It’s possible to retrain your brain to look on the bright side by making easy, little changes in your thinking and habits. The payoff: a less-stressed, more joy-filled life every day of the year. Simple strategies like spending time with friends or exercising regularly (Try our free Drop 10 Diet plan for choose-your-own workouts you'll love!) can make a huge difference in the way you look at life. Here’s how to find your inner bliss.
1. Enjoy the Little Moments
When’s the last time you actually stopped what you were doing and looked at a sunset…or looked up, period? We thought so. But there’s good reason to revel in what’s around you. Focus on pleasurable experiences and you’ll activate happiness-related neurons, which could make future good times feel more intense. “Simply put, when neurons fire together, they wire together,” says author Daniel Siegel, M.D.
How to do it Experience joy with all your senses—inhale the smells; feel the air on your skin. “The more fully you feel something, the deeper the neural traces that are left behind in the brain,” says author Rick Hanson, Ph.D. “That solidifies your memory of the moment,” Over time, you’ll have an easier time handling random stressors. (Rude driver? No prob!)
2. Hang with Upbeat People
Emotions are contagious. “You can catch a mood, just like a cold,” says Marco Iacoboni, M.D., author of Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect With Others. When you watch a person doing something, the mirror neurons in your brain are activated, even if you’re not doing anything yourself. So if you see someone smile, your mirror neurons for smiling fire up, whether or not you’re in a good mood. “Spend time with happy people and you’ll eventually feel happier yourself,” Dr. Iacoboni says.
3. Smile, Even if it’s Hard
The physical act of smiling can lift your mood, a phenomenon known as the facial feedback hypothesis. Similarly, researchers at the University of Wisconsin in Madison studied people before and after they’d gotten Botox, which blocks frowning. Post-’tox, subjects took longer to understand sad or angry sentences. Impairing frowning may disrupt the brain-body feedback loop, dampening negative emotions.
4. Get Your Karaoke On
There’s evidence that a primitive sensory organ in the inner ear, the sacculus, might react to music, triggering a response in the hypothalamus that creates a pleasurable buzz. “Consider singing your worries out loud in a lilting voice,” says Reid Wilson, Ph.D., author of Don’t Panic: Taking Control of Anxiety Attacks. (Try something like “Bills, bills, bills—they suck!” to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”) “Singing about worries makes them seem a bit absurd and helps put them in perspective.”
5. Work it Out
“Exercise may buffer the brain from stressful situations,” says John Ratey, M.D., author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. There’s some evidence that working up a sweat promotes the growth of new neurons that are less reactive to stress.
6. Put a Warm, Fuzzy Memory on Repeat
Replay a scene—cooking with your grandma—that evokes safety as you place your hand on your heart or cheek. “You’ll activate neural networks associated with feeling cared for, which can help you feel safer,” says neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, Ph.D. Another tip: Imagine yourself as a tree with a wide trunk and deep roots; visualize any upsetting things blowing around you like the wind. Hanson says, “They might rattle the leaves, but they can’t hurt the tree.” Or you.
The 15-second calm-down trick
Naming your negative emotions (as in, Wow. I’m really, really feeling annoyed!) can help take the sting out of them. Try it.
The trigger: Your sister hangs up on you. Before you have a conniption, close your eyes and breathe deeply. Feel any tightness in your body, then gradually start to let the tension go. Think about any negative emotions you’re feeling.
Fury? Shame? “Don’t judge yourself, whatever they are,” says James Baraz, coauthor of Awakening Joy: 10 Steps That Will Put You on the Road to Real Happiness. “The point is simply to become more aware of your emotions, which is key to controlling them.”
Now, name your ugly emotions. “I feel so humiliated.” When scientists at UCLA’s Brain Mapping Center showed people images of scared or angry faces, neural activity in the fear centers of their brain shot up. But when subjects described the facial expressions with one word, the activity dropped in the fear center and jumped in the prefrontal cortex. That suggests that labeling your feelings can calm the reactive amygdala. “But the words you use matter,” says author Daniel Siegel, M.D. “Instead of saying, ‘I am sad,’ which defines you, try ‘I’m feeling sad,’ which implies you recognize the emotion but aren’t consumed by it.” Make it a habit and you’ll create positive brain changes over time.