12 steps to happiness
How happy are you feeling in your life at the moment? Would you love to know how to keep your mood up even when faced with difficult situations? There is no doubt that events and situations happen from time to time that challenge the level of calm and joy you feel in life. The latest in neuroscience research, however, is showing you may have far more control over your happiness than was previously thought. You can increase the “feel good” chemicals circulating in your brain and start feeling more energised, motivated and inspired about your life.
The key “happy chemicals” that regulate and boost your mood are dopamine, serotonin, endorphin and norepinephrine. While each of these chemicals affect your mood differently, they each play a part in how happy or unhappy you feel. When they are low they can contribute to low mood and have been associated with depression and anxiety, according to Dr Wendy Suzuki in her book Healthy Brain, Happy Life.
The power of happiness
The benefits of feeling happier in your life extend far beyond just feeling good. Research is discovering that happiness improves your cognitive abilities and often leads to greater success. In his book The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor explains that traditionally it was believed that success led to happiness, but the reverse is actually true. He says, “We now know that happiness is the precursor to success, not merely the result.”
So how can you “wire” your brain for happiness and start feeling and thinking your way to greater calm, joy and achievement? Using these 12 behaviour and mindset tips you can uncover the “science of happiness” and start feeling more in control of your mood and experience of life.
12 happiness boosters
Adopt a “solution mindset”
When you are faced with challenges, it’s easy to get caught up in a “problem mindset”. What you focus on magnifies. When you focus solely on your problems that is all you will be able to see. Getting stuck in your problems greatly impacts your level of happiness. You can, however, shift into a “solution mindset” by consciously choosing to engage your brain’s prefrontal cortex.
Your prefrontal cortex is, “That uniquely human part of the brain that governs ‘executive functions’ such as problem-solving, maintaining attention and inhibiting emotional impulses,” explains John Medina in his book Brain Rules.
Research is discovering that happiness improves your cognitive abilities and often leads to greater success.
When you catch yourself feeling unhappy you can challenge your thoughts and worst-case scenarios by re-framing the situation. You can adopt a solution mindset by asking yourself, “What if everything went well?” “How have I managed in the past?” “How can I draw on those skills now?” “What are five possible ways I could solve this problem?”
By consciously “shifting gears” you will be able to “re-program” how you think, how you see a situation, what options are available to you and ultimately what actions you choose to take in your life. By challenging your brain to focus on solutions, you re-gain an essential element that is important in the feeling of happiness: control.
It can be tricky to move to a “solution mindset” when you are feeling stressed and unhappy. When you are stuck in a “problem mindset” you are often too “close” to see or think objectively.
When you can view your challenges from outside of your own mind, your brain can go to work and start thinking more analytically, instead of getting caught up in an emotional “loop” of negative thinking.
By putting your thoughts down on pape, you can break the “closeness” you feel to your problems. Actually seeing your problems will allow you to be far more objective, placing you in a position to think more clearly and find solutions.
The latest in neuroscience is now revealing that multitasking is not only inefficient but exhausts the brain, writes Sandra Bond Chapman in Make Your Brain Smarter.
An exhausted brain is not a happy brain. The more exhausted your brain becomes, the less able you are to think clearly. Not thinking clearly makes it more likely you will make unwise decisions and increase the level of stress you are feeling in your life.
Overwhelm is exhausting and stops you from being productive, both of which affect your mood and happiness. Consider your day-to-day habits: could you “de-clutter” some of the actions that take up brainpower but aren’t productive or enjoyable? Could you commit to staying focused just on one task for short periods of time instead of multitasking?
Create “tick-able” goals
How you structure your day and week also contributes to how happy or unhappy you might be feeling. If you set massive goals with no clear “bite-size” action steps, you set yourself up for further overwhelm and frustration.
Focusing on what still needs to be done and not on what has been accomplished can be exhausting and can chip away at your happiness.
Your brain loves ticking off goals, releasing dopamine and activating your brain’s reward centre in the process. You limit your level of happiness if you don’t set “tick-able” goals that you can accomplish each day. You miss out on the “buzz” you get from being productive and the boost of motivation and energy that comes when your reward centre is engaged.
Break down your goals and tasks into smaller “tick-able” actions you know you can do each day. Write your daily goals up on a chart and physically tick them off and begin to notice how good it feels to be productive and to see progress.
Create your own “feel good” checklist
When stress and sadness kicks in, it’s amazing how easy it is to forget the small actions that restore your mood and give you a more positive outlook on life. Your brain needs to be engaging in pleasurable activities to feel good.
When you do things you love your brain gets a hit of dopamine, contributing to your happiness and sense of wellbeing. Do you know what makes you happy? When I ask people this question their answers are always beautifully simple: time with family, a swim by the ocean, listening to music, a bushwalk.
Develop your own “Feel Good” Checklist to use when you feel your mood and mindset drop to ensure your “happiness tank” stays full. Plan for happiness by scheduling in time to do more of the simple things that light you up.
When you train your brain to see all the goodness in your life, you become more and more aware of everything around you that you could be grateful for. This increased awareness of all the good in your life has a positive flow on effect on mood.
According to Achor, “Studies have shown that consistently grateful people are more energetic, emotionally intelligent, forgiving and less likely to be depressed, anxious or lonely.” Each day, challenge yourself to think of at least three things you can be thankful for and establish a new habit of gratitude in your life.
A study done at the University of Oregon in the US showed, as Suzuki explains, that “when people gave money to a charity on their own, it activated the same reward circuit as getting the money themselves. This is neuroscientific proof that giving is as rewarding as getting … [that] generosity is rewarding and good for the brain.”
When you do things you love, your brain gets a hit of dopamine, contributing to your happiness and sense of wellbeing.
Being too “inward” looking is often not very healthy and keeps you stuck in a “problem mindset”. Getting outside of your own head and your own problems to consider and help others, however, is yet another powerful way you can gain perspective and greater happiness. What is one way you could give of your skills, money or resources to help someone else out in the next few weeks?
Getting out of your own head boosts happiness as does getting up and moving your body. Stress is one of the main reasons people struggle to feel as happy as they would like and exercise is a fantastic natural stress-buster. John Arden in his book Re-Wire Your Brain writes, “Exercise relaxes the resting tension of muscle spindles, and this breaks the stress-feedback loop to the brain.”
Exercise does even more than just reduce stress; it’s also a great natural mood enhancer. Suzuki explains that, “Exercise enhances mood by increasing brain levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, as well as increasing levels of the neurohormone endorphin.” Getting more endorphins is definitely a good thing, as they are the body’s natural “morphine”, with the ability to “dull pain and provide feelings of euphoria”, says Suzuki.
By moving your body more, you can shift negative emotions and start to feel more positive about your life, while also building strength and vitality into your body and investing in your long-term health.
Eat for a happy brain
Use your diet to make sure you are getting all the nutrients you need to feel great. “The biochemistry of your brain is dependent on obtaining specific nutrients from your diet,” says Arden. He outlines a few key foods you can include in your diet to boost your “happy chemicals”, including fresh fruit and vegetables, avocado, eggs, seeds, white meat, fish, wheat and oats, nuts, milk, yoghurt and soybeans.
There also appears to be a link between mood and sugar, with depression being associated with high sugar consumption, says Arden. He goes on to state that, “High sugar intake is bad for your brain and results in significant impairment of your ability to think clearly, maintain even moods and behave effectively in a social situation.” He concludes, “Keeping your blood sugar balanced and sustained is therefore critical for your brain to operate optimally.”
Being conscious of eating a healthy, balanced diet, while minimising the consumption of sugar, will allow your brain to operate optimally and keep the biochemistry in your brain happy and balanced.
Catch up on your “zzzs”
If you have ever missed a few good nights of sleep, you would know how different the world starts to look … and not for the better. As Medina says, “Sleep loss means mind loss.” You need good rest and sleep to think and feel your best. Medina explains that sleep loss affects attention, memory, mood and the ability to reason and think clearly.
Not getting enough sleep also raises your cortisol levels and plays havoc with your appetite and cravings. Arden explains that, “Sleep deprivation can lead to weight gain, even after just one week, because of an increase in the production of the hormone, ghrelin, which promotes appetite and food intake. Simultaneously, there is a decline in the production of the hormone leptin, which curbs appetite.”
Getting outside of your own head and your own problems to consider and help others, however, is yet another powerful way you can gain perspective and greater happiness.
This wouldn’t be quite such bad news if what you craved when sleep deprived wasn’t food you should avoid. As Arden says, “The increase in appetite associated with sleep loss tends to be for starchy, high-carbohydrate foods, sweets and other high-calorie foods.” Prioritising rest and sleep is crucial not only for your happiness and cognitive ability but also for your weight management and long-term health and wellness.
Get out of your rut
Have you ever been stuck in a rut and felt “flat” and uninspired? Unhappiness can also be caused by a lack of any new and exciting challenges in your life. In her article Novelty and the Brain: Why New Things Make Us Feel So Good, writer Belle Beth Cooper says, “The brain reacts to novelty by releasing dopamine which makes us want to go exploring in search of a reward.”
Your brain thrives on newness and you miss out on these “feel good” chemicals when you get stuck in ruts, both in your habits and thoughts. Mix things up and say yes to opportunities and experiences that are new and intriguing. What could you do in the next month to get out of your comfort zone and try something new?
Celebrate your success
Do you rush through your life, forgetting to pause and celebrate your successes and achievements? I work with a lot of busy high-achievers and I constantly see them move from one success right into the next challenge. They don’t take a moment to acknowledge and celebrate their successes along the way.
What this habit does is shift your focus away from the happiness of achievement and towards the stress and pressure of problem solving. This constant focusing on what still needs to be done and not on what has been accomplished can be exhausting and can chip away at your happiness. Take time out to celebrate all your successes, big and small.
You can influence how you experience your life by taking conscious action to boost the “feel good” chemicals in your brain. By actively choosing your mindset, what you are focusing on, how much you are moving your body, what you are eating and how you are engaging in the world, you can “wire” your brain to be happier, healthier and more successful.
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