Can we Train our Minds for Happiness?

11 May

A lot of people seem to think so – that much the same way we can train our bodies to perform better in sports or playing an instrument, or the way we can teach our mind languages or math, we can also create patterns and habits in our brain that lead to greater happiness.

Alexandra Stoddard says in her book, Choosing Happiness, that we can vastly improve our happiness by studying it, examining ourselves, and taking action based on our thinking. And that to sustain long-term happiness it must become a habit -  a way of looking at life, a door we are always opening to a richer and more satisfying experience moment by moment.

Very similar to what we’ve already discussed in the Dalai Lama’s teachings, Stoddard says that “mindfulness” about being happy comes through actively harnessing our thoughts:

Being in the present moment as much as possible each day

Realize that happiness lies in everyday moments, not the big successes or material gains

Making a conscious effort to bring the “little things” that make us happy into our daily lives

Resisting the urge, when frustration or problems or even catastrophes happen, to focus only on the bad until we’re dwelling only in that and giving it strength; but rather, to focus on the good that we also have in our lives, in that very moment, and appreciate that as well

Stoddard relates a number of other very specific exercises that she uses to train her mind for happiness. Many of my friends who responded to my “Happiness Interview” also shared such practices. And I would love to share them with you; the first ones are Stoddard’s, and after that I give credit to the friend who shared.

  • Write down ten defining words about who you are – perhaps values you hold dear, vital aspects of your personality or things you like to have around you.
  • Surround yourself with positive energy and people; unhappiness and negativity seem to be contagious. (Kathy T. responded by saying that learning to form healthy relationships with positive people had a huge effect on her happiness).
  • Do something – physical exercise, taking opportunities to move instead of stay sedentary, and learning new things are great energy boosters; and when our energy is high we tend to be much happier.
  • Say yes – to your dreams, to what you are enthusiastic about. Incorporate as much as possible that you love to do into your life, whether that is art, reading, music, flowers, whatever.
  • Create a list of 9 “happiness habits” and 10 “happiness islands” (places, activities or things that have historically made me happy). Every day I try to check off as many happiness habits as I can, and when I plan my week or month I look to allocate most of my quality time around my happiness islands. ~Dean K. (I love this!!)
  • Twice a day I set mobile phone and computer alarms to alert me to “Think a Great Thought” – at that time I just stop whatever I am doing, take a deep breath, and reflect on that thought. ~Dean K. again
  • Stop worrying about what other people think or say, and do what you know is right for your life. ~Shelley B.
  • Refrain from setting unrealistically high expectations for other people, experiences, projects and especially, yourself. Just try my best in everything I do, and be a leader of my own life; not a follower. ~Janet P.
  • Be kind to yourself. Self-compassion is one of the greatest things we can do for our happiness, according to UT professor Kristin Neff, whom I wrote about during my Meditation Project. Be supportive, kind and forgiving of ourselves.
  • Promote happiness during conflicts; when you are angry with someone, try writing down 5 things you love and appreciate about them. Likewise, if frustrations or problems are getting you down, try writing 5 things that are going great in your life that day. ~Me
  • Focus on things that are within your control, and work on letting go of the things that aren’t. ~Me

On a different note, there’s one last thing I want to share. I love this!! In the Somerville, Massachusetts census, they included the question “How happy do you feel right now?” and were asked to rate it on a scale of 1-10. I love that a city includes happiness on its list of important questions to ask its citizens.

Officials here want this Boston suburb to become the first city in the United States to systematically track people’s happiness. Like leaders in Britain, France and a few other places, they want to move beyond the traditional measures of success — economic growth — to promote policies that produce more than just material well-being.

You can read the full article here. Until next time,

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