Happiness: Choice or Consequence?


Resetting your brain’s pathway to happiness

When you get up tomorrow morning, ask yourself how you want to feel for the rest of the day. Does the answer seem obvious? The question is meant to remind you that you have a choice. In his day, Abraham Lincoln anticipated this thought when he quipped that “Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.” In the past 20 years, Lincoln’s amiable folk wisdom has been proved true by researchers in the fields of neuroscience and positive psychology.

Most of us think of happiness as a consequence of some long desired achievement. “I’ll be happy when I get a good job.” “I’ll be happy when I buy my own home.” “I’ll be happy when I lose 25 pounds.” We see happiness as an outcome of action taken or perhaps just luck.

Researcher and writer Shawn Achor* has turned this reasoning inside-out. He says that happiness is the precursor to, rather than the result of success. Learning to be happy increases the likelihood of achieving personal and professional goals. While we don’t share a universal definition of happiness, we exhibit the condition through the expression of positive emotions that create pleasure, engagement, and meaning.

Can we learn to be happy?

We all started out happy as babies in a wondrous world of new experiences that we faced without biases or fears. In the process of growing up, we were influenced by people and events that gradually filtered our view of reality. As adults we have a habitual default lens through which we view the world. If that lens is always focused on negative, pessimistic thoughts, we’re missing opportunities to develop a more resilient, productive mindset.

The brain doesn’t have a reset button to take us back to an earlier stage of life, but it does have the capacity to change in response to our thoughts and behavior. We can create new neural pathways to happiness by taking mindful detours away from old, damaging habits.

Take the train, not the treadmill

Maybe it’s time to reread the children’s book, The Little Engine That Could. The little engine had the right idea: she believed in herself; she knew her strengths; she had a clear goal. She also had a realistic understanding of what she faced. Most important, she primed her brain with positive thoughts.

You’re on a fast track to happiness when you know your strengths and use them to support your values. A person dedicated to ecological causes will feel comfortable working for a company known for its anti-pollution policies. Congruence between what you believe and do contributes to happiness.

You may need to call on your mental defense attorney if there’s a negative tape that plays in your head whenever you’re approaching the outer limit of your comfort zone. Reflect on past successes, double down on your preparation, which may include taking a class or seeking a mentor to polish a needed skill. Visualize yourself succeeding in a challenge—a time-honored technique among athletes. If your thoughts originate in a negative mindset, don’t believe them; sometimes you cannot trust your brain.

Reframing how you see reality is also effective for increasing self-awareness. Are you sure you have the most boring job in the world, or are there parts of it you enjoy? Examine the tasks you don’t like and look for a different way to do them or link them to a more meaningful outcome. A customer representative in the Department of Motor Vehicles told me that she keeps a photo of her smiling grandson on her desk as a reminder of her commitment to her family. The emotional connection makes her happy, diminishes many irritations of her job, and encourages her to smile at customers.

Start the shift to the happiness mindset with a small action that suits your personality. Do what makes you feel happy: sing, call a friend, play with a pet, meditate, think about an exciting event on your calendar. Give one sincere compliment every day to a friend or even to a stranger that enables them, if only momentarily, to see the world with a rosy glow.

Identify and gradually remove the self-imposed boundaries around your expectations for your life. You will change your brain’s programming to make happiness an antidote to stress and anxiety. Happiness invites success into your life. You don’t have to wait anymore!

*Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage, © 2010

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