Train your brain to be a happy person

What is happiness? Human beings have agonised over this question for centuries. It’s a state of being which we all strive toward or wish to attain, often seeking it out through various experiences with the hope of eternal happiness.

However, after much striving to find it, many people perceive happiness as elusive and unattainable.

According to recent neuroscience research and practice, there are three “open” secrets to true happiness, with the focus on building our natural capacity for well-being and inner resourcefulness.

Certain neuropsychologists propose that happiness is actually an innate capacity which we all possess and a skill which can be developed.

Rick Hanson, a specialist in neuropsychology, suggests that we need to “train our brains” for happiness by doing a few simple things, which are condensed into three secrets to happiness.

The first “secret” or intention is to be on your own side – this is the very first and important step.

We are often a better friend to others than to ourselves. Why is it good to be on your own side? All beings are worthy of basic decency and basic care. All beings include yourself. If we have a benevolent inclination to care for all beings, it naturally needs to include you.

The more power we have over someone, the more responsibility we have to them.

Who is the one being that you have the most power over? You.

Therefore, you have the most duty towards yourself to help you get the most out of life. When you fill your own cup, you will have more resources to give to others.

A good life is a happy one which does not necessarily mean good in terms of standards of wealth but instead means if you are happy you will more than likely be good to others.

If one is going down a river and is being carried away by the current, how can we help others?

If we are carried away by turbulent emotional currents, how can we help others?

When we give care to ourselves and have compassion for ourselves, we can be there for others in the same way. We don’t have to be perfect in doing this or be perfect at all, to be worthy of care or concern towards oneself.

A way to understand this deeper is to think about whether you have a bad attitude towards yourself, lambast, criticise or beat yourself up, are stoic towards your own pain or trip yourself up?

Mr Hanson suggests that you feel your way into how you can be more of a friend towards yourself, feel how it is to be an advocate or wise guide to yourself, instead of your worst critic. There is no such thing as a perfect way of being.

As Leonard Cohen once wrote, “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Although the good in life can seem few and far between, you can find them. This is not the place where you make things perfect, neither in your marriage, your work, your love of God, nor your love of family or country. Whatever it is, it is imperfect.

There is a crack in everything that you can put together: physical objects, mental objects, construction of any kind. The light gets in through the cracks, and that’s where our vulnerability and humanness is exposed.

Opening up to this helps us return to a sense of aliveness and connectedness to ourselves. It is with the confrontation and the acceptance of the brokenness of our lives, that we open our hearts to ourselves and in so doing also to others.

The second secret is to rest in love. By acknowledging and remembering the many people who helped you to get somewhere, you keep alive the love, in your heart and mind, that was given to you.

Everybody gets support from others who helped them get to where they are. Someone in our lives, has loved us into being. It can be family, a friend, a pet, a teacher, a neighbour, or anyone who has treated you with respect, support and kindness.

Bring them into mind and remember what they did for you. With this kind of relationship in mind, do you treat yourself with the same set of sweetness and kindness that you give to special people?

The third secret is to build our inner resources by taking in the good. There is a Native American story about a woman was asked toward the end of her life how she became so good, popular, kind and successful.

She said that in her heart there were always two wolves, one of love and one of hate, and everything depended on which one she fed each day. She chose to feed the wolf of love each day. If we want to grow good in us, we have to feed this. When we choose to build love, resilience, optimism, kindness and so on, all causes of happiness, we germinate happiness in ourselves.

Tend to the causes, then we will have more of what we want, which is happiness.

If our inner resources are built and sustained through awareness and practice, then we get to experience more happiness.

Inner strengths are depended upon by green lights that go off in our brain. For example, we become more compassionate by repeatedly experiencing compassion toward ourselves and then as a result, toward others.

If we have more experiences of resilience, this will become strengthened in your brain.

As the saying goes, “neurons that fire together, wire together”.

However, the activation of a pleasant state of mind needs installation. Most of beneficial states of mind are wasted if we do not install them.

The brain has a negativity bias which records negative experiences (Velcro effect) more strongly than it records positive experiences (Teflon effect).

The negativity bias is built into our brains as a function to protect us from danger. Today we don’t need this anymore and in the modern world it functions as a kind of built in learning disability; this makes us defensive and on guard all the time.

Happiness is indeed a learnable skill and an inner resource which is a necessary condition in living with a sense of peace and contentment.

I would like to end with a fitting quote from Buddha which goes: “Think not lightly of good, saying, ‘it will not come to me’. Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise one, gathering it little by little, fills oneself with good”.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. She will try to answer as many queries as possible through this column or refer you to organisations that can assist.

You can write to her at Send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.