Hijack your Brain for Happiness

The human brain has an annoying feature that can barricade our path to experiencing more happiness. It's called the negativity bias, and it is our brain's default mode.

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The negativity bias causes negative experiences to be "stickier," and we remember them or pay attention to them more often than positive experiences. Do you remember the last time you went out for dinner? It may have been a great meal with great people, but the server forgot to bring your lemon water. Now all you remember is how the dinner would have been so much better if only you had your lemon water.

Because of the negativity bias, humans tend to pay more attention to negative emotions. But just because this is our brain's default mode, it doesn't mean we can't override it! We can increase our "net" positivity by paying more attention to positive experiences and less attention to negative interactions. Now, this does not mean avoiding negative feelings or difficult situations, which ultimately results in greater unhappiness.

I remember when a co-worker criticized my work several years ago behind my back to our boss. Instead of talking to her about it, I unfriended her on Facebook and complained about her to my husband. I never did address the situation, and despite all the good times we had together when I think about her now, years later, the backstabbing incident is the first thing that comes to mind. But it was me who didn't take the time to get the full story or even hear her side of the situation.

Negative emotions give us important feedback about ourselves and how we behave in certain circumstances. With this information, we can accept and work through our negative feelings faster and in turn, build resilience, compassion, and experience higher well being. Avoiding negative emotions leads to an increase in stress and anxiety and decreased physical health. Happy people have a wide range of emotions. They are just better at not getting stuck or ruminating in negativity.

Counteracting the negativity bias is possible, but it takes consistent practice. Here are a few ways to override the negative circuitry and pay more attention to the goodness that comes our way:

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  1. Prioritize positivity. What makes you happy? What activities do you love doing? What do you wish you had more time for? Are you spending more time cleaning the house or visiting with friends? So often we spend our day doing the stuff we tell ourselves we "have" to do and not what we want to do. Carve out time in your week to do the things you genuinely love.

  2. Adopt a curious mindset. When someone or something upsets you, take a few moments to be curious about the situation instead of automatically reacting. Be curious about why the situation is triggering. Do you know all the information? Are you filling in the blanks with your own story? When we look at the big picture, it helps us regulate our emotions better, which in turn increases our resiliency.

  3. Practice gratitude. Do you tend to look at life through the lens of scarcity or abundance? Identify and pay attention to the plenty of good things in our everyday life, instead of just recognizing the injustices that you perceive have been committed against you. By doing this, we build up our positive interactions and emotions which can help disrupt or minimize the negativity bias. The more you can adopt an attitude of gratitude, the easier it becomes to identify happy moments throughout the day and in turn, amplify the positive emotions associated with them.

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Even by having the awareness that our brain's default mechanism is to pay more attention to negativity, we can be more conscious of the idea that we can hijack our mind. As we pay more attention to positive interactions and experiences, we build resilience, compassion, gratitude, joy, and happiness.

Are you chasing happiness away?

hap・pi・ness - a state of positive well-being

Up until 3 years ago, I would have considered myself happy. Not thriving, but content.

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Then a series of traumatic events began to unfold. First, my beloved bulldog died after a family camping trip. Seven months later, my Dad suddenly and unexpectedly passed away at my parents’ cabin. Five months after that I quit my 15 year career with the police. I descended into hopelessness and was desperate to climb out.

Without having the proper tools to ascend or even identify what I was feeling after this string of events, I mistakenly identified my grief as unhappiness. I longed to feel happy and content once again. I joined the self-care movement. I took courses on meditation and the science of happiness. I was determined to chase down happiness and grab on as tightly as I could.

In one of my desperate attempts to harness happiness I signed up for a certification course in applied positive psychology. I figured if I could learn scientifically proven methods that lead to happiness, I would most definitely be happy. If there was an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) to happiness, I could follow it.

On the first day of my course I learned the most important rule in positive psychology: The more you chase happiness, the more unhappy you become.

Happy people don’t chase happiness.

Research actually shows that those of us who strive to feel happy all the time are destined to suffer. Being happy doesn’t mean avoiding negative emotions or events. It’s actually quite the opposite. The key is learning to process the negative emotions, express them at the right time and not get stuck in them. Learning skills and utilizing tools to work through negative emotions is key to building resilience and cultivating more positive emotions.

The first step for me was to identify that grief is not unhappiness and feeling sadness, anger and frustration was justified. The second step was to show myself some love and compassion. I just went through some seriously sad events and instead of avoiding the sadness, I needed to feel it. Lucky for me, I have amazing friends who are willing to listen and share a box of tissue with me.

There is no secret to happiness or 10 step program to guarantee it. But there are some things you can do everyday to bring more positivity into your life:

  • Connection. Research shows that social connection is a factor that always predicts happiness. Happy people have good relationships. If fact, studies show that when people are excluded or isolated, the areas of the brain that are activated are the same areas when we feel physical pain. Spend more time with the people that uplift you and less time with those who drain you.

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  • Gratitude. Having a grateful mindset predicts greater happiness, life satisfaction and optimism. Robert Emmons stated that the more you move to a grateful mindset, it’s almost physically impossible to be anxious or depressed.

  • Mindfulness. Being mindful refers to focusing our awareness to the present moment without judgement. Data Matt Killingsworth’s project trackyourhappiness.org found that people are less happy when their minds are wandering (ie. not being in the present moment). When we focus our mind to the present moment, we are less impulsive and better able to handle our emotions.

Negative emotions are part of life and we can’t avoid or run from them in the pursuit of happiness. Prioritizing positivity on a daily basis and carving out time to do more of what we love, while working through the parts we don’t love, will put us on the path to greater happiness.

Why Screen-Free Week May Be Exactly What We Need

From April 30 to May 6, North Americans will be experiencing life beyond their screens.

Screen-free week initially started as TV-Turnoff week in 1994 by the creators of the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood. The founders of the program saw the benefit of a digital detox to reassess the role that screen media plays in children’s lives.

Today, the average teenager (and their parent) spends 9 hours a day in front of a screen. Tweens spend 6 hours a day and preschoolers spend as much as 4.5 hours every day looking at a screen.

So how is all this time spent engaged with digital technology effecting us? Screen time for young children is linked to speech delays and the inability to regulate emotions. An Alberta study examining how digital technology is impacting children found that students are more distracted, have a difficult time focusing and are coming to school tired. A recent study involving participants aged 19-32 showed that social media use was significantly associated with depression and multiple studies have demonstrated a link between problematic smartphone use and anxiety.  

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The more we engage with screens, the harder it is to disengage with them. Without giving ourselves a break and unplugging, we are essentially just strengthening the need to be constantly plugged in.

If you have never given yourself the gift of a digital detox, let Screen-free week be the catalyst. Reduce screen time and allow yourself and your kids to be “bored”. It will spark your imagination, ignite creative ideas, promote deep thinking and strengthen your connections with each other.

Before you start, take inventory of your family’s screen time and a mindful approach to how it may be affecting you. If you feel like a week without screens is just not possible, break it down into manageable pieces. Try eliminating screens from 4-8pm every day or going the week without social media. Whatever digital detox means to you, let this be a spark to live beyond the screen and fully engage in life!

A life looking into your phone is not a life
— Michelle Obama
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