by Kate Collins
Quick quiz! Answer this question without thinking about it: Are you happy?
If the first word out of your mouth was “Yes!”, then lucky you!
Happy People are more optimistic, have stronger immune systems, decreased pain and chronic disease, less stress, and lower risk of heart disease, lower levels of inflammatory gene expression and stronger antiviral and antibody responses.
However, if you hesitated or said something on the order of “I wish!” then lucky you! There’s good news ahead, because you have far more control over your brain than you think.
In his book The Emotional Life of Your Brain, Davidson, Ph.D., suggests you can rewire your brain to become more optimistic—and that promotes health in the rest of your body.
For example, if you have a history of anxiety, your neural pathways have become wired for anxiety. But if you develop ways to feel a sense of calm and peace, those anxiety pathways are pruned away from lack of activity. Basically, it’s a use it or lose it thing.
But your brain's ability to rewire itself, known as brain plasticity, is not just controlled by your thoughts and emotions. It’s also controlled by your diet, and lifestyle choices, including exercise.
Here are strategies to become happier.
• Surround yourself with reminders of happy times, such as photos or mementos.
• Develop an attitude of gratitude and express it daily.
• Complement people on things you like or appreciate about them. Make it a habit to say something kind to one person a day. Their happiness will make you happier.
• Practice mindfulness. Live in the moment. If you’re living in the past or focusing on the future, you’re not present in the here and now, and those moments are gone forever.
• Take at least five minutes to sit in silence and listen to the sounds around you. This is an easy way to meditate. If you focus on the sounds, really THINK about the sounds, you can’t worry or feel sad because you can’t hold two thoughts in your head at the same time. You can also listen to music, pay attention to the tones, the rhythms, and the beat, and breathe deeply with it.
• Exercise! Get up on your feet and move at least once every hour you sit. In addition, do stretches, take a walk, enroll in a yoga or strength training class, ride a bike – just being out in nature will improve your mood.
• Eat right. You know what makes you feel sluggish, bloated, and regretful, so stay away from it. There is a ton of information about incorporating greens into your diet, which are not only superfoods for your body, but also for your brain and skin. Make your brain happy! Look younger! Eat lots of greens.
• Schedule play time. Whatever that means to you, do it. Just planning it will brighten your mood.
• Get plenty of sleep. Lack of sleep doesn’t just make you crabby, it affects your immune system and thoughts. So make your room light proof. Light disrupts melatonin production, and that will wake you up. Keep electronics away from your head. Cool your room down. If your brain is warm, it’s active. You want it to go to sleep, so turn down the heat, open the windows, turn on the A/C, whatever it takes to be cool.
• Smile. A smile actually releases feel-good hormones in your brain.
• Tell your image in the mirror that you are happy. Brains are computers that record and spit back what’s said to them. If you tell it you’re happy, it will respond by finding things to be happy about. Try it!
Please realize that the more you practice being happy, the happier you’ll become, because new neural pathways will form in response to your efforts. At the same time, your brain will undergo "synaptic pruning"—eliminating pathways you no longer need.
So next time you see a happy person and think, “I wish I could be more like her/him,” you can. Isn’t that great news?