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The Happiness Habit

Thoughtful young man sitting on fence in peaceful nature setting outside SM 303931927

As the accumulation of stress, social unrest, and overall uncertainty continue to permeate our lives, many find joy difficult to come by. You may be experiencing a lingering sense of languishing, emptiness, or a sense of dissatisfaction with activities you used to enjoy. You may also feel stuck or exhausted, unable to motivate yourself to action. Science shows that there is a way to counter this state of languishing by cultivating one particular emotion. 


Which Came First – Emotion or Reaction?

In the past, it was a common assumption that your emotions are hardwired reactions. For example, anger and outrage may explode to the surface when someone insults a person you love, almost as if someone flipped a switch. Recent research shows emotions aren’t spontaneous, uncontrollable experiences. Instead, you can mold, shape, and influence your emotional response with more sway than previously realized.

Previously, it was a commonly accepted belief that emotions precede reactions. For example, imagine you are walking in the woods and spot a bear. Recognizing the bear, you feel the emotion of fear, which initiates your physiological response. Your heart begins to race, adrenaline rises, and your breath quickens in reaction to the fear you felt. It was believed your emotions kick-started your flight or fight response.

Emotional Interpretation

But perception and previous experience play a significant role in the emotions you feel. Imagine your earlier interactions with bears were positive within the context of hunting. In the past, you went hunting, spotted a bear, and killed it. Afterward, you enjoyed a delicious, satisfying meal of bear soup with your family. Later, when you spot a bear in the woods, you have the same physiological response; accelerated heart rate, quickened breathing, and an adrenaline rush. Your brain interprets this physical reaction as positive based on your previous experience, causing you to feel excitement and anticipation of another potential mouth-watering meal rather than fear of becoming a bear’s meal.

Your emotions are your body’s interpretation of internal events (fast heart rate and breathing) and external events (spotting the bear). Your brain learns how to predict which emotional response will serve you best in future events. Which reaction is most conducive to your survival? Your brain uses your past experiences to interpret events in real-time, which then become your present experience. Your mind’s ability to reference past events to determine your current reality is called the predictive brain.


Rewiring Your Emotional Response

Rewiring your emotional response isn’t about suppressing the negative emotions you feel in the moment. Instead, it’s about intentionally cultivating new emotional experiences for your brain to reference in future events. There are two parts to this. 

Take care of your physical and mental health

This includes getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, eating healthy, and staying socially connected. Your emotions are mainly constructed from your brain’s interpretation of internal events or physiological signals. Ensuring you are mentally and physically healthy reduces the likelihood that your brain will send unpleasant physiological cues. For example, if you are tired and hungry when walking in the woods and spot the bear, your brain has already stacked the negative physical cues of exhaustion and hunger. Your hunger and exhaustion tip the scales towards the likelihood your brain will interpret the moment as a negative event and project negative emotions.

Influence your emotions in the moment

Doing so allows you to construct a new foundation for your brain to build future interpretations. You already know your brain references past events to create the present. Practicing positive emotions today sets a precedent for your brain to build upon when constructing your experience tomorrow.


Building Your Emotional Muscle Memory

By practicing positive emotions, you can rewire your brain to generate these emotions in the future automatically. So when you experience sadness or anger, you will be able to replace it with gratitude or awe easily. Instead of feeling frustrated or annoyed when your Zoom connection is poor, you can feel gratitude for the ability to see, hear, and communicate with someone else despite the distance. The more you practice, the easier it will become. It’s like emotional muscle memory!

Practice awe and appreciation

There are a few ways to build your emotional muscle memory. One is taking time to notice things you appreciate each day, like the fact you can preset a coffee maker in the morning and wake up to the scent of coffee, or being able to listen to your favorite tunes on the radio. Practice feeling awe when noticing the brilliant colors in a sunrise or sunset, or examining the intricacies of a delicate flower blooming through the cracks in the sidewalk. These small moments of awe take you outside your narrow view of yourself and expand your horizons to see the rest of the world. 


By relishing in these small moments, you reframe your place in the world, put your circumstances into perspective, and derive more meaning from life. Moments of awe and appreciation don’t have to be big or complicated. Sometimes the small and simple things are the most meaningful. Over time, with practice and use, your brain will more easily reach for these positive emotions and turn to negative ones less frequently.

Listen to Related Podcast: Get Smart (With Your Feelings)Dr. Warren Phillips, a clinical psychologist and expert on emotional intelligence, or EQ, helps us understand the importance of paying attention to our feelings and how we can use that information to help us navigate relationships at home and in the workplace. We also explore whether there are any downsides to EQ and if personality traits, like introversion or extroversion are related to someone’s EQ.

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