Happiness is all in the mind.
This idea is controversial in some circles, but is being increasingly backed up by science, especially in neurology, positive psychology and mindfulness research . How we think – the way we use our unique and staggeringly powerful brain – determines how we act and feel, and ultimately, therefore, how happy we are.
A clear and strong (i.e. well-trained) mind is a happy mind.
In this 5 part series I will offer you 5 habits to change your thinking so that you can invite happiness into your life more frequently. It’s a journey – as they say – so every time you practice one of these habits you train your brain towards happiness and peace of mind, and away from self-doubt, overwhelm and the constant feeling that you are not, or do not have, enough.
Habit 1: Stop thinking that there is something wrong with you!
Because there isn’t. Really and truly there is nothing whatsoever wrong with you. You are a perfectly imperfect human being who has hopes and dreams, fears and talents, loves and hates. You are a multi-coloured, wonderful, creative and loving being. Give yourself a break!
Stop thinking that if only you could learn this, do this, achieve this, organise this, be better at this…..then you’ll be OK, maybe even happy. Stop thinking that if you could just control your emotions you’ll be OK. That if you were perfect you’ll be OK. That if your business and family life would just balance that little bit more, you’ll be right.
This is untrue. Really, believe me it is. Because whenever you achieve one of these goals or experiences, there will be another one to immediately take it’s place. So the striving never ends, and you never get to the end result of happiness. Be totally honest with yourself now…you know this is true don’t you?
Now, before you switch to thinking that there is something wrong with you because you can’t let go of all these ideas and goals that you think will make you whole…listen to what is really happening in your brain.
The first and most important thing to remember is that your brain is working exactly as it should – looking after you in the best way it can – at the moment. All you have been in the past, all you are today, and all you could be in the future, is the culmination of how your brain has been trained, not only in your lifetime, but during the last thousands and millions of years of evolution.
You see, that’s the thing: your brain* is running on ancient programmes, gathered from history, and whether they come from 20,000 years ago, 50 years ago or your childhood, your brain is just running the software that’s it’s been programmed with, and which it has been trained to use in different situations. And because there are a lot of legacy systems which doesn’t always synch perfectly with our newer cognative processes, our brain doesn’t get everything right.
Note the distinction: Your brain doesn’t always get it right, due to it’s programming, and that is completely different from you not getting it right. We are doing everything we can with the tools we have. And what an amazing tool our brain is. It is not broken. You are not broken. Your brain has been trained to respond in this way.
Let’s look at an example.
Someone might ask: Why am I so negative to myself and full of self doubt?
This is NOT because you are broken and need to fix yourself. This is because our brains have evolved to notice danger. Not only to notice it, but to actively look for it. We give it more importance than things that make us feel good (including sex) and our brains are constantly scanning for anything that could threaten our survival. This strategy worked when we heard a rustle behind the bushes in our cavewoman days because if we waited to work out whether it was a mouse or a tiger before taking appropriate action, we could be dead. Instead we ran, because it could be a tiger, and if it was a mouse, no harm done.
Many of the dangers we perceive these days are about our social survival but these are still perceived by our brain as a serious threat to physical survival because in cavewoman times, if we were banished from the tribe it meant almost certain death. So social cues about fitting in and being accepted and loved have a deeply evolved meaning – they help us to stay alive with our tribe rather than alone and dead.
So the next time you shout at your children in a supermarket (or is it just me?) for being noisy and running around (i.e. just being children) and feel guilty about how you spoke to them afterwards, know that you did it because your brain has evolved to give huge importance to fitting into your society’s norms. Failure to do so might lead you to be cast outside the group and die. Of course that sounds over-dramatic when you are in Sainsbury’s but that’s what a very old part of your brain is programmed to protect you from, so it is still doing it. So if this happens to you, thank your brain for trying to protect you, but tell it you’ve got it covered and that in this particular instance you will parent according to your own, not evolution’s, principles.
But don’t we have free will? Can’t we overwrite our programmes? Yes we can overwrite a few of them (like the urge to keep our kids quiet in public), but only slowly and only a tiny bit at a time. You see, to save energy our brains run large parts of our operating system on automatic – breathing, temperature, hormone balances, and interpreting visual cues to name a few. Changing these is usually a slow evolutionary process. Other areas of our brains deal with learned behaviours like brushing our teeth, driving, chopping an onion, or learned cognitive patterns like ‘life is meant to be hard’ or ‘I’m not creative’. Because these habitual processing loops have been ingrained in our minds over many years, it takes a special kind of training to notice what’s happening and retrain that part of our brain. But it can be done.
What can I do?
I’m glad you asked. Practice is the key to change. And this is a simple practice. Whenever you find yourself getting down on yourself, maybe speaking harshly or meanly to yourself, stop and say:
Stop! There is nothing wrong with me. I am a human being, not a machine. My brain is working exactly as it should; it is just trying to protect me. Thank you amazing brain.
If you can, notice what triggers you into criticising yourself, or thinking you should be different, so that you can start learning more about what your particular brain finds most threatening. We’ll learn more about this next week, but for now the most important thing is to realise that you are NOT broken. There is nothing wrong with you. You have an amazing brain that’s trying to protect you and you are learning about it so you can manage it better and feel more at peace and happy.
Until next time.
*Please note that because the brain is an incredibly complex piece of kit, I have by necessity generalised and simplified some of the concepts in this article.
Please comment below and tell me what this idea has brought up for you?
Did you think part of you was broken? Are you fed up of trying to fix yourself?