Positivity and Neuroplasticity
This week I’m going to attempt to make a very science-specific topic less…..science-y and more relatable for readers. I would like to lead with this, I do not have ANY desire to be a neuroscientist but I greatly respect them. In fact, neuroanatomy and neuroscience were probably the two courses I wish would have just disappeared while getting my degree. But I will say although I found the courses to be a headache, I do love the neurological system for many reasons. One of the reasons is the basis of this particular blog post topic: Neuroplasticity - the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience. Now I'll take the rest of this post to connect self-directed (performing tasks with intention and skillfulness) neuroplasticity to creating a more positive outlook and happiness in life.
So, why does this topic matter and why is it important? Think of how exceptional we are to have a brain that is malleable and constantly adapting to experiences and our learning styles to better respond each time we encounter a situation. This means one of two things, we can make our brain an ally on the journey to happiness or we can make it one of our biggest enemies. Let's dabble in neuroplasticity briefly. Thankfully, we discovered that the brain is not stagnant once we reach adulthood and our capacity for both changing and growing doesn't stop. When it comes to neuroplasticity we can essentially train our minds to respond more positively to life experiences. The brain contains tons of individual neurons that communicate via synapses, these connections determine what habits we strengthen and perpetuate or eliminate completely by action or lack thereof. Neurons that constantly fire develop stronger bonds i.e. Road rage is consistent in people and it's further developed and worsened the more they continue those habits (we all know that one person). Now imagine what positive changes we can make if instead of strengthening those negative emotions and bonds, we choose to focus on reinforcing the positive ones. In fact, there has been research supported by the Dalai Lama with the help of Tibetan Buddhist monks on the role meditation plays in neuroplasticity and changes within the brain. You can read more about that HERE.
"Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions."
- Dalai Lama
How Exactly Do You Make Happiness a Habit?
A habit is automatic behavior that occurs without much thought. In the European Journal of Social Psychology, Lally and colleagues discovered that new habit formation can occur between 18 and 254 days with the average being 66 days for most individuals to reach that peak level of automaticity. In theory, 66 days from now you can be living life with a more positive outlook and new neural connections that are biased towards happiness.
There are steps you can take daily to begin changing your mental outlook and create neurological change including:
Consciously Practicing Gratitude
Practicing Random Acts of Kindness
Savor Positive Experiences
Stay Motivated in Seeking the Good
Not Dwelling on Negative Incidents
With proper practice and self discipline you can train your neural mechanisms to foster a more positive state of mind which in turn creates more happiness. Scientist Donald Hebb discovered, "neurons that fire together, wire together" and we should be using that fact to our advantage and not fall victim to the negative side of that process!
"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."
As much as I would love to continue to dive into the mechanisms of habit formation, neural connections and all things related to the brain, I think I'm going to end it on this note: The goal is not to achieve unrealistic happiness daily - The goal is to alter the base level of happiness through strengthening positive neural connections. By doing this we allow ourselves to experience life with a new disposition highlighting the good in all we encounter.
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