What Is Neuroplasticity and Why It Is Important for Happiness
One of the most exciting areas of scientific advancement related to self-improvement in the last few years has been in the field of neuroscience and, specifically, neuroplasticity. These new discoveries offer new hope, insight and tools for anyone wanting to effectively change their life for the better. These scientific advances are so powerful that they are proving to be game-changers.
Neuroplasticity: What Is It?
Scientists used to think that brain development only occurred during our childhood and then stopped. In other words, it was believed that after our initial brain development in our early years, our brains became ‘fixed’ and hard-wired. It was believed that once our brains developed, they could not be changed or reorganized.
Modern technology has discovered that our brains are, in fact, not fixed in nature. We now know that our brains can actually reorganize themselves. The brain does this by forming new connections between our nerve cells, called neurons. The brain does this in response to new actions, thoughts, situations, and changes in our environment. In other words, our brains can change and adapt well into adulthood. Neuroplasticity refers to our brain’s ability to form new connections between our neurons. This new discovery is exciting news for all of us.
In general, our experiences, environment, thoughts and actions cause our brain cells, or neurons, to form connections with one another. Repetition reinforces these connections in order to make the brain more efficient so that future connections become easier. We can even generate new brain cells and this is called neurogenesis.
Why Neuroplasticity Is Important
All of our mental activity is influenced by the way our neurons behave. Conversely, the more we think a certain way, the more we reinforce the way our brain wires. This is why it is often said that neurons that fire together wire together. When we constantly feel, think and sense a certain way, we are sculpting our brains. In other words, how we think affects our brains and our brains, in turn, affect how we think. This is called experience-dependent neuroplasticity because the way we choose to experience the world changes our brains.
Having happy experiences and good mental states helps create good neural traits and characteristics. These traits then become stronger each time we cultivate and focus on the happiness and positivity in our lives. It is a loop that gets stronger through repetition.
Our brains are shaped by what we focus on. If we focus on negativity, stress, worry, hurt, self-loathing, anger, jealousy, danger, etc, then we are shaping our brains to react more readily and strongly to these types of feelings. If, on the other hand, we focus on positivity, kindness, happiness, gratitude, calmness, etc, our brains will wire in a way that makes them more reactive to these positive feelings. It is somewhat akin to going to the gym and working out a muscle. The more we build it, the stronger it becomes. The less we use it, however, the weaker it becomes. Hence the saying, ‘use it or lose it’.
To summarize, we can shape our brain by choosing what we want to focus our minds on. If we focus on negativity, we will become more negative. If we focus on positivity and happiness, we will become more positive and happy. Our brains are affected by how we think and how we think is affected by our brains.
Our Negativity Bias
One trait that human beings have is to focus on and remember negative situations more than positive or neutral ones. This ensured that we survived as a species. It helped protect us from impending threats and danger. Even though most of these threats and dangers no longer exist, our brains are still biased to be on alert. Our evolution caused us to learn to overestimate danger while also underestimating beneficial opportunities and our ability to deal with the danger. For example, our ancestors could make two types of mistakes when it came to survival:
- Believe that there is no lion hiding in the bushes waiting to ambush them when there actually is one waiting to pounce, or
- Believe that there is a lion lying in wait in the bushes when there actually is no lion anywhere close.
Clearly, the first mistake would be life threatening whereas the second merely caused some momentary anxiety. This is how our negativity bias was formed. Even though we no longer are threatened by most of the threats our ancestors faced, our brains are still wired to be on alert and watch out for inherent anger. These traits kept us alive, but they also create stress and anxiety in our modern world. They also prevent us from focusing on the positive aspects of our lives. Here are just some ways that our negativity bias affects our daily lives:
- We tend to recall and focus on past negative experiences more than positive ones
- We shy away from experiences that require us leaving our comfort zones
- We overestimate problems and underestimate our ability to overcome them
- We focus on and remember insults more than we do compliments
- We focus on pain more than we focus on the lack of pain
- We are more affected by bad news than good news
- We focus more on what we lack than what we have
- We tend to be very sensitive to fear
- Positive experiences do not resonate with us as much as negatives ones do
Fortunately, we can train our brains and rewire them by focusing on the positive. This is why neuroplasticity is so important if we want to live a life of happiness and positivity.
How to Take Advantage of Neuroplasticity and Overcome Our Negativity Bias
As we have discussed, we can change the way our neurons in our brains wire and fire together by choosing what to focus on in our lives. The more positively we think, act, and feel, the more our brain wires in a way that is more reactive to positive experiences. This does not mean that we will not have negative thoughts and feelings. It simply means that we can choose what we want to focus on.
There are a few ways to rewire our brains to induce more happiness and positivity:
1. Decide to Be More Mindful of What You Focus On
What many people do not realize is that we have the freedom to choose whether we want to focus on the negative or positive experiences in our lives. Most people tend to have short-lived experiences of pleasure and prolonged experiences of pain, fear, and discomfort. We forget how wonderful our lives really are. This can be reversed by making a conscious choice to focus on the good in our lives. Just like developing any new habit, it requires effort and repetition. We need to constantly remind ourselves to absorb the positive experiences. It took me a while to make this habitual, but the effects have been powerful. I still have negative thoughts and feelings, but they are much less frequent as compared to before.
2. Be Conscious of Your Negativity Bias
Just being aware that human beings have a negativity bias will help you counterbalance some of its effects. Try to always remember that human beings tend to overestimate problems and underestimate the resilience they possess.
3. Keep a Gratitude Journal
This is a powerful way to help balance your negativity bias. Keep a gratitude journal and write in it each night before you go to sleep, or early in the morning if you prefer. List 3-5 things that you are grateful for and take a moment to let each point sink in. In order for this to work, it is important that you write in your journal consistently and feel the gratitude deep inside. I choose to do this exercise at night and it has made me a lot happier and more positive.
4. The 1-in-5 Rule
All of us experience negative feelings and thoughts. However, we can be aware every time we have a negative thought, feeling, or experience and balance it out by focusing on the positive as well. By using the 1-in-5 rule, you can choose to focus on four good thoughts, feelings or experiences every time you have a negative one. For example, you might get stuck in congested traffic on the way to work and get frustrated, anxious, or angry. Be conscious of this. Then make the effort to think of four positive or pleasant thoughts, feelings, or experiences. You could focus on the cool and comfortable air conditioning blowing on you. You could turn the radio up and listen to your favorite happy song. You could pay attention to the beautiful scenery, architecture or nature surrounding you. You could relax in the driver’s seat and focus on how comfortable you feel. Learning to do this has helped me tremendously to reduce stress, unhappiness and anxiety.
5. Have a List of Positive Experiences that You Can Fall Back On
One great way to counteract negativity is to prepare a list of significant positive experiences that you can focus on when you are feeling down or negative. You can focus on something positive you have accomplished such as getting a promotion. Or you can focus on the love and kindness your mother always shows you. Or you could relive the happiness you felt when your child was born.
6. Inject More Pleasant Experiences Into Your Day
Another way to help overcome negativity bias is to purposely and consciously incorporate more pleasant experiences into your day. For example, you could make time to sit and enjoy a hot latte during your break. You can make time each evening to watch a positive documentary that you really enjoy. You could plant some flowers in your garden or tend the potted plants on your desk. You could play the guitar for a few minutes. The trick is to intersperse pleasant experiences throughout the day and take the time to enjoy them. These positive experiences have a cumulative effect and can be very powerful.
Our brains are powerful and creative. By using visualization, you can reduce the effect of the negativity bias. For example, each time you experience something negative, you could visualize it floating up into the air and disappearing in the expanse. Another visualization method I learned is to imagine that a negative experience is like a drop of black ink that you drop into a huge bucket of water. The blackness of the ink slowly dissolves in the clear water until it is no longer noticeable.
8. Challenge the Negative
Each time you experience a negative belief, you can challenge its validity. For example, when you feel that you are not good enough to overcome a problem, you can recall previous successes in overcoming something similar. This will help you overcome the negativity and see things as they really are.
9. Make Looking for Positive Experiences and Feelings a Game
You can develop the habit of actively looking for the positive by turning it into a game. No matter how negative a situation, there is always a positive side. Look for positive aspects and experiences in your life, no matter how small they are. See how many you can count each day. We take many blessings for granted and this can be reduced by keeping score of each positive and happy experience.
The 9 methods listed above are most effective in helping to rewire your brain for happiness and positivity if you do 3 things:
- Actively and consciously look for positive experiences
- Drop everything else and take the time to fully savor the positive experience. Most experts recommend taking at least 20 seconds to do this
- Soak it in by visualizing the positive experience and allowing it to pervade every part of you and your body
By being on the lookout for positive experiences and letting them sink into your being, you are slowly, but surely, rewiring your brain and overcoming your negativity bias. Remember that what you constantly feel and think affects how your neurons wire and fire together. Your positive mental states will affect your brain and create positive neural traits.
The choice is yours. What do you focus on?