Is happiness something we can cultivate or is it a result of our environment? New scientific research is shedding light on the answer, and the results are encouraging.
Imagine your brain has all these neural pathways connecting different responses. If you’re stuck in a traffic jam, and you feel angry, that fires a series of neurons together.
The first time you fire the sequence of “Ugh, traffic, I’m angry,” it’s as though you’re walking through a jungle (in your brain), and you bushwhack a path and put a wooden plank across a stream to cross it, creating a rudimentary bridge.
As you continue to have this same response (negative stimulus, like traffic = I’m angry), you strengthen the “angry bridge” across that little stream. Since you’re crossing that bridge so often, you decide to hang some ropes along the side and add more wood to make a stronger hanging bridge. As you keep crossing that same bridge and adding more foot traffic, you continue to reinforce it and make it even stronger. Eventually, you pave the bridge, add guardrails, and the next thing you know, you’ve created a five-lane highway that makes it very easy to have an angry response. In fact, the response is no longer a unique reaction to a unique stimulus, it is a habit.
If, instead of feeling angry, you were to instead turn your attention towards joy, compassion, or gratitude, you would start building a bridge that makes it easier to feel those feelings in the future. The single wooden plank you lay down the first time you cultivate appreciation would become reinforced over time until you create a habitual response to feel compassion, gratitude, and appreciation without much conscious effort at all.
As one woman in our recent Mindfulness Based Achievement seminar said, “Vanessa, I feel like I’ve been so stuck in over-identifying with my thoughts and emotions. Every time I think I’m a bad mother, it’s as though I’m on autopilot, I can’t step back to observe that’s just a belief, just a thought that I can change at any time. My response to judge myself is so automatic – it’s like my mind is on the 405 [a five lane highway that runs up and down the coast of California] heading to LA with the belief that I’m a bad mother before I’ve even realized I’m on the freeway!”
Here’s the good news: with training, scientists have now shown, we can literally rewire the neural pathways that regulate our emotions, thoughts, and reactions. This means we can create new neural pathways – highways in our brain – that lead us to compassion, gratitude, and joy instead of anxiety, fear, and anger. We can reprogram our brains’ automatic response, and all it requires is a conscious effort to build new pathways.
Thanks to the advent of fMRI machines (functional magnetic resonance imaging), we can now watch our brains in real time and see which areas of the brain light up when we’re angry, pleased, or distracted. Over the past 20 years, scientists discovered that neural pathways of the brain change over time – the brain is dynamic, not fixed, as everyone previously believed. They named this idea that our brain architecture can change “neuroplasticity.”
As David Gelles shares in his new book Mindful Work, one of the earliest and best-known studies on neuroplasticity looked at London’s taxi drivers. Required to memorize a complete map of London’s serpentine streets, scans showed that the gray matter of the hippocampus – an area associated with memory and spatial awareness – in experienced London cabbies is substantially thicker than that of non-cabbies.
Gelles continues, a “study of violinists revealed that the parts of their brains associated with the motor mechanics of their left hands, used to hold the strings against the violin’s neck, were far more developed than in non-violinists.”
These studies are early examples of the ways our brains adapt and even change according to our behavior. Scientists have a term called “use-dependent cortical reorganization,” which essentially means we strengthen whichever neural pathways we use most often, or as some neuroscientists like to say “neurons that fire together, wire together.”
So how do we do this? How can we start to rewire our brain towards happiness, compassion, and gratitude?
The next time you’re stuck in traffic and notice yourself getting frustrated or angry, see if you can take two or three deep breaths and cultivate compassion for the other drivers. Think about how they are probably exhausted too, and they have family and loved ones they want to get home to as well.
Practicing self-compassion is one powerful way to start building these new pathways in your brain. Another tool is to begin cultivating gratitude – you can do this by journaling about things you’re grateful for or by simply sharing, out loud, three things you’re grateful for with someone – your partner or friends – at the end of each day.
And, you can start to disrupt the pathways you want to weaken by noticing, in the moment, when you’re having a negative reaction and choosing to take a few deep breaths instead. This practice sounds simple, but in reality, it is not easy.
Meditation is a powerful tool to help cultivate this noticing so that you can choose a new way to react in a given situation. A 2005 Harvard study by Sarah Lazar showed that meditation can change the structure of the brain. Further research shows that just five to ten minutes of meditation a day can make a difference.
The process of rewiring our brains is just that – a process. You are breaking habits and changing beliefs that can be thoroughly entrenched in your mind. The important thing to remember is that it can happen. Better yet, you can do it.