It’s not just a pipe-dream anymore and there is science to prove it.
By Carol Hendershot
You’ve probably heard that by training in mindfulness, you can reduce the negative effects of stress on your mind and body. You may have even heard that mindfulness reduces anxiety and depression and helps people cope with chronic illness. But did you know that mindfulness practice can train your mind to be happier?
It used to be thought that we had a happiness set-point; that no matter what we do or what happens to us, we will return to the level of happiness that we were born with. If the set-point is low, then the ecstatic lottery winner will eventually sink back into depression. If the set-point is high, the always-cheerful athlete who sinks into depression after losing the use of her legs, finds renewed meaning and joy through mentoring others.
Does this mean that we are stuck in repeating cycles of sadness or joy based on our hardwiring?
New research tells another story. We now know that there are things we can do to change our happiness set-point. We can train our minds to change the happiness cards we were dealt.
Here are five things you can do today to begin your journey toward a happier, more fulfilling life:
- Don’t just do something—sit there. In only 5-10 minutes a day, you can establish a meditation practice that will help you find the calm center you have always wanted. The research tells us that newly-minted meditators start to free themselves of the debilitating effects of stress in only eight weeks. Not only that, but EEG scans record significant changes in the processing of the brain, shifting from the more negative right prefrontal cortex to the more positive left prefrontal cortex.
- Savor the good things in life. Every day, we experience moments of wonder and beauty. But often we are so focused on getting things done and solving problems that we miss the smile of a friend, the warmth of the sun, a compliment acknowledging our contribution to someone’s happiness, or a good meal. The list could go on and on. And not only do we miss these experiences, we miss the opportunity to shift our happiness set-point. By not paying attention to these moments, we let them slip through our fingers to be forever lost. But, if we do intentionally pay attention, for at least 20-30 seconds, the hippocampus (the part of the brain that governs learning and memory), has time to record them in our long-term memory bank. The more we fully appreciate the happy moments, the more our lives are colored by them.
- Say thank you every day: Practice gratitude. You’ve probably heard that writing three things you are grateful for every morning or evening shifts your perspective toward joy. Well, it’s true! Not only does it allow you to acknowledge the good things in your life, but you start to look for and find those moments everywhere. And then, guess what? You see more and more of them.
- Appreciate the good in you. Okay, it’s time for the heavy lifting! Now that you’ve been looking for and practicing gratitude for the good things in life, it’s time to shine the light on all the delightful qualities that make you, you. I know; it is easier to count your flaws. But, think about it: We are complex creatures who have beauty and darkness, and both are necessary. So, train your lens on those kind and wholesome parts of yourself with appreciation. While you are at it, you might send a little thank you to all those beings who contributed to making the masterpiece called you.
- Be kind to yourself, even when you don’t think you deserve it. Last but not least, practice self-compassion. We all make mistakes and make life harder than it needs to be for ourselves and others. Suffering is just part of life, and it’s something we all do frequently. Quit beating yourself up and give yourself the care and compassion you need. Yes, this can make you happier, too–and there is research to support it!