3 Tips A Neuroscientist Recommends For Becoming A Genuinely Happier Person
When you think about it, happiness as a concept is a little elusive—what does it mean, really, and can you actually become a "happier" person? What does "searching for happiness" truly look like in practice?
We had to float the question over to communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist Caroline Leaf, Ph.D. Her answer? Yes, you can train your brain to become happier—although, the process looks different for everyone. "It's your formula. You have to find your code for happiness," she says on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast.
Your specific inner work may look different from a friend's or neighbor's, but you'll follow the same general flow. Here, Leaf offers three tips:
Redefine your meaning of happiness.
According to Leaf, we must gravitate away from the notion that happiness is synonymous with pure positivity. While a sunny, bubbly personality may come to mind when you think of what "happiness" looks like, Leaf says true happiness doesn't always have to exude sunshine and roses.
"Redefine happiness as a sense of peace," she notes. Inner peace can, of course, include smiles and laughter. But sometimes? Peace can be tranquil, quiet. Peace is acceptance. "That internal sense of 'This is who I am,'" adds Leaf. "This is what I can do. This is what I can't do, and I'm OK with that. I'm OK with feeling depressed sometimes, and I'm OK with being anxious sometimes."
The first step is recognizing what happiness means to you, not how you think you should act.
Manage your mind.
"It's your mind that drives your happiness," says Leaf. That's why she touts mind management as a useful tool, so you can easily recreate that feeling whenever you like.
We've already waxed poetic about her five steps for mind management (find all the full steps here), but generally follow these steps: You'll want to gather awareness ("What is happiness? Why do I feel happy? Why don't I feel happy? What's making me happy?" Leaf explains), reflect on those emotions, write them down for cognitive fluency, reframe your thoughts to a possibilities mindset, and, finally, create an action plan for how you can actively pursue them.
"In doing that process repeatedly, I can guarantee that within nine weeks, you will have worked out the elements of how you can gain an internal sense of peace because you will start getting a perspective on what happiness really looks like in your life," says Leaf.
Share it with others.
The last tip, says Leaf, is to pay it forward. "As soon as you've got the internal sense of happiness because you know who you are, you just want to share it with others," she notes.
It’s like taking your happiness to a whole new level—not only can you help others with their own sense of peace, but helping others, in turn, can also make you even happier (a concept dubbed the "helper's high"1 by scientists). It's the recognition of that in a giving way, a pay-it-forward way, that really creates the environment for happiness.
Short answer? It's definitely possible to become a happier person—the specific formula to get there just looks a bit different for everyone. Follow the tips above, and you'll forge your own path.
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.