunity. This is the first day of the rest my life. Today is a new page and I am truly the author of my life.’
It might feel a bit strange at first, but if you keep repeating positive phrases, your subconscious mind will definitely notice. Positive thoughts drown out negative internal chatter.
You can only think one thought at a time. Trying to think two opposing thoughts creates ‘cognitive dissonance’ and is the main reason positive affirmations are so powerful.
Do you eat breakfast in a daze, shower in a trance or brush your teeth while trying to multitask your smart phone and i-Pad?
Try starting the day mindfully.
If you have a cup of coffee, take the time to smell the fragrance, feel the warmth and shape of the mug and use all the senses to be ‘in the moment’. This is informal mindfulness practice and can be repeated many times throughout the day.
This kind of ‘brain training’ has been shown to strengthen the prefrontal cortex, which mediates brain activity. In other words, if you want to get better at focusing your attention, introduce short mindful activities into your daily routine.
Eat the frog
Evidence shows we function best,
make the best decisions and are more efficient in the mornings. If you start your day by ‘eating the frog’, you’ve got the worst out of the way and the rest of your day will feel like plain sailing by comparison. Feeling smug about a job well done will certainly increase your happiness quotient .
Remember the 80/20 rule. 20% of your effort can yield 80% result.
And, yes, do keep a good old fashioned ‘to do’ list. It de clutters the mind and leaves your brain free to be more creative, using your headspace more efficiently.
To avoid overwhelm and enjoy some end of day good feeling, try completing a ‘things I’ve done’ list too. Remember, focus on the positives to feel more positive…and more happy.
It’s not the quantity of food that’s important, so much as the quality.
Protein stabilises blood sugar, helping with concentration and maintaining mood.
Eating carbohydrates can cause fabulous sugar highs but followed by horrible sugar crashes, making you tetchy and miserable. If you want to even out your mood, feel calmer, happier and more focused, ensure you get enough protein.
Try to get outside for at least 20 min every day, more if possible, to reap the benefits of full-spectrum light. The levels of our feel-good hormone serotonin are directly affected by exposure to light which travels through the retina of the eye and has an immediate impact on how good we feel.
In doors, we only receive 50 to 100 units of light per hour whilst outdoors on an overcast day we receive up to 10,000 units. On a bright sunny day, we can receive up to 100,000 units of light per hour.
Oxford academic, Professor Russell Foster had shown that regular exposure to natural light will enhance happiness and wellbeing, and doesn’t cost a penny!
Air: another freebie!
Many people are breathing incorrectly without realising it. If you feel like you’re holding your breath, yawning a lot or feeling tight in the chest, it could be you’ve got chronic hyperventilation syndrome.
To feel relaxed, the out breath needs to be slightly longer than the in breath.
Breathing into the count of five and out the count of seven will allow your body to tap into the innate ‘relaxation response’, your natural ability to relax very deeply.
Practising this several times a day will allow you to feel calmer, think more clearly…and consequently, feel happier.
We all talk to ourselves without realising it.
There’s a little voice inside our head which runs an ongoing commentary on everything we’re doing. It becomes the back tape to our lives.
But, if you’re constantly saying negative things to yourself, guess what? You’ll feel bad.
So change the tape to something little more helpful. Be your own best friend, inner coach and guru by saying the kind of positive encouraging things you would say to a very good friend. This will help you think positive, feel positive and act positive.
At the end of the day, many people focus on what went wrong and beat themselves up for things the wish they hadn’t said or done, then wonder why they either can’t fall asleep or are restless in the night.
End the day by bringing to mind the positive experiences you’ve had and people you’ve encountered.
And remember to be grateful for the smallest of pleasures such as a good meal, a comfy chair or a beautiful sunset as Bing Crosby suggested in the classic song from White Christmas, learn to ‘fall asleep counting your blessings’.
In the end, it seems it’s all about perception. What does the word above say? Look again. Does it also say something else?
Like life, it depends how you choose to view it.
If you start making positive changes to your daily habit and personal ‘system’ for living well, you will soon notice a definite upturn in your happiness and wellbeing. Repetition is the key to success, forming new neural pathways and patterns of response in the brain.
It’s good to know science now seems to confirm, you can quite literally ‘rewire your brain for optimum happiness.’