Rewire Your Brain for Happiness by Doing the Opposite
Doing the opposite of what you might normally do can help disrupt the well-worn pathways in your brain. Try this strategy when you're feeling stuck and want to make some positive changes in your life.
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If happiness skills are learnable (and they are) then these skills, just like other skills, rely on the brain. Just like recognizing the color of a flower, or recalling the name of a friend relies on the brain, happiness too relies on the brain to function quickly and efficiently. But the brain is actually quite lazy. The brain’s goal is to use as little energy as possible and still keep us functioning. The way it does this is by learning from our behavior and experiences, and creating networks that make it easier for us to continue doing what we have always done with no additional effort needed.
The bad news is that when we continually engage in thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and behaviors that generate negative emotions, our brains actually get better at generating these negative emotions.
The good news is that the brain is changeable throughout our entire lives.
The brain’s ability to change is referred to as neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the reason why when you practice happiness activities, it becomes easier for you brain to generate happiness. And, over time, you have to exert less and less effort to achieve the same level of happiness.
For example, let’s say you learn to play the guitar. The longer you play, the easier it is. And, the longer you play, the less frequently you have to practice to maintain your guitar skills. Happiness is the same way.
So, when we are not experiencing enough happiness, we are benefited by training the brain to more quickly and efficiently generate happiness for us. Basically we are making our automatic reactions more positive.
Do the Opposite
When we have strong reactions, we may get the sudden impulse to yell, or run away, or engage in some unhealthy behavior. Next time you notice yourself reacting strongly to something, pause. Whatever you feel like doing, try doing the opposite. Doing the opposite can help disrupt the well-worn pathways in your brain.
For example, my natural reaction when I’m upset is to flee. So my opposite reaction is to stay and stand my ground. If your reaction is to yell, try instead to whisper. If your reaction is to lash out at someone who has hurt your, then try instead to do something kind for them. By doing the opposite, we confuse our brains and begin to break up our patterns. I admit, it can feel weird to do the opposite, and may even feel like it goes against who we are. But what we have been doing has not been making us happy. So, just try it. For a while, just try to do the opposite, and see how your brain changes.
About Dr. Tchiki Davis
Dr. Davis is founder of The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. After getting her PhD in psychology at Berkeley, she started creating online content & programs to boost well-being—some of these have reached more than a million people. As author of Outsmart Your Smartphone, and contributor to Psychology Today, The Greater Good Science Center, and Shine Text, Dr. Davis aims to share her insights on happiness & health with people all across the world. Learn more about Dr. Davis.