5 Ways to Literally Train Your Brain to Live a Happier Life

Sometimes, when we’re caught up in the throes of military life, even the strongest military spouse can find herself sitting under a rain cloud, overcome with gloomy, negative feelings.

Constant change and unpredictability create fertile soil for these feelings to grow and procreate, and it can feel like we have little to celebrate. Instead of taking control of the situation, we cast blame at other factors that cause our unhappiness.

But, we can take control; those negative feelings don’t have to stay. Indeed, we have the power to choose happiness, and we can actually train our brain to choose it for us.

In their Psychology Today article, “Happy Brain, Happy Life,” authors Susan Reynolds and Teresa Aubele explain that thinking positively is like exercise for your brain – the more positively you think, the more skilled your brain becomes at regenerating positive thoughts. As a result, your brain actually gets strong enough to pull you away from negativity when you encounter it.

“What does all this mean?” the authors write.

“It means that what we think, do, and say matters; that it affects who we become on the outside, the inside, and in our brain. Mostly, it means that you can retrain your brain to be more positive.”

Training your brain to think positively isn’t so hard. Consider these five strategies to nourish your brain with positive energy and help get its happy juices flowing.

1. Surround yourself with positive people

Chances are, after you spend an hour with Negative Nancy, you feel drained and depressed. Reynolds and Aubele say this is because prolonged negativity zaps your energy and can actually slow your brain’s ability to function. If you’re already feeling a little down, then plan your time to include lunch dates or phone calls with friends who always make you laugh or whose outlook you admire. Their conversation and attitude will energize your brain, stimulating happy-feeling chemicals and causing it to reproduce them on its own.

2. Listen to music that makes you happy

Like a teenager after a break up, are you quietly listening to sad, emotional songs over and over? It’s time to make a change! Instead of hitting rewind on R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” or Adele’s “Someone Like You,” search your iTunes for songs that make you want to stand up and dance. Some of my favorites are O.A.R.’s “Hey Girl,” Lady Antebellum’s “Compass” or Blue Lagoon’s cover of “Break my Stride.” Have music like this on in the background while you get household chores done, play with your kids or whip together dinner. Like delightful conversation, it will feed your soul and lift your spirits!

3. Take some quiet time just for you

Before you say, “I don’t have time for that,” let me assure you that you absolutely do! If you scroll through social media, watch TV, or text friends, then you have at least 20 minutes in your day, which you could devote to being alone, uninterrupted, with your thoughts. You don’t have to be a yogi or an expert at meditating, either.

While those activities are effective ways to improve your mental state, they are not the only ways. If you have a hard time sitting still, find an enjoyable activity that allows your mind to relax while your hands or feet are busy. Planting flowers, going for a walk, knitting or even coloring in an adult coloring book are all good ways to increase the flow of positive neuro-chemicals. Plus, doing creative things or being outside are great strategies for rejuvenating your spirits and refreshing your smile.

4. Give thanks

Even on our worst days, we can always find something to be grateful for. And, focusing on these things is an easy way to train your brain to think of them automatically. One routine that my family and I established takes a page from the Thanksgiving Day handbook. At the dinner table, we each say one thing we are thankful for that day. It’s a good way to focus our thoughts on the positive parts of our lives, especially at the end of the day.

Take your gratefulness to the next level, and make it a point to tell others “thank you.” If there’s a certain friend whom you especially appreciate, tell her why. If you experience exceptional service, seize the opportunity to tell the service-provider how he or she has made your day. Showing your gratitude will make both you and the other person a little bit happier.

5. Recite a positive mantra

Sometimes anxiety and negativity can hold us prisoner. Reciting a mantra to combat pessimistic emotions can actually train your brain to escape negativity before it locks you up. Are you worried about how you will handle an upcoming deployment? Repeat, “I am strong enough,” five times. Are you dreading moving to a new installation? Tell yourself, “I can handle change,” five times. If you have a day in which everything seems to go wrong, try, “Tomorrow is another day” or “The sun’ll come out tomorrow” (Scarlett and Annie were sure on to something!). Making this a practice will train your brain not only to turn away from negativity but to generate positive-feeling thoughts all on its own!

Focusing on positive thoughts can pave the way to becoming a happy person overall. And, the benefits don’t stop at simply being happy. In fact, Reynolds and Aubele note that, as compared to pessimists, optimists feel more fulfilled, have stronger relationships, have better health habits and even live longer! Positivity, it seems, is the gift that keeps on giving.

The strategies listed here are by no means exhaustive. Many of you probably have a lot to add!

Let’s start a conversation: What strategies have you used to turn away from negativity and embrace positivity?

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