Neuroscience Says These 3 Simple Mental Habits Make People Much Happier

It’s the time of year when people quote the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are 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 people will actually become happy?

Mind blown, and that’s sort of the point. Because a growing body of research suggests this is exactly how our brains can work, and maybe what we can do to turn things around.

Writing 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 investigate how the idea of the “pursuit of happiness” influenced people’s perception of time.

Their 2018 research 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 proceeded.

Ultimately, the sheer pressure of feeling as if they were running out of time to find happiness paradoxically made it even harder for them to achieve happiness in the first place.

“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 key solutions that can turn things around.

1. Remember that your brain was built for an earlier era.

First off, make an effort to remember that you live today; not ancient times. 

In earlier ages, people had to make more split, life or death decisions about whether to engage with or avoid the unknown. Thus, their brains evolved to pay a lot more natural attention to negative and dangerous stimuli.

Put more bluntly, prehistoric humans had to focus hard on all the shadowy wild animals around them, for fear of predators. But, they could afford to forget exactly what that sweet berry tasted like, because there wasn’t much chance that 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 ones.”

2. Train yourself to focus on gratitude

Second on the list is one you’ve heard elsewhere, but for a new reason: Make a constant and concerted effort to experience gratitude, instead of allowing less happy moments to dominate your perception. 

Kim and Maglio use the example of a dinner with friends:

  • Consciously strive to feel gratitude for the pleasant experience of the dinner,
  • And, consciously try not to feel stress or pressure about how spending time with friends meant you’ll have less time to get other important things done.

Besides creating the positive feelings of appreciation, this technique smooths out the peaks and troughs that naturally occur between happy experiences. Reducing how often you find yourself feeling that you’re no longer happy, in turn reduces the stress that results from feeling that you should be.

3. Think about what happiness actually means

Finally, it might be time to consider the definition of happiness itself.

With apologies to Jefferson and the others who had a hand in writing the Declaration of Independence in 1776, we use the single word, “happiness,” to describe many different emotions: contentment, euphoria, excitement, etc.

As Morten Kringelbach, a 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 would agree that happiness has remained difficult to define and challenging to measure–partly due to its subjective nature.”

The solution within psychology is to use a multifaceted definition, they explain: one that considers “happiness” to include components like pleasure, meaning, and “feelings of commitment and participation in life.”

That’s great for the researchers, but I’m not sure ordinary people make the distinctions or parse the definitions like that. Doing so can help. 

Look, happiness is a good thing. It’s part of the point of life.

And, as I write in my free e-book Neuroscience: 13 Ways to Understand and Train Your Brain for Life, there’s probably nothing that people find more fascinating than the unexpected ways in which the human brain works. 

So, if understanding this simple quirk in how our brains work can make it a bit more likely that we’ll actually achieve happiness in our lifetimes, I think it’s worth adopting a few simple techniques to make it happen.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.