How to be happier--the scientific way

Robert Labayen -- ExecuTips

Posted at Jul 16 2018 03:58 PM

In an irritating situation, a spiritual leader and a scientist agree on the right response.

The Dalai Lama advised that the alternative to anger is empathy and compassion. The Tibetan leader was interviewed by psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler for the book "The Art of Happiness." They gave the example of being peeved by an overcharging cab driver. Instead of snapping at him, we can choose to think of our similarities. We’re both tired, hungry and longing to be with our loved ones. We can feel better because empathy and compassion reduce anger.

Scientist Loretta Graziano Breuning likewise teaches us to choose our feelings by managing the neurochemicals responsible for our moods.

In her books (see footnote), Dr. Breuning identified the happy brain hormones as dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphin. When we anticipate a reward, the dopamine rush in our body will make us feel good. When close to loved ones, friends or people with the same interest as us, we feel the high of oxytocin. Serotonin pleasure is what we feel when we earn respect or feel superior. Endorphin is the feel good hormone that masks pain.

In a nutshell, the founder of the Inner Mammal Institute proposes that whatever the situation, we can always choose how to feel.

Shift to happy thoughts

The human body evolved at a time when humans must survive all the dangers around them. When threatened, the brain produced the hormone cortisol which aided in delivering glucose or energy to the legs and the limbs, the body parts we use for fighting or running. Cortisol didn’t feel good.

Today, we cannot physically fight with or run away from an angry client, a horrible traffic jam, a slandering office mate, or a laptop that breaks down just when we needed it. But we still secrete cortisol. Breuning wrote, “When cortisol surges, we call it ‘fear’, but when cortisol dribbles, we call it ‘anxiety’ or ‘stress.’ “She said cortisol is a like a warning signal. It brings pain or a “do something” feeling so we are compelled to avoid or stop what causes pain. Otherwise, our health will suffer.

When we feel bad, Dr. Breuning suggests that we distract ourselves by having happier thoughts. Many of us describe this as “looking at the bright side.”

The following examples are mine:

Let’s say you are annoyed because the boss disapproved your work. You may switch focus to the thrill of improving the work, making it excellent, because it may earn you admiration or a bonus. This attitude will cause a rise in dopamine as you expect the reward.

If you feel bad because the company gave you an economy ticket instead of business class, you may instead appreciate the fact that you have a good-paying job with travel perks. A serotonin high will kick in again. You may also think that you help the company save money–-which will be good for your job security. If you have a generally disappointing day, imagine the hug by a loved one or a caring friend. It will give you the pleasure of oxytocin.

The last time I was in the mall, I was feeling frustrated when I was going around in circles while carrying heavy bags. Then I quickly changed my self-talk to “Wow, I’m burning a lot of calories! This will be good for my beach body!”

When I was resenting that fact that I had months of insomnia, I would console myself that I was lying on my own soft bed, not on a pavement, not on a boat on turbulent waters, not in a battle zone camp. Then I would be able to sleep.

There’s always a bright side. At first, shifting perspectives takes conscious effort. Dr. Breuning reassures that after 45 days of creating new “neural pathways”, our positive response to stressful or saddening things will become automatic.

Shawn Achor, founder of GoodThink, Inc., calls these alternate thoughts “counterfacts.” In the book The Happiness Advantage, he gave this bank robbery example: if you were hit by a stray bullet in the arm, would you feel miserable or feel lucky you were not hit in the head ?

Happy makes healthy

Of course, feeling sad is part of the human experience. We can’t, or maybe shouldn’t, escape it completely. There are many events that I surely cannot handle all that well. But feeling stressed, sad or bitter a lot of times will not be good for us.

Shawn Achor spent 12 years at Harvard studying what makes people happy. He is one of the many authors who cite scientific studies concluding that happy people become healthier and more successful in career. On the other hand, the negative effects of stress on our body is already well-documented.

However, being able to control our feelings should not be a reason to be mediocre just because criticism will not affect us anymore. We owe it to ourselves to be excellent because recognition is elating.

Our emotional stability should also not make us insensitive to other people’s feelings. It is not an excuse to belittle other people’s pain. We must respect how they feel and wait for the proper timing to talk about how we can make things better.

There is a time for everything. There’s a time to rejoice and a time to grieve. When we feel that we’ve relished our humanness enough, we can always choose to be happy again.

(Books by Loretta Graziano Breuning: "The Science of Positivity: Stop Negative Thoughts by Changing Your Brain Chemistry"; and "Habits of a Happy Brain". )

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This piece was originally published in the author's blog, 
http://www.robertlabayen.com/2017/12/how-to-be-happier-scientific-way.html

Read more about ExecuTips on www.robertlabayen.com

About the Author:

Robert Labayen spent 22 years in advertising prior to joining ABS-CBN in 2004. He was VP-Creative Director at Saatchi & Saatchi and Executive Creative Director at J. Walter Thompson, two of the country's leading ad agencies. He is currently the Head of Creative Communications Management at ABS-CBN. His job involves inspiring people to be their best. He is a writer, painter and songwriter.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.