Think Yourself Happy
Seven Ways to Change Your Mind and Be Happier
by Ronica O’Hara
What is happiness? Aristotle pondered it, our country’s founders encouraged its pursuit, but only now—thanks to the thriving field of Positive Psychology—have we learned more precisely how to attain and sustain it. In thousands of studies in the last two decades, researchers have watched babies share crackers, put Tibetan monks in brain scanners, asked college students to do kind deeds and explored databases, among other strategies. A major finding has emerged: Happiness is, to a great degree, in our own hands—or more exactly, our own minds.
“You get to choose,” says trailblazing researcher Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity and Love 2.0 and a professor at the University of North Carolina. “No matter where your river of emotions flows today, over time and with continued effort and attention, you can change its course and location to live a happier, more positive life.” Using advanced brain imaging technology, neuroscientists and psychologists have discovered that the brain is “plastic” and malleable. When we change our thinking and actions in positive ways, brain neurons start rewiring themselves to make newfound happiness settle in, especially if our practices are repetitive.
“Interestingly, changes can start quite quickly,” says neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, who has authored 10 books on the brain, emotions and spirituality, including Words Can Change Your Brain. “For those changes to become more fully ingrained, it can take a few months, but it does not necessarily require hours a day for many years.”
A change in thinking shifted the behavior and life of John Peterson, a sales manager at a major West Coast auto retailer and editor of SafeDriveGear.com. “I was unhappy and miserable, so I decided to give gratitude a shot,” he recalls. “It was mechanical to start, but the reactions I got turned into a domino effect.” Instead of giving cursory thanks, he praised a co-worker’s kindness in handing him a daily cup of coffee; now they chat about their families. Instead of “keeping myself to myself,” he offered to help a neighbor he barely knew to clean gutters; now they’re “barbecue besties,” he says, adding, “I was kind of blown away at the incredible effect gratitude had on my life, both in improving my mental health and boosting my relationships. It was a real revelation to me!”
Positive psychologists offer two major approaches: adopting habits that encourage happiness and clearing away the mental debris that blocks it. Many books and websites offer a wide range of theories, techniques and tips. “The most effective practices for you are the ones that you enjoy and are willing to do more often,” says Tchiki Davis, Ph.D., a Psychology Today blogger and founder of The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. The following are research-based methods to enhance happiness:
1. Aim for a three-to-one ratio of positive to negative experiences
The difference between languishing and flourishing, says Fredrickson in her book Positivity, is constructing a life in which heartfelt positive experiences outnumber the negatives by three to one. Positive experiences that flow from feelings such as gratitude, serenity, hope, awe and love can be as simple as exchanging smiles with a passerby, patting a friend on the back, joking with a cashier, picking up something that someone has dropped or planting a kiss on a son’s head. She emphasizes that the experiences must be authentic and heartfelt: acting “Pollyanna-ish” out of habit or pasting on a smile can actually make us feel worse, and positivity can turn toxic if it’s relentlessly turned on 100 percent of the time. “True happiness is not rigid and unchanging,” she says.
When it comes to marriage, five positive interactions for every negative one is the “magic ratio” that makes it happy and stable, according to studies by renowned relationship psychologist John Gottman, author of What Makes Love Last. “Successful long-term relationships are created through small words, small gestures and small acts,” he writes.
2. Flip negativity by reframing experiences
Positive reframing involves shifting misery-making thinking to see the positive side of any situation. Canadian researchers reported in a 340-person survey at APA PsycNet that during the pandemic, reframing was the most effective mental health strategy; people practicing it gradually felt better, while people that vented, distracted themselves or disengaged from others fared worse. Reframing strategies include viewing a problem as a challenge, a learning opportunity or a way to help others; finding the higher purpose or divine order in a bad situation; exploring what the unexpected benefits might be; and finding humor in a situation.
3. Defuse the inner critic with caring self-talk
Berating ourselves for our shortcomings is a sure route to suffering, but applying self-compassion powerfully lowers the volume. It involves three elements: treating ourselves as kindly as we would a dear friend; realizing that making mistakes is intrinsically human so we’re not alone; and non-judgmentally facing our emotions without denying or indulging them, according to its major theorist, psychologist Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. Numerous studies show that people that practice self-compassion have less self-doubt and fewer negative thoughts, are less likely to feel anxious or depressed, enjoy better health and relationships and are more resilient and motivated to change.
Another way to handle the inner critic is to transform it by befriending and chatting with it, a method used in voice dialogue therapy and in the Internal Family Systems approach. Jackie Graybill, a Seattle songwriter and piano teacher, calls her “mean girl” inner critic Brutista Dynasticus. “I’ll find myself responding to an inner thought like, ‘You look fat. Just how much weight have you gained over COVID?!’ with a recognition like, ‘Oh, Brutista, that wasn’t very nice. I may have some extra pounds, but this healthy body has gotten me through a freaking pandemic! Show a little respect, okay?’ This quiets her down because I’ve recognized her and addressed her, and I feel an inner sense of victory because I’ve brought a positive truth to bear. It’s a very empowering practice.”
4. Clear away pain by questioning assumptions
Of our estimated 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day, about 80 percent are negative and 95 percent are repetitive, says the National Science Foundation. Those noisy mental loops dampen our spirits by repetitively telling us that something regretful should not have happened in the past or is going to happen to blight the future. Few worries have real credence: A Cornell University study found that 85 percent of what people worry about never happens. Of the 15 percent of worries that did happen, 79 percent of people found they handled the problem better than they had expected or that they learned a valuable lesson from it. Cognitive behavioral therapists help clients to examine those beliefs and assumptions, challenge the dysfunctional ones and try out different interpretations to uncover the truth.
Victor Blue, a Tampa transportation engineer, examined his difficult relationship with a tyrannical father by asking himself two questions that spiritual teacher and author Byron Katie suggests applying to any painful thought: “Is it true? Can you absolutely know it’s true?” Self-inquiring deeply, Blue realized he had a distorted view: His father had in fact loved him, but had lacked the capacity to show it with warmth or tenderness. “My father started with very little and saw a tough world and treated everyone tough,” he says. “And I came to realize that yes, I am able to father myself.”
5. Open the heart by deepening gratitude
Perhaps the most popular and direct approach to happiness is gratitude. Research shows that feeling and expressing thankfulness significantly boosts emotional well-being, makes us feel more connected and generous to others, and improves health and sleep quality. In one study, writing a few sentences of gratitude once per week for 10 weeks increased optimism and hope in participants; they even exercised more and had fewer doctor visits than those writing about aggravations. Writing a thank-you letter to someone we haven’t appreciated enough in the past can induce a sense of well-being that lasts for at least six months, a University of Pennsylvania study found.
Gratitude can be cultivated simply by daily journaling; writing a list every few days often works even better, research indicates. The more concrete the items are and the more freshly observed, the better: Rather than, “I’m grateful for my daughter,” it might be, “I’m grateful for my daughter because she made me laugh at breakfast by making a funny face.”
Some people kick off their day by writing two thank-you emails; others find creative ways to fold gratitude into relationships. During the pandemic, Nadia Charif, a San Jose-based wellness and health advisor at Coffeeble.com, shared with her boyfriend a note-taking phone app in which they wrote the ways they appreciated each other during the day. “Somehow, no matter how frayed our nerves were, we remembered the last lovely entry and melted like ice to water,” she says. “It diffused many arguments before they escalated.”
6. Quiet the noisy mind with meditation, prayer and mindfulness
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, Newberg and other neuroscientists studied meditating Buddhist monks, prayerful Catholic nuns and mindfulness meditators. They found that each practice has its own distinctive pattern of brain activity, yet all three deactivate the brain regions that underlie mind chatter. That “default mode network” is constantly ruminating, nagging and making sure we avoid trouble. Sustained spiritual practices gradually turn down its everyday volume, which may explain in part the well-documented link between spiritual practices and well-being. Even brief meditations can have a quieting effect, counsels New York City psychologist and mindfulness teacher Loch Kelly, author of Shift into Freedom. In a quiet moment, he suggests, “Ask yourself, ‘What is here right now if there is no problem to solve?’”
7. Lift up others with a positive outlook
The more we give with a full heart, the more happiness we experience, studies show—and the benefits radiate far beyond ourselves. Following nearly 5,000 people over 20 years, Harvard researchers found that one person’s happiness triggers a chain reaction up to three degrees away, lifting the spirits not only of friends, but friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ friends. Effects can last up to one year. It’s a vital way to help the world, says Fredrickson. “The happiness that you experience together with others has ripple effects, both biological and behavioral, that make whole communities healthier.”
Health writer Ronica O’Hara can be reached at OHaraRonica@gmail.com.
Besides using mental strategies, choosing happiness involves taking daily actions that enhance our well-being, as studies demonstrate.
Eat a happy-making diet
A gut-wisdom axis may exist. People with a greater diversity of the gut microbiome—the mark of a healthy diet—had higher levels of wisdom, compassion and social support, and lower levels of loneliness than people with less diverse microbiomes, University of California San Diego scientists reported in Frontiers in Psychiatry. A study of 12,000 Australians found that the more they increased their fruit and vegetable intake over a seven-year period, the happier and more satisfied with life they became. Eating eight servings a day was as happiness-producing as going from being unemployed to employed.
Exercise even a little
Whether it’s lunges or sun salutations, movement lifts us up. In a review of 23 published studies involving half a million people published in The Journal of Happiness Studies, University of Michigan researchers found strong evidence that any kind of exercise increases happiness; even as little as 10 minutes a day raises spirits. People that exercise at least 30 minutes on most days are about 30 percent happier than those that don’t exercise.
Go for the doze
Surveys show that getting enough sleep is the most influential factor in how people rate their daily mood, with good sleepers more likely to rate their life as happier overall. A University of California, Berkeley, study found that inadequate sleep makes our brains 60 percent more reactive to negative stimuli; in other words, being tired makes us grouchy.
Love a lot
A landmark study that began in 1938 and followed 724 Harvard students and working-class Boston youth for 80 years found that fame and achievements didn’t make them truly happy—warm, loving relationships with their family, friends and community did. In a 2020 study, Pennsylvania State University researchers found that simply becoming aware of daily experiences of “felt love”, defined as “micro-moments when you experience resonance with someone,” increases those heartwarming episodes and improves well-being.
Do good deeds
Performing five acts of kindness one day a week, such as helping a friend with a task, writing a thank-you email or donating blood, had a more powerful and long-lasting effect on college students’ happiness than spreading five good deeds over a week, reports University of California, Riverside, researchers. A four-year study of 13,000 retirees found that those volunteering more than two hours per week were happier, more optimistic and less lonely and depressed than people that never volunteered.]
Be nurtured by nature
After walking in a natural setting, people ruminated less and showed increased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that lowers depression and anxiety, Stanford researchers found. In one study, people watching five minutes of Planet Earth felt 46 percent more awe and 31 percent more gratitude than people watching the news or a comedy show. Biological diversity also matters: European scientists found that an additional 10 percent of bird species in an area increases residents’ life enjoyment as much as a 10 percent increase in their income.