Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Tools for Happiness

                                    

 

 

                                                      TOOLS FOR HAPPINESS

 

An ice cream cone, a martini, a new iphone; these are NOT the tools for happiness.  Sure, pleasure is great, but it doesn’t last past the fleeting sensation.  Some people were born happy; that’s fantastic! However, the weight of the world is so heavy today that even optimists are being dragged down into unhappiness and sometimes even into depression and despair.  Most of us would like to be happier than we are now. This article is for you.

 

It’s much easier to be unhappy than happy. Recent research shows that we need at least three positive experiences to counterbalance negative experiences. We also need at least five positive interactions to counterbalance every negative interaction in our relationships and marriage.  Just thinking about this is depressing. But don’t stop reading. I’ll bring you an explanation for this state of affairs and two tools for improving your odds of living a happy life. Consider this information, start practicing and you will truly change your life!

 

Our marvelous brains have, unfortunately, brought us misery as they evolved over eons of time.  We have three parts to our brain, the lower part being called the limbic brain. Sometimes this brain is also called the reptilian or lizard brain because it has helped us survive over time.  Think of the lizard basking in the sun, totally relaxed and apparently oblivious to all surrounds. Now yell and watch what happens. The lizard is immediately up and gone even before you finish your scream.  Your reptilian brain is likewise in charge in danger situations. You may be happily crossing a street, oblivious to a careening bus coming your way. Your reptilian brain will leap into action directing your body to jump out of the path of the bus. Your higher brain did not decide what to do, go right or left; your limbic brain directed your move.  Because survival was more important to evolution than happiness, many parts of your brain are hardwired to activate immediately and continue overreacting as your brain searches to protect you from danger.  In evolution occasional dangers such as lethal attacks were interspersed with times of tranquility.  Now, however, the problems and pressures of modern life, though milder and less lethal, are omnipresent and disturb otherwise tranquil periods.  Just think about it. Your periods of worry and rumination, tossing and turning at night about life problems are much more frequent than the pleasant interludes and gratifications you do experience.

 

The first tool is a book by Rick Hanson, PhD, “Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence,” Harmony, 2013.  Recognizing this characteristic of lower brain, Dr. Hanson describes an important choice. When we continue to focus our mind on criticism, worries and stress, we reinforce the lower brain’s reactivity to negative events.  Alternatively we can use our higher brain systematically to practice a focus on positive thoughts until we actually increase our happy moods and decrease negativity. Dr. Hanson calls this “the science of experience-dependent neuroplasticity” which enables us to activate positive mental states and then install them as lasting neural traits.  You must start “taking in the good” by noticing positives many times during the day and then taking a half minute or less to enrich and then absorb the positive experiences.  You may be able to jump right into this practice and change your brain immediately.  Many of you, however, will become discouraged.  Before you give up, consider working through the loving and detailed suggestions in the second half of this book. Dr. Hanson has used and developed these techniques over many years in his own life and provides an invaluable guidepost to success and increased life happiness.

 

A surefire way to increase your probability of success with this method is to realize that the brain is only one factor in directing our experiences. Actually more potent, but less utilized these days, is the power of the emotional heart.  When our hearts and brains are tuned together toward happiness, the warm positive feelings spread and multiply exponentially. The Institute of Heartmath has researched the power of the emotional or intuitive heart for more than 20 years, finding that the heart is many times stronger than the brain in influencing our lives.  You can begin by going to www.Heartmath.org to watch a seven minute video, “The Hearts Intuitive Intelligence” then reading about their Appreciation Tool in the Tools for Well Being section. The website also has many more tools to read online or purchase. We can and should use the Heartmath tools together with Dr. Hanson’s techniques to truly hardwire happiness.

 

Consider exploring both new tools to increase your happiness. You can continue in your “caveman” mentality interspersed with occasional periods of pleasure and happiness, or you can use the higher levels of your brain and heart together to improve your life. The choice is yours!