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Wiring Your Brain for Happiness

We’re born to be happy. It’s the “Intel Inside” that the universe gifted us with, but most of us hold the false belief that happiness comes from the world through earning it, instead of an unconditional state of being within us. We’re programmed from the outset to believe that happiness is like this … if I make that sale or land that job or win that promotion or get out of debt or make that person see and do things my way, I’ll be happy. The older we get the more we see that this false belief is why we missed out on experiencing more joy and peace in our lives. It leads to a pathetic existence, constantly at the mercy of day to day events and the behavior of other people.
Believe it or not, happiness is our natural state … REALLY. The evidence for this fact is well established, but we’ve been bamboozled into believing happiness depends on our status and economics like money, jobs, things and other people. It’s a merry-go-round with little or no “merry” in it.
The cure that science prescribes is a spiritual one and, happily, it couldn’t be simpler. It’s being aware of the way we are reacting unhappily to the world around us and to understand our negativity as the unfortunate way society programmed our brain, wiring us for shame, inadequacy, anxiety and worry. It’s the way politics, corporations and other institutions endeavor to control us. Simply by becoming aware of these negative reactions without attempting to change them or judge the negativity and ourselves, allows the negativity to drop and for happiness to arise naturally by itself. Try it and see.

And one other thing: the research Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky and others have established that happiness is what leads to success, not the other way around.

New research finds that feeling fear eases it; repressing fear makes it worse

Research has found that repressing fear when it raises its ugly head is a typical strategy people use to manage fears, but it not only doesn’t work, it can actually increase fear to the point of overwhelming us.  When we get really scared, stress hormones pour into our brain locking us into the hyper-vigilant state of fear called fight, flight or freeze, which is an intense state of stress that harms our body. In addition, high stress is also “resource intensive,” meaning it shuts down higher brain functions to fuel the stress reaction, pulling power away from the  brain networks that amplify the IQ and creative insight to solve problems.

So what do we do when fear strikes, paralyzing us? It turns out to be simple, although not necessarily easy, but the more we develop this fear-busting skill, the easier it is to do.

  • Sit in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed and allow yourself to feel the fear.
  • Often, the process of allowing fear begins with not being afraid of being afraid.
  • Embrace your fear instead of resisting it, being mindful of your breath. If your fear swells, stay with your breath, breathing with the strong feeling.
  • Drop the frightening story your fear is inventing and and keep letting go of fearful thoughts as they arise. In short, don’t think, just feel.

Some people think that feeling difficult feelings will somehow destroy them, but it is quite the opposite. Things actually begin to calm down and your mental state gradually shifts from contracted to expansive; from painted into a tight corner to seeing new possibilities. Control shifts from the brain’s fear center to the higher brain. You are now able to face the problem and discern with greater clarity what to do about it.


Thought Attacks Cause Heart Attacks

Make no mistake, negative stressful worried thinking can lead to a heart attack. “We human beings,” states Robert Sapolsky of Stanford, “generate all sorts of stressful events purely in our heads, setting off wild emotions that provoke our bodies into an accompanying uproar, and it is all linked to mere thoughts.” Our brain cannot tell the difference between a real threat and one the mind made up. It treats fact or fiction the same way, triggering the release of toxic fight or flight stress hormones, like adrenaline, making us anxious, stressed and negative, and overworking our cardio-vascular system. Overtime, these reactions increase the risk of heart disease, the #1 cause of death in America. Chronic stress can develop into the aggressive, controlling workaholic that medical science calls Type-A personality,  making a person seven times more likely to develop coronary artery disease.

I am not referring to a small segment of the population. Stress affects a whopping 75 percent of us, according to the Stress in America survey, the nation’s most reliable stress barometer, and nearly half of us lie awake at night worrying about the future.

The irony is that all this stress and worry is the result of believing thoughts that, more often than not, are untrue. Research has found that 85 percent of what people worried about never happened, and of the 15 percent that did come to pass, 79 percent resolved the problem better than expected. That means that 97 percent of the time people are stressing over something when there is nothing to worry about.

Thus, if we are worried, the overwhelming odds are it is the result of  fearful thinking setting off primitive brain processes, which spike blood pressure and heart rate and switch our emotional state to threat mode, when no real threat is present.

As a result, what we will tend to see is some degree of gloom and doom and for as long as it lasts we will believe what we see is real because of its emotional charge. It can become an endless looping stress-provoking thought process damaging our heart until it eventually kills us. People I have coached or trained readily acknowledge the fallacy of their fear and worry yet continue to be stressed. Why? Because genetics can wire this kind of knee jerk reactivity into the brain, which means the problem is not entirely our fault. It is fair to say, The devil made me do it.

Here’s the Good News in All the Bad News

Genetics and past traumas can wire our brain for a hyperactive stress response system, dragging our mind and our day into these self-defeating bouts of anxious, worried, stress-provoking thinking that compromise our well-being. The good news is we can literally rewire those faulty neural-circuits through a change in attitude,[1] enabling us to quiet the lower brain’s fight or flight reactions easily when they raise their ugly head and to address problems with the intelligence and creativity of our higher brain. There is also growing evidence that a shift in attitude to the positive can also down-regulate the stress gene reversing a genetic disposition to stress.[2]

Making this shift is simpler than you might imagine and tangible change can occur quickly. Here are some of the simple steps, when done consistently, begin to build and sustain the positive mindset that breaks the fall into primitive brain processes that can lock us into a life of stress:

  • Drive home in the slow lane and listen to calming music instead of the news on the drive home.
  • Once in a while, choose the longest line at a store and stand in it, letting go of your mind’s sense of hurry and choosing to be at peace.
  • Take breaks during the day and go for a walk or just look out a window for a few minutes and let your mind go. Watch the wind blow or the sun shine or the rain fall and take in the beauty of life
  • Smile more today.
  • Practice listening better, judging less, forgiving more, and holding people with an unconditional positive regard.
  • Buy a small gift for a loved one.
  • Call a friend or relative you haven’t talked to in a while.
  • Practice receiving compliments graciously.
  • Accept that your imperfect and that life is unfinished business.
  • Practice making the conscious choice to be peaceful and happy inside, regardless of what is happening outside.
  • When you feel conflict today, tell yourself, “I am not going to let this person or situation control how I feel.”
  • Measure your success at the end of each day by asking yourself … was I kind … did I stop to smell the roses … was I respectful to others … did I forgive … did I choose to be happy … did I turn stress into excitement and excitement into believing … was I grateful …was I at peace

[1] Sonya Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want (New York: Penguin Group, 2007), 19-22.

[2] Dusek JA, Otu HH, Wohlhueter AL, Bhasin M, Zerbini LF, et al. Genomic Counter-Stress Changes Induced by the Relaxation Response. PLoS ONE 3(7): e2576. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002576 (2008).


Peace in the Midst of War

Recently, during a podcast interview, I was asked a question I’d never been asked before or even considered to ask myself.  The question was, During my long career in mental health, what was my best day?  The day came to me in a flash, full blown, surprising me so much that I had to pause for a moment to adjust to the intense feeling that washed over me.

“This isn’t what the interviewer is looking for,” I thought to myself and I tried to quickly come up with something else, but this memory wouldn’t be pushed aside for something less. It was like it wanted to be remembered out loud. So I launched into it.

My best day in my career, I said, was on the fourth day of a group I was co-facilitating with my colleague Louise Franklin, 20 years before, with victims of the Bosnian War, in a room inside a bullet riddled building in Osijek, Croatia, on the border with Serbia, with genocidal Serbian forces just across the Drava River.

For most of the Croatian men and women, this group was the first time they had been given the space to really talk about the horrible things that had happened to them, working through the trauma with principles that could empower a new attitude for relating to what they had been through and were sure to face again in their war-torn country.  Each day, the group opened up a little more, psychologically and spiritually, and then on the fourth day the group reached a kind of heroic shift in consciousness where we found a place of peace inside that transcended what was happening outside. It was a place of power and dignity, where the outside did not prevail … did not have the last word … could no longer refute or diminish the peace we felt as a result of the One Self our sharing and caring had created. It was a miraculous moment of discovering that we had achieved and could even sustain a higher state of mind, which is love, as we lived through whatever egregiousness the world had done to us and would continue to do. The realization of this truth placed smiles on faces that hadn’t smiled in a long time.

That was my best day at work.

Harnessing the brain system that practically puts us inside each other’s minds

We tend to believe that the judgmental thoughts we silently think in our head are inconsequential, since no one hears them. We also might think the same about the positive regard and good will we quietly extend to others. The fact is, both are of great consequence.

Our facial expressions, body language, emotional subtleties, and even our hidden intentions all register inside the other person’s brain, giving us away. We read each other’s brains all the time and we have the mirror neuron system to blame or thank for it.

This system was discovered in 1996, when neuroscientists observed that the exact same brain region active in a monkey eating a peanut was also active in a monkey without a peanut who was simply watching the other eat. Since then, a mountain of research has been conducted on mirror neurons, which turns out to be highly developed in human beings. Dr. Marco Iacoboni of UCLA, a leading mirror neuron researcher, states: “Mirror neurons allow us to understand the mental states of other people and practically puts us in each other’s mind.”

Mirror neurons track the emotional flow, body language, voice, and even the subtle meanings of one another. There are forty-three muscles in our face that produce facial expressions for the seven basic human emotions we experience — fear, anger, sadness, disgust, surprise, contempt, and happiness. Each of these emotions and their physical expression are the same for everyone around the world.

For example, with fear eyebrows pull up and together, upper eyelids pull up, and our mouth stretches. Each fear-based facial movement prepares us for a fight-or-flight stress reaction. With happiness, the muscle around the eyes tighten, “crow’s feet” appear around the eyes, our cheeks raise, and our lip corners raised diagonally. The signs are subtle but once learned, we instantly discern the mood a facial expression conveys.

Mirror neurons are what makes our emotional state contagious and why, biologically, hostility bumps up your blood pressure and kindness lowers it. It’s why friends are healing, and enemies are toxic. When we see someone suffering or overjoyed, our mirror neurons make us feel the suffering or the joy.

So, how does this relate to leadership. It is the way the brain’s mirror neuron system and your attitudinal stance work together to create meaningful, forward moving relationships. In generating positive interpersonal connection, research shows that there are three attitudes that comes into play.

  • First is your willingness to drop roles and facades to be authentically yourself. This mirrors in the people you lead as the freedom to be themselves, which leads to greater self-expression and self-direction.
  • Second is your unconditional positive regard for your employees, which mirrors in them as the self-worth and belonging that builds trust and self-confidence.
  • Third is your empathy for your employees, which mirrors as the self-awareness and self-acceptance that fosters positive personality change.

Relate to employees in this way and there will be nothing coming from you that they need to defend against. These three attitudes work the same way with families and friends. With the right practice, you can cultivate this attitudinal stance and rewire your brain to embody it. I present an approach you can put to use in Chapter 12 of my book The End of Stress, Four Steps to Rewire Your Brain.

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