Dr. Caroline Leaf – We are social beings: our minds and brains thrive when we are part of a community, while isolation can wreak havoc on our mental and physical health…
We live in a world where it is easy to think that happiness is something external: a product, a pill or a lifestyle—it is all out there and ready for consumption. Yet, as I discuss on this week’s podcast, the happiest people are not those with lots of nice things or lots of likes on social media; these, of course, can help make life more comfortable, but they do not guarantee true happiness. Rather, lasting happiness comes from something deep within us, from our character: it is an internal joy and peace that allows us to appreciate the small things and the big things, a mental strength and steadfastness that helps us get through the hard times and still smile. It is the ability to embrace the good and bad, and learn equally from both.
How do we achieve this kind of happiness in life? What is the “secret” to happiness? Based on my research and clinical experience, I have found that the happiest people:
We are social beings: our minds and brains thrive when we are part of a community, while isolation can wreak havoc on our mental and physical health, as I discuss in my book Think, Learn, Succeed. When we are isolated, our cortisol levels rise, which can cause low-grade inflammation across the brain and body, making us feel ill, reducing blood flow to the brain and upsetting our mental clarity and our mood—isolation literally makes us lose our perspective!
When we connect with others, however, our brains and bodies respond in a positive way, healing our bodies, reducing cortisol levels and inflammation, while protecting the heart and immune system. Indeed, community can be “addictive”! The mesolimbic dopamine system, a system linked to addiction, lights up when we reach out and give to others, giving us a deep sense of happiness!
This is why it is so important that we all make an effort to reach out and connect with the people around us. This particularly important today: more and more people are isolated and have no one to turn to—we are facing a loneliness epidemic.
We need to chooseto reach out and connect with others. What does this mean? We need to tune in, not just say hello and carry on with our lives; we need to be aware of what the people around us are going through and reach out and help them, switching off to ourselves, even if this just means listening to someone and being there for them as they cry.
This is a two-way street. The more we reach out to others, the more we help ourselves. Deep, meaningful relationships help us communicate and deal with our feelings, rather than suppressing them. In these kind of relationships, we feel safe; we can be open about what we are going through, which helps us face our issues rather than ignoring them, which will only make us ill and affect our mental health. And, when we communicate openly with others about what we are going through, neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine start flowing, which help heal the brain and body, give us insight, develop our perspective and make us happy! Even just a hug releases hormones that make us feel calmer, valued and happier.
And there are so many ways to become part of a community! You can:
• Volunteer at a local non-profit
• Attend or start a book club
• Start your own meet-up group
• Have lunch with your colleagues
• Join a sports league
• Schedule in a lunch, dinner or coffee date with a friend or family member on a weekly basis
The possibilities are endless!
2. Make “thinker” moments a priority:
A chaotic thought life will make anybody unhappy, because it throws the brain and body out of whack, affecting our mental and physical wellbeing. This is why it is so important to schedule in time throughout the day and week where you can slow down, meditate and let your mind wonder—I call these “thinker moments”. These moments give your brain a rest and allow it to reboot and heal, which can increase your clarity of thought, help you deal with stress and help improve your mood.
We should remember that although our minds are always active, our physical brains need a rest now and then, which is why thinker moments are so important. This is what I do: at least 7 times a day (or, ideally, every hour if possible) I schedule in a few seconds where I just let my mind wander, which really helps me focus and feel less stressed. I also take breaks throughout the day where, for several minutes, I just daydream, which activates my alpha wave, calming me down, increasing my happiness and helping me relax. This is especially effective outside in the sun, especially if I have been “locked up” all day in an office staring at a computer!
In fact, thinker moments can also help improve your sleep schedule, which is not only important for clearing your mind and boosting your work performance, but also for your mood! Better quality sleep helps clean out the brain, reducing anxiety and making you happier (kind of like how cleaning your room can improve your mood).
• Set time in your calendar or on your phone to remind yourself to have thinker moments throughout the day, which will make it a habit.
• Meditation and breathing exercises are always great ways to calm yourself down, get into thinker moments and improve your mood.
• Even doodling can help, especially if you find that your cares and concerns are preventing you from letting your mind wander.
For more information on thinker moments and how to make them a part of your daily routine, see my book, Think, Learn, Succeed.
3. Are infinite learners:
I love learning! Every day I wake up excited to learn more about the mind and brain, which makes me so happy. Why? As I think deeply and build good, healthy memories, I up building up and strengthening my brain, which, in turn, increases my cognitive resilience, so that when I do face challenges, I am more prepared to deal with them and not let them upset my inner peace and happiness.
Learning is important because every morning we wake up with a bunch of new nerve cells (this is called neurogenesis) that are ready to be used. And, when we are curious and feel the drive to learn and think deeply about what interests us, or have important and stimulating conversations with the people in our lives, we build these new nerve cells into our brain, strengthening the overall health of the brain and improving our mood. When we don’t use these brain cells correctly through lazy thinking and isolation, however, they can become toxic waste in the brain, which will affect our ability to think well and be happy.
Deep thinking and learning also stimulates our imagination and helps us see multiple possibilities in any given situation. Instead of fearing the unknown, we can get excited and happy about the future because we are not locked into plans that might not go as, well, planned. This helps reduce fear of the unknown, giving us the self-confidence to keep learning when faced with a challenge: we don’t fear not knowing something because we can learn! We don’t stop ourselves from moving forward; we don’t get trapped in a box and let the circumstances of life define our happiness. We begin to realize that, when it comes to our potential, there is no “box”!
This type of learning also help us redefine our past. Rather than feeling trapped by what has happened to us, we can see the past through new lens, learning from it, redefining it and seeing how our happiness is not dependent on what has happened, but what can happen. Having an “infinite learner mindset” helps us see the past as new information gained of what not to do, instead of seeing past mistakes as a waste of time. This will keep you from getting stuck in the past; it will prevent your happiness from being blocked by regret, guilt, shame and condemnation.
So, every day, think of ways you can challenge your brain:
• Read a book for an hour a day
• Listen to an educational podcast every day
• Set aside time in the day to learn a new language, sport or skill.
• Pick an article, read it and then teach what you have learnt back to someone in your life.
Choose to be curious! Get creative, and find something that interests you! For more information on building the brain and how it can boost your mental health, see my book Think, Learn, Succeed.
Finally, it is also incredibly important to detox your mind on a daily basis if you want to be truly happy. Detoxing your thought life requires reconceptualization, which means that you learn to see things from a different angle (essentially, you are redesigning a thought pattern). You do this using your choices: you choose to see a situation or experience differently, and give yourself a new way of understanding it, which helps you learn from the past and move forward. If you don’t reconceptualize something that is holding you back, you will stay “stuck” in a toxic situation, which will definitely affect how you feel. But, as you start looking at this situation or experience differently, all the chemicals, hormones and so on start flowing differently, and actually change the physical structure of that thought and detox your mind, which will boost your mood and make you happier!
My new app Switch is a great tool for helping you go through this process. It is based on my 5-step program, which is designed to help you identify and eliminate the root of the toxic mindsets that are holding you back, and help you build a healthy new thinking habits through the mental process of reconceptualization.
At the end of the day, we need to realize that happiness is a choice. A happiness mindset has more to do with a sense of inner satisfaction than external consumption. It is the joy you have living the “meaningful good life” and revolves around your ability to focus on the positive, to connect with others, and to have meaningful relationships in a community. It is not just about everything going right or always being happy on the surface; it is about your mind being right.
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