It’s the time of year when people quote the Declaration of Independence:
We take these truths for granted, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…
But what if our 21st-century brains are wired in such a way that an 18th-century idea like “the pursuit of happiness” makes it less likely that modern humans will actually become happy?
Mind blown, and that’s kind of the point. Because a growing body of research suggests that’s exactly how our brains might work, and maybe what we can do to change things up.
In the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, for example, Aekyoung Kim of Rutgers University and Sam J. Maglio of the University of Toronto conducted experiments to examine how the idea of ”pursuing happiness” affected people’s perception of time.
Their 2018 study found that people who were convinced they were not yet happy, but who were encouraged to pursue happiness, whatever that meant to them, were more likely to report that time seemed to become a scarcer resource as they went along. .
In the end, the sheer pressure of feeling like they had no time left to find happiness, paradoxically made it even more difficult for them to achieve happiness.
“This finding adds depth to the growing body of work, suggesting that the pursuit of happiness can ironically undermine well-being,” they wrote in the journal article.
So what do we do? Do we just give up on happiness? Actually, there are at least three major solutions that can turn things around.
1. Remember that your brain is built for an earlier era.
First, make an effort to remember that you are alive today; not antiquity.
In earlier times, people had to make more life or death decisions about whether to face or avoid the unknown. Thus, their brains have evolved to pay much more natural attention to negative and dangerous stimuli.
Put bluntly, prehistoric humans had to focus hard on all the shadowy wildlife around them for fear of predators. But they could afford to forget exactly what that sweet berry tasted like, because there wasn’t much of a chance it would attack them.
As a result, “the mind is like Velcro for negative experiences,” as psychologist Rick Hanson, author of the book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, “and Teflon for Positive Experiences.”
2. Train Yourself to Focus on Gratitude
The second on the list is one you’ve heard elsewhere, but for a new reason: make a constant and concerted effort to experience gratitude, rather than let less fortunate moments dominate your perception.
Kim and Maglio use the example of dinner with friends:
Make a conscious effort to feel gratitude for the pleasurable experience of dinner, and consciously try not to feel stress or pressure about how spending time with friends meant you have less time to get other important things done.
In addition to creating positive feelings of appreciation, this technique evens out the peaks and valleys that naturally occur between happy experiences. Reducing how often you find yourself no longer happy, in turn, reduces the stress that comes from feeling that you should be.
3. Think about what happiness actually means
Finally, it may be time to think about the definition of happiness itself.
With apologies to Jefferson and the others who wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776, we use the single word “happiness” to describe many different emotions: contentment, euphoria, excitement, etc.
As Morten Kringelbach, professor of neuroscience at the University of Oxford and Kent C. Berridge of the University of Michigan wrote in a 2010 journal article The Neuroscience of Happiness and Pleasure, put it:
“Many agree that happiness has remained difficult to define and difficult to measure, in part because of its subjective nature.”
The solution within psychology is to use a multifaceted definition, they explain: one that views “happiness” as components of pleasure, meaning, and “feelings of involvement and participation in life.”
That’s great for the researchers, but I’m not sure whether ordinary people make the distinction or analyze the definitions that way. This can help.
Look, luck is a good thing. It’s part of the point of life.
And, as I write in my free ebook Neuroscience: 13 Ways to Understand Your Brain and Train for Life, there’s probably nothing people find more fascinating than the unexpected ways the human brain works.
So, if understanding this simple quirk in how our brains work can make it a little more likely that we will achieve true happiness in our lives, I think it’s worth applying a few simple techniques to make it happen.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not Inc.com’s.
This post Neuroscience Says These 3 Simple Mental Habits Make People Much Happier
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