Happiness is a Skill

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. These ideals are part of the very fabric of American life, written even into our Constitution. But maybe the Founding Fathers should have clarified what they meant about happiness, because it seems as a nation we have gotten caught up in the pursuit of happiness, rather than finding happiness where we always are: in the present moment.

For many of us, real happiness is a fleeting phenomenon. It always seems to be just around the next corner, in the next promotion, a new house, a new car, or even a new partner. We think that acquiring something new and better will bring contentment, but usually it doesn’t work. After the novelty of newness wears off, life returns to a baseline and we crave the next new thing.

Life is full of ups and downs. You can choose to BE happy.

Life is full of ups and downs. You can choose to be happy.

Some new studies are showing that there is another way to find lasting happiness. Instead of trying to find happiness as the direct result of something, you can focus on simply being happy and success will follow. We can actually reshape how the brain responds to the everyday environment through neuroplasticity, a concept that is gaining momentum in the scientific community and that has practical applications for all of us. You can change your perception simply by paying more attention to what is working right instead of constantly worrying about what is wrong.

Many years ago I was at a party and someone asked how I was doing. I started into a whole laundry list of everything that was going wrong in my life, but the other person just held up their hand and said, “No, I don’t acknowledge any of that.” I was shocked. But after the bruise to my ego healed I could see that they actually were happy. It was like they’d put up an umbrella against the dark cloud I’d been carrying around with me.

I’ve been trying to experiment with this in social settings by opening the conversation with something positive, or by putting a new spin on the facts. Instead of, “I’m stuck, nothing’s working,” I might try, “Wow, there is so much abundance in my life. I have so many choices and I feel overwhelmed trying to make sense of them all. It’s exciting being in the unknown!” It seems to change the whole tone of the encounter, and now science is backing up this effect.

By treating people kindly, happiness can actually be spread. Neurons that fire together, wire together, is how neuroplasticity is often explained. Changes in mood among one person are contagious in social settings, such as in an office environment. These changes are communicated by mirror neurons, which capture the perceived emotions of others.  If a room contains happy and unhappy people, those most expressive of emotions will have the most influence. Mirror neurons will most strongly pick up their emotions.

Over a longer term, practicing an appreciation for what’s good can rewire the brain to a more optimistic outlook. Just as harmful events and stress can cause anti-social changes in the brain, a positive environment can rewire the brain to promote pro-social behavior and well-being.

So don’t worry, be happy! And Happy Independence Day to all my US readers!

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