Like all living things, we have survival instincts.
Innately, it seems, our brain wants to hold onto negative experiences. In order to survive, we need to learn from those things that have had a negative impact and attempt not to repeat them.
This might be good for the survival of the species, yet as individuals we must not only learn, but also find a way to mentally let go of the negatives, or we won’t be able to move into a happier, more positive future.
The flip side of this is that good experiences tend to pass through our memories far too quickly — unless we are mindful of them.
Taking a moment to appreciate good things will help to cement them in our minds. This is an essential step in learning to calm your mind.
A good place to begin is to focus on the ‘small’ things that bring you happiness. We want to create a stockpile of these and the good feelings they produce, and hold them in reserve.
Perhaps your happy moments include a sunny day, a great book, or a private joke with a friend or family member.
University of California, Berkley neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson advocates the idea of replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts so that we refocus and retrain our brains. Hanson stresses the importance of being mindful of both positive and negative experiences, as both can be instructive.
His technique for changing the brain requires acknowledging — not denying or suppressing — the negative feeling, and taking time to experience the loss, the frustration, the pain.
Once the negative is fully realized and understood, which could take only a moment for small stressors or much longer for deep grief (although good therapy can accelerate this process), the next step is to find a way to minimize or let go of the negative.
Relax a little, take a deep breath, use your imagination to draw a mental circle around any harmful thoughts, as if placing them in a balloon, and then release them, letting them float off and leave. Perhaps cry a little. Tears can have a wonderful, healing, therapeutic effect, and they can be shed by the emotion of happiness as well as sadness.
After you’re able to let go of the negative, it’s time to shift your focus to something positive. Perhaps it’s a happy memory of someone you’re grieving, or remembering a frustrating project from the past that you’ve finally completed successfully.
By taking just a little step back, learning to interrupt the negative and shift the mind to something more positive, we can retrain our brains to access more happiness.
Genetics and innate impulses can be tempered with a little training and some thoughtful effort. By regularly using our mind and our brain to access more positive states, we can create fresh neural pathways and so alter the way we function and feel. To use the language of neuroscience, ‘neurons that fire together wire together.’
Our brain has an amazing capacity for learning, and it’s up to us to teach our own brain the pathways to happiness.