While research shows that our brains tend to have a negativity bias (a primal self-protection instinct based on the need to be vigilant to potential threat), we are, nonetheless, hardwired for happiness. Mother Nature, in other words, has endowed us with a body that is capable of positive emotions, actions and expressions.
The science of happiness
According to research, our outlook on life and what we choose to do with our lives, accounts for about 40% of our happiness levels, with only 10% of our happiness dependent on circumstantial factors, like owning a big house or a fancy car.
That said, according to studies, happiness is thought to be determined around 50% by genetics- which means we really can thank – or blame– our parents for our tendencies to have a positive – or negative – outlook on life. However, this means we are still able to impact our own experience of happiness by whole whopping 40%. This can change a person’s life!
Research also shows that there are huge benefits to be gained from having a “happy” disposition. The happier we are, the more antibodies our bodies generate – up to 50% more, in fact. And, not only do happy people tend to be healthier, they also generally earn more than unhappy people.
The role of Positive Psychology
In fact, happiness is so important that there is even a science dedicated to its study – Positive Psychology. Positive Psychology represents a shift in focus away from the traditional therapeutic objective of relieving human suffering, to an examination of how ordinary people can become happier and more fulfilled.
In therapy, the goal is to help people change negative styles of thinking in order to help them discover and use their signature strengths, change how they feel, and learn how best to create engagement and flow in their lives. The ability to pull attention away from the chronic inner chatter of our thoughts can be advantageous to wellbeing. But how exactly do we do this, especially given the fact that we are naturally inclined to dwell on the negative?
How to train your brain
Instructions to keep a gratitude journal, to engage in acts of random kindness or to perform daily mindful meditation may echo the kind of ephemeral advice typically espoused by self-help gurus but research shows that there is, in fact, value in such practices. Through neuroscience, we now understand the immense value of neuroplasticity. By training our brains to make positive patterns more automatic, we can harness its incredible plasticity and actually alter it structurally to lessen its natural tendency to spot the negatives.
In a 2009 study on how hardwiring works, American psychologist Richard Haier found that playing a simple game of Tetris can physically grow the brain and make it more efficient. In the study, a group of adolescent girls were tasked with playing Tetris for an average of one and half hours a week over three months. Scans conducted afterwards proved that not only did the cerebral cortex of the girls’ brains grow thicker over the assigned period but also that activity in other areas of their brains had decreased compared to when they’d started. What this meant was that the girls’ brains were consuming less energy as their mastery of the game improved. As playing the game required less and less brain power, so it became an automatic action, permanently hardwired into their brains.
When something new is learned it changes the brain’s neural connections, which is the way in which the nerve cells communicate in the brain through synapses. Every time a circuit is reactivated, synaptic efficiency increases, and connections become more durable and easier to activate again, until they eventually – through much reactivation- become the default pattern of connection.
Haier called this the “Tetris Learning Effect” and its relevance to improving one’s happiness levels is documented by American educator Shawn Anchor in his bestselling book, The Happiness Advantage. According to Anchor, if something as trivial as playing a game of Tetris can have a scientifically measurable effect on our brains, then the impact of practicing and retaining a more positive thinking pattern, especially on our wellbeing and happiness, can be even more powerful.
“We can retrain the brain to scan for the good things in life – to help us see more possibility, to feel more energy, and to succeed at higher levels,” he claims.
Replacing bad habits
We overcome negative habits best by replacing them with positive habits. At its core, the Tetris Effect is about building a positive/desired habit that becomes more automatic and therefore longer lasting. As Anchor notes, “We are basically trying to find an undiscovered path that if walked once, makes us happy. The path being the synaptic connections in our brain. And then, because we enjoy it, we go along that path, hundreds and hundreds of times. Slowly a track forms and becomes very clear and easier to walk every time.” In this way a new behavior/habit becomes ingrained.
Retraining the brain, may take time, but it can be done. And even more encouraging is the fact that practices from Positive Psychology have long-term benefits. In a study conducted by US psychologist Professor Martin Seligman, a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology, people who did a “three good things” exercise for a week felt happier and less depressed after one month. The study then did three-month and six-month follow-ups. Not surprisingly, the happiest participants were the ones who had continued the practice throughout.
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