Think about your holiday experience, if you will. Do you notice the bright colors, ringing bells, cheerful chatter and uplifting music? OR do you feel harried from place to place, unable to keep up with too much work and holiday preparations, that you are spending more money than you should and annoyed with repetitive Christmas tunes? The perspective we have often feels like it controls us or compels us to feel and think a certain way; however, it is my belief and documented by many authors that the story we have about the holiday season is a choice.
Choosing joy requires consciousness and an awareness of our thoughts. It requires a desire to be happy and the diligence to see the path through to actually feeling joyful. The idle brain tends to retrieve what is unsettled in our library of information; the open books lying around. Following the memory, the brain usually quotes a personal statement to us, reciprocal to the memory, and is either positive or negative. Thoughts, without intension, operate off of habit; if it is our routine to remember something happy, then, for instance, our idle brain will remember a funny thing our child did at the park and then the personal statement will tend to be kind, such as, ‘I have such a great life. I’m a good parent.’ If we tend to ruminate over times when people hurt us, we are likely to remember the unkind thing our partner said to us and then find the next unkind thing to say to self, filled with hyperboles. For example, ‘I NEVER have enough time to do what I want to do. People ALWAYS treat me poorly. I’m NEVER good enough.’
How does my brain make these habits?
What we think about has many components, some biological and some learned. It can happen that a child, raised in a happy family, is self-taught to speak unkind and negatively about his or her self. Children in driven households can pick up negative messages of not being good enough. Children in households with negative emotion coupled with commands or criticism can change the self-view from “I am good and sometimes make bad decisions that I can correct.” to “I am bad and cannot change.” (No Drama Discipline, by Dan Siegel).
Thus the habit of how we self-talk is created both from biological factors, such as temperament and neurotransmitter production, etc., and from the self-talk within the environment.
If I talk negatively to me, how do I change?
Our thinking can change in three ways, mind over body/emotion, body/emotion over mind or a combination of the two. One of my favorite brain scientists, Dan Siegel, says in the book, The Healing Power of Emotion, “research implies….we can work more directly with emotional feelings through body dynamics than cognitive inputs….The emotional rudiments of the mind are thoroughly biological. The guiding principle is that raw affects arise from large-scale neural networks that generate instinctual emotional behaviors, rather than from higher self-related brain regions that mediate the cognitive awareness of our existence…. Emotional feelings can be induced by simulating emotional actions” including facial expressions and whole-body dynamics. Thus, we can change more effectively by engaging our body and emotions, which change our thoughts. The best ways to do this, as children and adults, is through playful activities and exercise. Laughing is truly the best medicine. It incorporates our body, mind and emotional state in a positive and happy state. This means we can improve through healthy associates that make us laugh, funny TV shows, books and movies and by engaging our thoughts, purposefully on funny moments with family, friends and animals.
Changing negative thinking toward positive thoughts is very difficult. The Happiness Advantage states our brain “can read and identify an emotion in another person’s face within 33 milliseconds, and then just as quickly prime us to feel the same.” This illustrates that we are as happy as our associates allow us to be. Those close to us do positively or negatively affect the way we think and feel.
My favorite read on creating positive and happy thinking is Cultivating Lasting Happiness, by Terry Fralich. I highly recommend reading and re-reading this book to develop a happy brain. In his second edition, he coaches us to “have a thought and notice it at the same time…..Often our thoughts fill up our whole consciousness, leaving no room for seeing the thoughts from a larger, more spacious awareness.” He calls this awareness mindfulness and “the witness.” He believes we have a choice to switch our brain from auto pilot, or the habit brain, to The Witness who guides our thinking. This “harmony of attention and intention” is created by (1) focus on each task, our surroundings and our breath, (2) awareness of distractions, or thoughts, worries, emotions or sensations that cause the mind to drift, and (3) release and return to witnessing the thoughts by “letting go of distraction with patience and kindness for self and simply returning to focus.”
Let’s choose joy!
Please choose joy this holiday season. Make this Christmas and new year a positive one by surrounding yourself with intentional happy and playful thoughts, music, people and animals. The cat you see is my resource when happy thoughts are harder to find.
If you would like help finding a happy brain, please contact us at 314-717-0190 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Achor, S. (2010). The happiness advantage. The seven principles of positive psychology that fuels success and performance at work.
Fosha, D., Siegel, D., Solomon, M.F. (2009). The healing power of emotion. Affective neuroscience, development & clinical practice.
Fralich, T. (2nd ed.). Cultivating lasting happiness. A 7-step guide to mindfulness.
Siegel, D.J., Payne Bryson, T. (2014). No-drama discipline. The whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind.