We can train our brains to feel less stressed and increase our inner bliss, overriding even genetic tendencies toward unhappiness, said Dr. Amit Sood, author of the new book “The Mayo Clinic Handbook for Happiness.”
His message: Happiness can be cultivated, but it takes a conscious — and constant — effort.
“Make it a habit,” he said.
While genetics account for up to half of our happiness potential, the rest is within our control, studies show. Our thoughts, if left unchecked, will veer toward searching for potential threats and faultfinding, a natural tendency groomed by generations of our ancestors having to worry about protecting themselves.
This bias toward negativity will not lead to a happy ending — much less a happy beginning or middle.
“Clearly our system is biased for safety,” Sood said. “It’s biased for survival. We want to be safe.” Simply put: Our brains are not hard-wired for contentment.
Four steps toward happiness
In his book, Sood outlines a four-step program that can be done in 10 weeks to boost happiness and fulfillment.
The first step is to train your attention. As we grow older, we have seen and experienced so much that we tend to stop noticing or being fascinated by the things and people we encounter in our daily lives. That feeling of wonderment we experienced regularly as a child leaves us, and our brains move quickly from one thing to the next.
Sood recommends an attention-training exercise that will help start the brain off on a joyful note each morning: When you wake up, instead of running through your to-do list for the day or ruminating about your problems, think of five people whom you are grateful to have in your life. Picture each one, and as you do this, thank each one silently. Exhale slowly.
The second happiness step is to cultivate emotional resilience. To do this, focus on what Sood calls the principles of emotional resilience. They are: gratitude, compassion, acceptance, meaning and forgiveness.
Third, start a mind-body practice. By engaging in an activity that will relax your mind and keep it focused on what you’re doing, your brain will be happier. Yoga, meditation, reading and Tai Chi all are examples of mind-body practices.
Finally, pick healthy habits. Eat healthy and mindfully, savoring every bite. Exercise regularly and be sure to get enough sleep. Reduce the amount of time you spend in front of screens — computer and TV. Make an effort to read good books and spend more time doing things that are truly fulfilling and focus the mind in a positive direction.