Remember this, that very little is needed to make a happy life. — Marcus Aurelius
Current psychological research shows that only 10% of our happiness and well-being is due to our circumstances (no matter how awful they might be) and that 50% is due to our set-point happiness (whether we are naturally more optimistic or pessimistic); however, epigenetics suggests that we can override our genes so we may be able to affect our happiness and well-being by more than the 40% left which we can control with intentional activity.
Whether you are full of the Christmas jollies or look like you are auditioning for the role of Scrooge, watch this short, sweet video on how to invite more joy into your life:
Remember, what you focus on expands; results follow focus.
— Marcus Buckingham
Neuroscientific research is consistently showing us the multitude of benefits to mindfulness/meditation/getting still. Jill Bolte Taylor, the neuroscientist who had a stroke, miraculously recovered and lived to tell the tale (a TED Talk http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyyjU8fzEYU and wrote the book “A Stroke of Insight”), discovered in her recovery that our negative thoughts of worry, anxiety, anger etc. last only 90 seconds if we just observe without judgment; what keeps us in a constant mind chatter loop of rumination and negativity is that we continue the story and add to the story with each continuous negative thought as we don´t give our minds the space to observe and release the thought so we can go back to our natural happy state.
Research shows that when we are in a negative emotional state it shuts down our pre-frontal cortex and parietal lobe which inhibits conscious decision-making and creativity and shuts down parts of the brain where we experience joy, happiness, and compassion. Instead, being in a negative emotional state activates our flight or fight system where we make reactive choices based on fear (or what can seem to be lack of choices, i.e. feeling stuck, continuing bad habits, hiding from life, denial as a defense mechanism), or we fight by being reactive to our circumstances through anger, violence, and abuse. By keeping a cup half full attitude, counting blessings, and following our desires we can keep the portals open to our own happiness and well-being.
Regular periods of activating our fight or flight system causes stress; stress leads to other symptoms like anxiety and depression, thus entrapping us into a continuous feedback loop of negative thinking and habits which can seem impossible to break out off. Believe it or not, research has shown that a very simple mindfulness technique can easily help us to release and relieve us of stress; thus changing our neurology from stressed to blessed.
Practice the following:
- Sitting comfortably, back straight to help energy flow more easily through the body and to stop us from falling asleep (when we lie down, our body is conditioned to fall asleep but if for any reason you need to do this lying down you can). If you feel comfortable to do so, closing your eyes slowly and softly.
- Focusing on our breath, breathing deep from the diaphragm, slowly inhaling from the nose, exhaling out from the mouth, imagining all the stress being released as you exhale and observing without judgement any thoughts that arise as you do so.
- Being mindful to always bring our attention back to the breath if we feel our minds start to wander off with our thoughts; keep breathing (which will activate our parasympathetic nervous system which calms and relaxes both the mind and body as both are intrinsically interconnected) until you feel a sense of peace and calm within.
- When you feel ready, inhale and exhale deeply and slowly from the diaphragm three times, becoming more aware of your body and mind becoming awake and alert and slowly and softly come into the room by opening your eyes.
By making this part of your daily mindful practice or every time you experience stress/worry/anxiety, you are allowing an open space to be created within your pre-frontal cortex and parietal lobe where infinite possibilities reside within your conscious creation. By acknowledging and honouring our negative emotions which arise for a reason to communicate to us a part of us that needs to heal, change, and/or let go of a situation/relationship/belief, we are then able to create new situations/relationships/beliefs and at the same time keep our brain open to accessing and experiencing happiness, joy, and compassion which can make our healing and transitions through change and challenging circumstances easier and to do so in more conscious, creative, and healthy ways.
A shift in perspective through conscious deep breathing and bearing neutral witness to our thoughts when they arise can transmute worry into wisdom and creative solutions.
An Attitude of Gratitude
When you follow your bliss… doors will open where you would not have thought there would be doors, and where there wouldn’t be a door for anyone else. -Joseph Campbell
Thankfully the same part of the brain where negative thoughts occur is where we can find gratitude which means we can´t simultaneously have a negative thought and a thought of gratitude. Although important to acknowledge and listen to the wisdom of our pain and negative emotions (under the heading Transmute Worry above shows you how to do this effectively), when stuck in a pattern of negative ruminations or a low mood, focusing our mind on gratitude and our blessings immediately alters the brain chemistry and alleviates our mood and shift in thinking from one of pessimism to that of optimism and faith.
Taking the time to really feel in your heart and mind the things, people, situations, present moments that you are grateful for, activates the parasympathetic nervous system in the body which puts you in a calmer more relaxed state and releases and decreases levels of stress in the mind and body. It also activates the electromagnetic frequency of the heart and puts it in a state of coherence and peace that communicates with the brain; thus creating this shift in thinking and perspective. Gratitude is like a natural drug that can alter your mind and body state instantaneously whilst you hold thoughts and feelings of gratitude in your mind and heart. If you can create an attitude of gratitude before going into difficult circumstances and conversations with others, you will find you see situations in a new light, from a different perspective and one where hopefully you can find a more peaceful and loving way to respond and react to what life and others throw at you.
Interestingly, research conducted by Sonja Lyubomirsky and that she writes about in her book “The How of Happiness”, found that happiness levels increased in participants who practised counting their blessings by writing them down at the end of each week but happiness levels didn´t increase in participants who were asked to do the same task but this time to count their blessings three days per week. Lyubomirsky suggests this is because the task of counting their blessings three times per week of a persistent duration of time makes the task seem boring and more like a chore than an intentional activity to increase happiness. It is important to find variety in our habits and routines so that we don´t adapt to them to the extent that they start to become automated where we lose the conscious effect of their benefits.
Find new ways to practice gratitude to keep it fun, effective, and life changing.
- For every bad thing that happened to you that week, think about something that you can be grateful for from it; maybe you learnt a new nugget of wisdom or it alerted you to change an aspect of yourself or life.
- Get kids involved in coming up with creative ways and games to express gratitude before bed or before meal times.
- Write thank you notes to all the people that brightened up your week.
- Draw or paint all the things you are grateful for.
- Have thematic weeks/months where you look out for particular moments of gratitude in different areas of your life like love, career, parenting, friendships, health.
- Sit in nature and just be grateful for what is, the beauty you are seeing in the moment.
- Meditate when feeling stressed and overwhelmed and feel the feeling of gratitude in your heart radiating to every cell in your body until you feel calm and at peace and can think from a new perspective of gratitude.
- If in doubt, you are alive, therefore you have a purpose; be grateful for your life and the opportunity to change yourself and circumstances by coming into conscious awareness and gratitude.
Health is your Wealth
Health is the greatest possession. Contentment is the greatest treasure. Confidence is the greatest friend. —Lao Tzu
Movement equals our psychology. Take, for example, the fact that in 50% of people research has shown that yawning 10 times (even when you fake yawn) is as effective as meditation and relaxation techniques as it awakens the pre-frontal cortex and helps you focus more and be creative. So the next time you feel stuck when making a decision or have writer´s block, start yawning and stretching to re-awaken your mind. It´s effective as it helps more blood flow get to parts of the brain associated with higher levels of consciousness that Buddhist monks reach when meditating which creates shifts in thinking. Teachers out there and managers allow your students and co-workers to come to class and meetings and yawn…it´s helping them to stay awake, alert and focus on learning and listening; it might even help them come up with some creative ideas!
Doing aerobic exercise for three minutes (and more) changes the neurology of the brain because the brain after three minutes and more of blood flow oxygenating around the body and brain can´t hold anxious or negative thoughts at the same time providing a wonderful opportunity to create new beliefs about yourself/circumstances/life/relationships. Start saying those affirmations and intentions you want to create in life whilst exercising and you will literally be re-programming your brain and creating new neural pathways which will help you take positive actions on these newly created thoughts and beliefs about yourself and life. Now you can literally get a new brain and body at the same time!
Help Others to Heal Yourself
If you want happiness for an hour — take a nap. If you want happiness for a day — go fishing. If you want happiness for a year — inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime — help someone else. Chinese Proverb
Try it. Help a family member, a friend, a stranger, a charitable cause and you will see how much better you feel about yourself and about life in general. Although life will always come with uncertainty of the unknown, helping others allows us to feel more resilient and gain self-control knowing that whatever comes our way or into the paths of others together we can find a way to thrive beyond these circumstances. Helping others is often one of the recommendations given to people suffering from depression by their psychologist as it brings the focus away from the person´s problems and puts the focus on helping someone else; if you can help others and see their lives change, you will also be able to be a powerful instigator in your own life. It also shows the world is also full of love, compassion, hope and kindness.
Create Sacred Space
We all need boundaries in our life. In order to create the right boundaries for us, we need to know what it is that we want to experience in each area of our life. Once we know what we want, we will easily be able to recognize when things show up in our life, relationships and our own behaviour and actions that we don´t want; it alerts us to areas in our life that need to change. The only thing we have control over is changing ourselves.
Creating a space within us through meditating, being mindful, focusing on our breathe where we can get still and create space between our thoughts to let go of whatever no longer serves us in life and invite in the experiences that help us to feel more love and flourish in our lives will help us to create the right boundaries for us.
It´s always helpful to write down what we want as it serves as a physical reminder and of course you can change and adapt what you have written as your wants and needs change too. I recommend creating a list of categories such as: Love relationships, Family, Friends, Career, Life Purpose, Hobbies, Travel, Fun time, Education/Learning/Skills etc. Under each category you have created, create the following sub-categories of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual (as these are the four main energies of how we experience the world and they are all interconnected and create our whole health and well-being) and describe in detail what you want to feel and experience in each category and sub-category. Take the time to visualize and feel in your body how it would feel to be experiencing your dreams and intentions. Take as long as you need to complete this activity and if you need to do it over a duration of days or weeks, it will be worth it to do it properly. Once you have finished, take a look at your life, current circumstances and relationships and become consciously aware of people, habits, lifestyle changes that you need to change, adjust or simply let go of in order to make room for all the new and exciting experiences and people you now want to call and invite into your life.
If you don´t take charge of your life and become responsible for how you want to feel and how you want to experience and live your life, you will end up becoming a victim of other people´s agendas and motivations that in most cases will not serve you but serve their needs and experiences which in the end will suck out all your energy and life force. Take back your life from others and limiting circumstances by looking within and making internal changes and choosing intentional activities that increase happiness, health, and well-being. As Gandhi so wisely encouraged, “be the change you wish to see in the world”, and I would add in your life too!
I was always looking outside myself for strength and confidence, but it comes from within. It is there all the time. — Anna Freud
The neuroscientist Mark Waldman recommends the following technique based on research for guiding our life and conversations by what we value most in our life:
- Sitting up straight, focusing on the breath, breathing deep from the diaphragm in order to get still, closing your eyes slowly and softly and if you feel comfortable to do this.
- Focus your mind on your heart and ask yourself this question: What is your deepest innermost value?
- What comes to mind first for you? Remember there are no right or wrong answers to this question.
- Become neutral observer (without judgement and replay past memories like a movie in your mind and just observe the thoughts and old beliefs that arise and as they arise release them without judgement and staying focused on your breath, breathing deeply and slowing, inhaling through the nose and exhaling out through the mouth.
- By observing only, we are creating space between thoughts that arise which gives us creative license to create new beliefs for the person and life you want to become and live now. (Remember we are energy, fluid, and malleable so up-date your belief system with this technique as and when you need to and for all areas of your life).
- This technique can complement the list of experiences and dreams you wrote down in the activity recommended in the section above.
- To come out of your mindfulness practice, breathe deeply and slowing inhaling and exhaling three times and becoming conscious of your body and slowly and softly opening the eyes.
Inner wisdom is only ever a few breaths away.
Tribe of Positivity
Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers. — Charles William Eliot
Apparently readers of self-help books on average only read the first two chapters and this includes the New York Times Best Seller ones – yikes!!! Wonder how many blog readers have scrolled down to read this 😉 Accordingly, self-help has garnered the nickname shelf-help where the books get left to collect dust. It´s very common that people are initially excited and enthusiastic about self-help books, retreats, workshops that they sign-up to and buy every course and book going, only to forget the one crucial principle that will actually help change you and your life: TAKING ACTION!!! No one can do that for you but you!
Yes, it´s important to collect and use many resources like books, courses and workshops to learn the skills and training you need to implement changes in your life, equally it is important to create a positive social support system around you that encourage you to take action and can also act as examples of what your life will look like when you do. Seek out people that are already doing and living the different aspects of your life that you want to improve as well as meet up with like minded people like yourself who are trying to positively take action on their desires and dreams so you can support each other along the journey which will no doubt be full of surprises, challenges, joy, miracles and many blessings big and small. By doing the written exercise recommended under the heading Creating Sacred Space will help you to know what you want to emulate in your life and by having an attitude of gratitude, as mentioned under the heading with the same name, will help you to remain positive and grateful even when challenges arise and will help you to create new solutions to problems instead of allowing negative emotions to control and take over your life.
Notice how the above information under all seven headings interlink and act as bridges of support in creating intentional ways of increasing happiness, health and well-being in you as a whole and in all aspects of your life.
Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you. ~Nathaniel Hawthorne