“Happy, happy, happy.”
This is what a homeless person chanted like a mantra, while holding a poster with those same words, to the students who entered Sproul Plaza of UC Berkeley.
When I first saw him, I was an undergraduate and was half amused and half bewildered by him, but now I say thank you to this man who reminds me to feel happy daily. In this tiresome and painful life, those positive reminders are a source of brightness.
Happiness springs from within our hearts and minds and is not given to us from the outside.
Even though there are external things occurring that affect us, we have the power to choose how we feel. We are responsible for our own emotions.
I remember a therapist saying to me that no matter how much I try to blame others for feeling bad, I am responsible for my own emotions. This comes from a Western psychology perspective, but I link it to Buddhism which states that we, ourselves, are the creators of the world. Meaning: our minds within our bodies create our worlds; for better or for worse, it is up to us.
Whether we learn this from a Western or Eastern perspective is unimportant, as we aim to find the same thing—a solution to our suffering.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D. wrote Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, which explains how our biological brains and our minds are connected in communication, and that it’s a two-way street. This gives me hope that we are not our thoughts or feelings—we have some control over shaping our brains, which sets us up for what kind of subsequent thoughts and feelings we have.
Hanson supports, through science, that what we think reinforces the physiology of our brains. Hanson states that our core needs are safety, satisfaction, and connection. We do not have to ignore or deny the negative feelings/thoughts, but we can see them for what they are, name them (feeling unloved, lonely), and then train our brains to acknowledge the positive feelings we have, such as when we notice a blue sky. We can consciously direct our attention to those positive things because we know they’re healthier for us, as opposed to dwelling on the negative things outside our control, and thus feeling helpless.
The way to hardwire our happiness is done through four steps of HEAL:
H: Have a positive experience.
E: Enrich it—Enriching a positive experience can be done via these factors: duration, intensity, multi-modality, novelty and personal relevance. When any of these factors are increased, the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine increase, forming new synapses, which transport messages in our brains. In other words, there are more accessible avenues for the feelings, which leads to a quicker response and therefore reinforces the good stuff in our brains. On the flip side, when we have a negative experience and enrich that, the stress hormone cortisol increases which weakens and kills our neurons in the hippocampus, the site for memory—which makes it harder to give our positive experiences something to latch on.
A: Absorb it.
L: Link the positive and negative material so that the positive soothes and even replaces the negative—See and hold these contradictions in mind at once. Don’t allow yourself to get hijacked by the negative material. Keep the positive material more prominent in your mind.
Some antidote/contradictory experiences are:
Feeling okay now versus anxiety
Ease versus irritability
Gladness/gratitude versus sadness/anger
Connection versus separation
Feeling loved versus feeling hurt
Worthiness versus inadequacy
Motivation versus feeling stuck
We have many positive experiences throughout the day. The downside is that our survival instinct tends to focus on the negative material and leaves us feeling crummy.
We can train our brains to see the positive and let it soak in. Something as simple as seeing a chubby, healthy baby and taking a deep breath, letting the image sink in to the grooves of our brain, can do a lot of good for us. We have to enjoy these positive experiences, paying as much attention as we do when enjoying a tasty meal.
“Happy, happy, happy” is a mental exercise I try to cultivate daily. It’s an ongoing, but worthwhile practice. I am grateful for all the reminders I’ve received over the course of 20 years and while traveling up and down California—from the homeless person, my therapist, Rick Hanson, Ph.D., the Buddha—who have pointed out that happiness is already accessible within myself.
Author: Stephanie Lee
Image: via heartshoelace on Imgur
Editors: Catherine Monkman; Emily Bartran