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Mindful : June 2015
practicing deliberate acts of kindness; nurturing strong social relationships; forgiving those who may have hurt you; genuinely savoring life’s joys; par ticipat- ing in activities that truly engage you; practicing mindfulness; and taking care of your body, including exercising a nd cultivating laughter. “Start with small steps to create an upward spiral,” advises Lyubomirsky. “Sense which of these activities feels most natural and most easily fits with your lifestyle, then try something a little more challenging later on. Ideally, some of the practices, such as focusing on rela- tionships and becoming a better listener, will in time become automatic. Others may require ongoing intention and effort, like remembering to take a dose of a helpful medicine.” Practicing gratitude, in pa rticula r, may feel artificial, but study after study has shown it to be one of the most power- ful activities we can engage in. Lyubom- irsky says, “Gratitude is a great way to consider what ’s good about your life, instead of focusing on what’s not good or what other people have that you don’t . Lots of people say it’s hokey to count your blessings, and I’m actually one of them, but the payoff is tremendous.” Change Your Brain The cynics, skeptics, and curmudgeons tempted to dismiss g ratitude and other happiness-boosting practices as New Age hokum would be well advised to consider the mounting evidence linking positive emotions to markers for good health. Our brains tell a significant part of the story. “Research suggests that when people consciously practice gratitude, they’re increasing the flow of beneficial neuro- chemicals in the brain,” Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and author, most recently of Hardwiring Happiness, tells me over hot and sour soup in San Rafael, California. “ What passes through the the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Steven Cole of the UCLA School of Medicine found that blood samples of people with high levels of eudaimonic happiness demonstrated a better immune response profile than those with high levels of hedonic happiness. Regardless of how we define it— eudaimonia or hedonia, well-being or subjective well-being—it’s striking to discover that after correcting for our genetic inheritance and life circum- stances, we’re each left with the capacity to control about 40% of our individual happiness. I find this number a mazing. Who knew that happiness is a n equal opportunity emotion, as available to grouches and worriers as it is to the innately cheerful? This is definitely good news for anxious types like me. The DIY Path to Joy The key is intention, says Sonja Lyubom- irsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, and author of The How of Happiness. “I’m not suggesting we all try to become happier,” she tells me. “ But those who feel their lives a re not quite flourishing or who experience a lot of negative emotions can benefit from positive interventions.” Although Lyubomirsky suggests mul- tiple strategies for boosting happiness, she cautions that there’s no one-size- fits-a ll approach. “Ma ny of us persist in searching for the one true path to hap- piness, like the one diet that will work when all others have failed,” she says. “In truth there is no magic bullet. There are hundreds of things you can do. You have to experiment a nd choose what’s right for you.” Hearing this comes as a relief; I’m a lways suspicious of books and arti- cles that evangelize the one true way. Among the many strategies that Lyubomirsky discusses are: conveying your gratitude to others either verbally or in a letter; cultivating optimism; mind resculpts the neura l structure of the brain. If we focus on what we resent or regret, we build out the neural substrates of those thoughts and feelings. But if we rest our attention on things we’re grateful for, we build up very different neural substrates. New blood starts flowing. Existing sy napses become more sensitive and new sy napses g row.” The key, Hanson adds, is promoting sustained attention. Just having positive experiences isn’t enough. In order for those experiences to have a real impact on our brain, we need to stay with them for longer periods than may be our cus- tom. Hanson calls this taking in the good. The practice goes something like this: Notice something pleasant already present in the foreground or background of your awa reness, such as a physical pleasure, the sight of a beautiful tree, or a feeling of closeness with someone. Stay with it for five to 10 seconds or longer. Open to the feelings it produces in your mind a nd body, enjoy them, and gently encourage the experience to intensify. Finally, imag ine the good sinking into you as you sink into it. You might even visualize the experience as a soothing balm or a jewel in your heart—a resource inside yourself that you can take with you wherever you go. This sounds and feels good; I’ve even tried it during my daily walks through the hills in my neighborhood, a nd I like it. I’ve savored the beauty a round me → After correcting for genet- ics and life circumstances, we’re each able to control about 40% of our individual happiness. Beyond Control June 2015 mindful 47 happiness PHOTOGRAPH©DEBROCKE/CLASSICSTOCK/CORBIS