6 Everyday Habits to Train Your Brain to Be Happier

A behavioral psychiatrist shares the daily practices that can literally rewire your brain to feel more joy.

If you think being a happier person isn’t in the cards for you, that joy is simply out of your hands, there’s some serious behavioral neuroscience that will change your mind for good (literally). Yes, some people seem to have been born happy. Yes, others are better at “choosing” happiness, even when things are hard. And still others have the brilliant capacity to feel lousy, but then bounce back and feel happier again in no time at all.

Some of this can be chalked up to winning the genetic lottery. According to the 2022 World Happiness Report, some lucky people really are naturally happier: “[Thirty] to 40 percent of the differences in happiness between people is accounted for by genetic differences between people…Some people will be born with a set of genetic variants that makes it easier to feel happy, while others are less fortunate.”1

Really, though, it’s far more layered than that, and the differences between individuals’ unique happiness levels are best explained by a “complex interplay of….genetic predisposition and his or her environment,” the report notes.

But even outside of our DNA and external circumstances, we all have the power within us to be happier.

“We tend to believe we’ll be happy when certain conditions are met, when we’ve achieved this or that, but that’s a common myth,» says Elissa Epel, PhD, professor and vice chair in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco, researcher and co-creator of The Big JOY Project, and author of The Stress Prescription: Seven Days to More Joy and Ease. «We don’t have to hope that we’ll feel better someday. We have more control than we think. We can take the reins and discover what we can do now—small things that can boost feelings of joy or content.“

The Power of Habits to Feel Happier

You can be happier without a magic personality transplant. But how? “Choosing” happiness is one way of thinking about it, but that makes it sound easier and more immediate than it is for most folks. It’s not usually as simple as flipping a switch. (Try telling someone with clinical depression that happiness is a choice and see how far that gets you.)

Increasing feelings of joy and happiness in a sustainable way lies in the power of habits.

“Habits are formed when we repeat behaviors. [They] get embedded in our neural wiring, in the basal ganglia,” Epel explains. Consciously adopting habits and very mindfully paying attention to their pleasant effects harnesses the power of an existing, positive reward system in our brains. “When a behavior triggers a positive emotional response, we’re likely to remember this and do it again,” she says. “Awareness of how something makes us feel good can help us develop new positive habits.”

More specifically, Epel’s research for and findings from The BIG JOY Project have uncovered that micro-habits are the true key to boosting happiness (and making it last). Practicing bite-sized, actionable, realistic, everyday behaviors and activities can, with a little consistency and commitment, actually rewire your brain to feel more joy, be happier, and move through the world with more positivity.

“Findings from neuroscience, psychology, medicine, public health, and other fields increasingly confirm what life experience and spiritual traditions have been telling us for thousands of years: that joy can begin within us when we choose to do even a tiny action in the direction of joy, and make a habit of it,” she says.

According to Epel, researchers refer to temporary moments of joy as “Hedonic happiness.” These are pleasant states of emotion that feel great, but “are not a sustainable source of joy.” But happiness that does last is called “Eudaimonic happiness,” and includes deeper feelings of belonging, a sense of personal value, meaning and purpose, and learning and growth, she adds. Fleeting feelings of joy on their own don’t last, but Epel says we can use them as “building blocks toward more sustainable well-being”—we can turn Hedonic happiness into Eudaimonic happiness by making a (healthy) habit of it.

Habits to Boost Happiness, According to Neuroscience

The BIG JOY Project is the largest-ever citizen science project studying joy, created by researchers (including Epel) from 17 universities. Informed by research that’s found the most effective activities for boosting happiness long term, the project is a digital experience that offers mini, science-based actions to train the brain to create and maintain joy more quickly and easily.

Below is a list of joy practices that The BIG JOY project provides. They’re “very brief activities we can try in order to train our brains to access joy more quickly and easily—and for longer,” Epel says. “When we face adversity, we can return to the exercises that will direct our brain to a place of peace and a more sustainable source of joy that is not as easily swayed.”

01 of 06 | Do 5 daily acts of kindness.

«Can you try to do five kind acts for others?» Epel asks. Think about gifting someone else with their own mini moment of joy. Send your friend a funny text message, call your grandfather, write a positive comment on an Instragram post, pick up a piece of trash, bring your doorman a latte. No need for big gestures (or price tags) here.

02 of 06 | Focus on gratitude.

How? Make it concrete: Write it down, say it out loud, think of it first thing in the morning. «Make a list of things you are grateful for, small and large,» Epel says. «Gratitude is an antidote to stress. We can set ourselves onto a more positive trajectory for the day if we start the morning with gratitude. When you wake up, think of something you’re grateful for.»

03 of 06 | Experience nature every day.

Go outside every single day and let the natural light, sounds, smells, and surroundings lower your stress and lift your spirits.2 «Get outside and notice the views or urban greenery around [you] by opening up all of your senses and moving in a mindful way,» Epel says.

04 of 06 | Reframe negative events to find a silver lining.

Bad things happen, and they will keep happening. Acknowledge the pain, the inconvenience, the anger (no toxic positivity here). But then work hard to «shift your perspective [by] finding the benefit within a daily hassle,» Epel says.

One helpful modification if you’re feeling particularly stuck in your pessimistic ways (remember, that’s just a habit you can break!), start even smaller: See if you can shift your perspective to find something more neutral about a setback or grievance. That situation stunk, but can you tolerate it? Will it pass? Have you gotten through something similar before?

05 of 06 | Capitalize on positive events for others.

This goes along the lines of showing kindness toward others, but it’s really about listening and being present for your loved ones. «Solicit and actively listen to stories about what’s going well in other peoples’ lives,» Epel says.

06 of 06 | Affirm your most important values often.

If our actions and life decisions don’t mesh with our deepest values, unhappiness is rarely far behind. Remind yourself of what you value most in the world, then take stock of whether or not you’re living for them. Epel suggests, «rank the importance of four core values and write a brief account of how they show up in [your] life.» Return to this list of values often to help you make hard decisions, to steer yourself back toward contentment, and ultimately find more purpose and happiness in everyday life.

Read the original article by Maggie Seaver on realsimple.com