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Happy by Choice!

February 10, 2021

How to be happier in our lives.

Dr Cheyne Macintosh – De-Stress Wellness Centre –

https://www.destresswellness.co.za/ – info@destresswellness.co.za

How to be happier in our day to day life

Today we run around day-by-day reacting to situations and putting out “fires” all around us. We come home and feel spent, depleted and just want to be left alone, whilst a friend is just bounding with energy, asking us to go out and do more. Have you ever sat and wondered how someone can be so positive in such difficult or challenging situations? Sitting in awe and slight annoyance as to why they are so happy and you are not? Why do they always have so much energy even when they seem to have a harder life? 

To answer these questions, we need to first understand the basics of how our emotions affect the body. Let’s take a closer look at our brain: As we have all come to learn, the brain is the command centre of the body, giving out orders and requests for the rest of the body to carry out. In the front of our brain (frontal cortex) is a specific area called the prefrontal cortex. The function of the prefrontal cortex is to focus one’s attention by processing information and adapting accordingly – so pretty much your logical response centre of the brain. The next area just a little deeper into the brain is the amygdala. The amygdala is our fear-response centre, processing our strong emotions such as fear and pleasure. The amygdala forms part of our limbic system (our emotional centre of the brain) along with our hippocampus (the memory centre). 

When we experience a traumatic event, the loss of a loved one or losing our job, this stimulus sends a signal to the amygdala which interprets the information and thereby sending out signals to the hypothalamus to produce the necessary neurotransmitter and hormonal response. This sequence of events produces a physiological response and a host of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol (depending on the length of stimuli). Now let us say that we experience an emotional event, possibly the ending of a relationship – we feel sad and emotional for our loss. If we repeatedly remind ourselves of the event, i.e. re-experiencing of the emotions, we are reaffirming those pathways in our brain as well as repeatedly inducing the same chemical (hormonal) response. This then becomes a learned behaviour as repetition of anything commits it to long-term memory, as Hebb’s law states, “neurons that fire together, are neurons that wire together.”. 

So then, if we can learn to be sad or in a state of negativity, could we also then learn to be happy or in a state of positivity? The answer is YES! Long gone is the old adage that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks, as neuroscientists found the brain to have varying degrees of neuroplasticity. What this means is that the brain has the ability to reform and create new neural networks within itself. So, instead of us being stuck with an old-outdated mindset that does not serve us – we can create a whole new mindset or ‘install’ a new way of being. 

The question then is – How do we go about changing our current mindset to a new positive mindset? There are a few key exercise suggestions that can be incorporated into our daily life to bring about more happiness:

  1. Daily meditation – regular practice of meditation has shown to stimulate the areas of the brain associated with kindness, love and compassion. 
  2. Mindfulness of emotions – taking regular checks on our emotions and emotional states has shown to help people be less reactive and more calm in emotional difficulties. 
  3. Breathing deeply – Breathing in for 10 seconds, holding for 5 seconds and breathing out for 10 seconds stimulates the response of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Doing this for a  few minutes at a time will help return the body back to a relaxed state. 
  4. Scanning the body – taking time to mentally scan the body, from your toes to your head, for any areas of tension. If there is tension, take a deep breath and as you exhale allow the tension in that part of the body to release. 
  5. Deepening your positive experiences – by reminiscing on past positive events and fully embracing the positive emotions associated with those events can assist in strengthening the neural pathways associated with such positive emotions – remember, “neurons that fire together, are neurons that wire together.”. 

Although we may have suffered traumas, emotional loss or even depression – it does not mean we have to stay there. We have the ability to change our mental state by creating a new state of being through mindful practices and regular meditation to become more in tune with ourself and our inner state. 

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” – C.S. Lewis

References:

Curtis KM, and Simmons KB (1997) .The prefrontal cortex and flexible behavior. Nature, :p. 539–547.

Guyton, A. and Hall, J. (2006) Textbook of Medical Physiology. Eleventh E. doi: 10.1113/expphysiol.1961.sp001565.

Ressler, K. J. (2010) .Amygdala Activity, Fear, and Anxiety: Modulation by Stress. Biological Psychiatry, :p. 1117–1119. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.04.027.

Williams, P. B. (2012) .Your brain on happiness. Newsweek, 159(2/3), :p. 35-36 2p. Available at: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cin20&AN=104506993&site=ehost-live.

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