Editor’s Note: this article originally appeared in Planet Jackson Hole.
We now know the brain is very dynamic; it can be upgraded at any age, and it changes in response to internal training. Neuroscience has identified four brain circuits that, when activated on a regular basis, will lead to measurable increases in happiness and wellbeing. Like with other personal improvements, a heartfelt desire to be happier combined with the commitment to implementing specific practices are required for activating these four internal feel good circuits.
Being kind, thoughtful, considerate, compassionate, and helpful to others quickly produces positive changes to our brain chemistry and instantly upgrades our happiness. Generosity of spirit, thought, and action are expressions of love. They activate internal circuits designed to sustain positive emotions. This supports the evidence that we are hardwired to care for our fellow human beings and that caring for others is directly linked to our own wellbeing.
Studies have shown that practicing random acts of kindness, reaching out spontaneously to friends and strangers, extending a hand, a hug, opening a door, volunteering for causes we care about, and contributing to charities increase overall wellbeing, happiness and longevity. On a personal note, what made my day while grocery shopping earlier in the week was assisting a gentleman in a wheelchair by handing him a can of tuna he needed from a shelf beyond his reach. It was a simple, mutually uplifting act.
Savor the positive
Being grateful is the capacity to focus on and revel in what’s positive in self, in others, and in all of creation. Practicing gratitude every day opens the heart, which simultaneously reinforces this particular brain circuitry. Training your heart and brain to notice what’s right builds a radiant inner presence carried into in all of your interactions. Adopting the mantra, “My attitude is gratitude,” is a great way to practice savoring what’s right in life.
Resiliency is the ability to rapidly recover from adversity. Whether the challenge, hurt, or loss is something you’d consider large or small, feeling it fully and then allowing the energy to dissipate quickly is another key to happiness. The ability to let go, realign, and move forward returns us to happier states of being. Otherwise, holding onto hurt extends the pain long term, even for lifetimes. Think of a toddler who falls, sobs intensely, and then is easily comforted and smiles again. (I am not inviting anyone to act like a toddler… just saying.)
Three activities that support body-mind resilience are regular meditation practice, yoga and martial arts.
Mind-body-spirit synergy is so powerful when it is focused. Scientists note that when the mind has the habit of wandering it is unhappy. Focus creates a surge in happiness, inspiration and fulfillment. A Zen proverb noted: “When walking, walk. When eating, eat.”
And Steve Jobs said, “You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
Check your focus anytime by asking yourself these two questions: “What am I doing right now? Where is my mind?”
On average, 47 percent of people are not paying attention to what they are doing or whom they are with. Meditation trains the mind to minimize distractions and maximize focus. Keep in mind meditation can assume active forms like yoga, martial arts, or long distance running. More traditional forms require sitting still in silence. Discover a modality that suits you, so you will do it often.