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Do These 5 Things to Help Train Your Brain to Be Happier

Turns out, we actually MIGHT be able to control our moods and spirits.

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Image of a happy flower pot with yellow blooms swinging in a blue sky
Margeaux Walter
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Years ago, after my husband died, I was dating a man who had also recently lost his spouse. We both had young children at the time and were struggling to navigate a world neither of us had imagined. One night, he looked at me and said, “I believe it’s possible to choose happiness.” The relationship didn’t last, but the notion that happiness is a choice did.

Let me be clear. I hate it when people tell me to smile. I have no interest in the kind of phony happiness that requires a state of constant denial. But I do believe that while life is filled with challenges, we have agency to control how we react to what comes our way. That’s not just me being a cock-eyed optimist. Research shows that it may be possible to train your brain to be happier. And who wouldn’t want that?

People definitely want to know how to be hopeful and happy as our world is increasingly unsettling. One of the most popular courses in the history of Yale University, open to anyone for free — is The Science of Well-Beingtaught by Dr. Laurie Santos.

The 2023 World Happiness Report, conducted under the auspices of the United Nations, tells us that a basic level of safety, food and shelter are prerequisites. But, once those needs are met, there are specific things we can do to improve the level of happiness we experience daily.

We know, for instance, that the endorphins we get from exercise make us happier, as does spending as little as 15 minutes in nature. Having strong social connections and participating in acts of altruism, (doing something for others while expecting nothing in return), also increase our feel-good quotient.

Along with these physical activities, there are thought patterns that can help rewire your brain to be happier. Like any training program, it takes practice. Need an added incentive? Happier people live longer.

1. Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness seems to be the go-to recommendation for everything from lowering your heart rate to improving sleep. But it can also increase your overall sense of happiness in as little as three weeks, according to The Journal of Happiness Studies (2018). The term can seem vague, though mindfulness comes down to focusing your attention on what you are experiencing in the present moment.

You can do that with the help of guided meditation, simply sitting with your eyes closed and counting your breaths, or taking a walk and concentrating on how your feet feel touching the ground. This targeted focus not only gives your mind a rest, it trains you to live in the here and now instead of dwelling on anxieties. A report published in The Journal of Happiness Studies found that mindfulness lowers anxiety and can facilitate happiness by encouraging a closer, moment-to-moment, sensory approach to life.

Training tip: Use one of the many free guided meditations available online and start with just five minutes a day. (I find my mind wanders less when I have a little direction, but you do you.) One of my favorite apps for this is Insight Timer, which features a large range of free meditations geared to any mood and time constraint.

2. Change your narrative.

As women, we tend to be our own harshest critics, especially as we get older. In part, this is because we are inundated with images that hold up youth and certain body types as more valuable. It can be hard not to internalize this messaging and turn it on ourselves.

The first step is to be aware of what you are telling yourself. For instance, would you ever tell a friend, “You look fat in those pants?” No. Then why tell yourself that? It may feel weird at first, but practice speaking to yourself with the same words of kindness you would use with others. This will disrupt the critical self-talk that blocks happiness.

Training tip: For one day, pay attention every time you have a negative thought about yourself and find something positive to focus on instead.

3. Avoid overthinking. 

I have an unfortunate habit of ruminating, often spinning to every worst-case scenario, often called “catastrophic fantasies”. Has this ever left me happier? Not once. “Overthinking is an unhealthy habit that typically causes more stress by focusing on the negative, dwelling on the past and worrying about the future,” read an article by The Cleveland Clinic posted in May 2022, How To Stop Overthinking: Tips and Coping Strategies.

Instead, the article recommends choosing a time of day to implement a “worry period”. Write down everything you’re concerned about, then go through your list and highlight the worries that you can problem-solve. Brainstorm solutions for things you can control, and put other concerns aside until the next worry period. Many big concerns may not feel as overwhelming when shelved for a while, making it easier to let go of worries we cannot control.

Training tip: Set a timer for 10 minutes. Write down your worries and ask yourself if they are realistic or not, and what positive steps you can take. When the timer goes off, move on. Still ruminating? A simple distraction can help. Netflix, anyone? Or, try a walk in nature.

4. Be grateful.

Practicing gratitude, whether that means counting your blessings, keeping a gratitude journal or writing thank-you notes, has a wealth of benefits. A growing body of research, including a meta-analysis published in October 2023, 35 Scientific Benefits of Gratitude: Mental Health Research Findings, has shown that acknowledging your blessings makes you happier. It also can boost self-confidence and resilience. It may also help you sleep better (and that makes me happier already).

I adopted this habit years ago, long before the onset of gratitude journals. Every night when I turn off the lights, I shut my eyes and think of three things for which I feel grateful. It may be as big as my daughter getting engaged or as basic as reflecting on the serenity and lift of a first cup of coffee in the morning.

When stuck, I always remember I have a roof over my head and food to eat.

Training tip: Set aside a specific time to say or write down what brings you gratitude. Having a scheduled appointment can help make this restorative act a habit.

5. Smile.

Okay, I’m going to have to take back what I said about hating it when people tell me to smile more. It turns out that research shows the mere act of smiling, whether you feel like it or not, actually does make us happier.

Training tip: Smile. Okay, I said it. Please don’t hate me.

How many of you keep a gratitude journal? What are you most grateful for? Let us know in the comments below.

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