Is the secret to happiness simply to train your brain? Viv Speers explores the idea of happiness on demand
Unprovoked happiness is a real thing. And I’ll get onto that in a moment but first let’s step back a bit and put ourselves into ‘observer mode’. I use this tactic a lot as the dynamic changes hugely when we see ourselves as a 3rd party. How do you talk to yourself? I don’t mean a running commentary of sub conscious babble — which is actually quite healthy by the way — a sort of Marie Kondo for the mind. What I mean is, how many times do you congratulate yourself throughout the day versus self deprecate:
‘God, I’m so damn forgetful — I forgot it was bin night’ or ‘I’m such an idiot, I left my keys at home’.
Now, imagine stepping into the observer role and repeat the above as though you are talking to a good friend — and don’t just say it internally, say it out loud. (Live-in partners don’t count by the way — they are too close and we tend to take it out on them the same way we chastise ourselves). So, back to the good friend:
‘God, you’re so forgetful — how could you possibly forget bin night?!’ Or worse: ‘You are such an idiot leaving your keys at home!’
You just wouldn’t, would you? So, watch your negative self talk and imagine you are talking to a friend next time you are about to shoot a bullet. Show yourself the same kindness.
Then there is the self talk thats driven by our emotions. It’s super important to recognise rumination over other thoughts. It’s when we can’t let go of those sad or dark thoughts that keep going around in a circle, like a washing machine stuck on a cycle. It’s not only draining, but it’s also an element of self harm. To quote Deepak Chopra in his Metahuman book:
‘Happiness is blocked if you keep remembering and rehashing old hurts’.
Seriously — your brain just works on autopilot, responding to whatever you feed it. And you probably already know that, as humans, we are negatively wired by default — this was to keep us safe in our hunter gatherer days— but this is now only useful when we are in extreme danger. We don’t have to live inside a cynical, negative mind. We can override it. The difference is — we have the tools to do so now.
OK, so thats the dirty work understood, now let’s clean up.
The obvious thing to say here is that for every negative thought, replace it with a positive. This includes judgements — to yourself or others, don’t voice them — subjugate them.
And I dare you to look in the mirror, look into your own eyes and say to yourself: ‘I’ve got this!’ Bizarrely — even though you have lived with yourself all your life, it takes guts. But do it anyway — even if you don’t feel it. When you wake up after a bad nights sleep, don’t let your first words be negative. Try saying something like ‘I actually feel pretty good. Let’s go’. Fake it. Trust me, it’s so much better than leaning into the negative. Don’t be your own victim.
So whats all this about ‘Unprovoked Happiness’ then — and how do we get it?
Unprovoked Happiness is a term used by psychologists to explain the idea of ‘happiness on demand’. And it’s a real thing. You can induce a sense of joy — just by thinking about it. Yes, even when you feel down in the dumps.
And funnily enough, once you embody that feeling of positivity, you will increase your happiness level even more by affirming its presence…which in turn, makes you feel even happier.
You may know people who just seem so happy all the time — it seems they were born that way. And it can feel infectious when you are around them. ‘Maybe I’ll catch that happiness bug if I hang around that person long enough’. But actually, we can all bring on the feeling of happiness just by focusing on it. Even when you feel like the world and all its problems are on your shoulders and you can’t possibly imagine crawling out of the hole you are in, by pretending to be happy — you can. You can start off by faking it.
The rewards are worth it — but it takes work. You can’t be lazy. With dedicated practice, you’ll be able to access your happy mode whenever it suits you.
Recall a time when you felt really happy. It can be super simple — a belly laugh with a friend, lying in a meadow with the sun on your face, or dancing til dawn. Then close your eyes and get a sense of what that felt like in your body. Like, really feel it. Take as long as it needs, and once you get a fix on that happy feeling, lift the corners of your mouth and smile as you would have been smiling at the time. Take as long as you want with this. Don’t rush…I’ll still be here. Just come back when you’re ready.
How was that? Did you feel it in your body? Perhaps your heart felt like it was expanding, or maybe your shoulders hugged up a little towards your ears. Maybe you felt lighter for a moment, or even tearful.
What brought that feeling in, if the event wasn’t actually happening in real time? Your mind did. You did. And because your brain is so clever at working with the senses, it was able to recall the happy sensations, because it’s been here before. Now, to explain a little bit of the science behind this idea of unprovoked happiness— studies do suggest it’s possible to actually build on our serotonin levels with these happy recalls.
An article by Perreau-Linck and colleagues explains a strategy for raising brain serotonin. They measured the serotonin in the brains of healthy participants who induced positive, negative and neutral emotions through various methods. (A little like we did just now when you closed your eyes and thought of a time you felt happiness). The happy vibes correlated to positive serotonin synthesis and the sad vibes correlated with negative serotonin synthesis in the expected area of the brain — in this instance, the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) which operates cognitive functions such as emotions, empathy, impulse control and decision making. This study was the first to find that self induced changes in mood can affect our serotonin levels.
Which is freaking awesome, right? So to reiterate, it IS possible to bring happiness into your life without having to wait for an event, or to win the lottery. This is the kind of information that makes me want to share with you.
We don’t have to be victims of circumstance, any more than we need to be victims of our genes. How we see the world is the only thing that separates us. My story is no more real than your story. And we can change our perceptions — and therefore our stories — through conscious thought and action, anytime we like.
And it’s great that science can validate these findings. To me, that’s a ticket to ride.