The science of happiness can seem like a cruel joke. Most studies tell us who is happier — 54-year-olds, West Coasters, or people with sisters — rather than how to be happier. And tangible advice usually oversimplifies life and states the obvious. But psychotherapist Philippa Perry's advice in today's Guardian on how to rewire our brains sounds like it could actually work.
It's not easy, or even foolproof, but that's why I actually believe it. She acknowledges happiness levels are mainly set in the first two years of life, when our brains form neural connections that determine how we regulate emotions. Less-than-ideal parents can put you off the beaten path to contentment, and any later trauma can undo the good done early on.
Regardless of the cause, chronic unhappiness is no way to live, but the brain is quite pliable and it's not too late to rewire it. Find out how below.
- Have (at least) one good relationship: It doesn't need to be romantic, but one nurturing and reliable relationship with a friend, teacher, or even therapist. It can begin to repair how you approach relationships altogether.
- Good stress: Stress that's enough to push you without knocking you down. It's kind of like exercising the brain, by taking yourself out of your comfort zone, you allow new neural connections to develop. Take a class, learn an instrument, or host a party.
- Observe your own behavior: Dr. Perry says to accept but not judge your behavior, and give yourself space to acknowledge your emotions. Sounds to me like think before you act. And if you do act first, then think why you acted so and what you can do differently next time. She suggests keeping a diary — it makes you smarter! — and meditation.
- Get a new narrative: This is a hard one to describe, but if you've had any therapy you're probably familiar with it. Parents may lovingly, or not so lovingly, tell you you're one way or another: you're messy, scatterbrained, shy, not good at sports, or not cut out for a profession until it's internalized and you believe it's fact. If you find yourself thinking "I always . . ." or "I'm the sort of person who . . ." think about why you believe it and challenge it. Maybe it was true at one point, but it no longer is or has to be.
Do these sound like tips that could actually work?