• Dr. Bill Northey

On Happiness And Gratitude - Especially Now.

Some time ago, I read an interesting article by Eric Barker on the Business Insider webpage on four rituals that will make you happier. The article got me thinking about some of the things we do to help people—and maybe ourselves. As to not keep you in suspense, the four rituals are:

Ask “What am I grateful for?”

Label Negative Feelings

Make the Decision

Touch People

Being grateful is always a great place to be, but research indicates that just asking ourselves what we are grateful for can help our brains, especially now. Ironically, guilt, shame, and worry can activate the brain’s reward centers, just like positive emotions, such as pride and gratefulness. I guess our brains are happy when we are experiencing things--if you think about it, what we call negative emotions serve a purpose. Being afraid is our body's way of telling us we must be aware of danger and that is a good thing for our survival. So we are not likely to be able to stop our brains for rewarding us for our feelings, but we can change how our brains are processing those emotions. By shifting our focus from fear, worry, and anxiety, to thinking about things we are grateful for our brains will reward us because we are doing something. So rather than feeling stuck on our emotions--and maybe beating ourselves up because of it--why not flip the script and think of something you are grateful for?

Another way to "trick" our brains is actually rather simple. Barker suggests that labeling our negative emotions can make us feel better. It seems that when we label our emotions we move from the more primitive part of our brain (the limbic system) to the more advanced part (the prefrontal cortex). Shifting the focus to labeling actually reduces the impact that our emotions have on us physiologically. So when our clients are upset it might help to just ask them to label the feeling they are having. The article also suggests that using more symbolic language, like metaphors, can also help. This might benefit our clients who at times struggle to verbalize what they are feeling. I remember when I worked with adolescents with substance abuse problems, they often had a hard time expressing what they felt. So rather than focus on the emotion, I used to ask ”If your emotion was an animal, what would it be?” "Where does it live inside of you?" "What helps to soothe it?" By being curious about the animal, I could often get them to address some of the underlying issues related to their feelings. Little did I know that I was helping them process their emotions by giving their brains something to do with the prefrontal cortex. Who knew?

I’ve always been a big fan of being good enough. Lots of us expend a great deal of time and energy trying to make the “right” decision, but sometimes we just need to make a good enough decision. In fact, the key may not be the decision itself - the fact that we made a decision at all makes us happier. Making a decision boosts activity in the reward centers of our brains. It is not only liking what we picked (chocolate vs. vanilla), but we get an extra boost of dopamine because we made the decision at all. I guess if you think about it, from an evolutionary perspective, it is just as important to actually make the decision as to make it a good one. How else would we learn?

There is research that shows that not only do our brains like us to be decisive, but we seem to get more out of it when we are. For example, research has shown when people choose to exercise (rather than being forced or coerced) that they get more benefits from the exercise. There are probably lots of reason for this, like when we commit to something we want to be successful, so when working with folks if we can help them make decisions, rather than defaulting to someone else’s choice for them, we may helping people on two fronts—the decision to do something healthy and making the decision itself.

The article goes into a good bit of detail outlining the brain science behind benefits of these rituals, such as purporting that getting 5 hugs a day for 4 weeks will increase your happiness—I highly recommend we all try that when Covid is behind us! Just make sure the person you are hugging is in agreement--remember those boundaries :-). What would be cool is if we actually kept track of our hugs and tracked our happiness--like an emotional Fitbit.

As always have a great week, stay safe, and be grateful.

All the best,

Dr. Bill

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