Want to be happier? Try retraining your brain

We all know people who seem to operate in a permanent rut of pessimism and negativity. Life sucks, things never work out, something’s always wrong with their meal… and so on. Whereas there are others who, as Monty Python sing, really do look on the bright side of life. The big question is, can we change who we fundamentally are, and how we think? Elaine Fox, neurologist and author of Rainy Brain Sunny Brain, says yes – and that we should aim for more of a balance, even if it isn’t easy.

“A brain will quite happily get set in its ways if we don’t make efforts to continually learn and grow – and our brain can get used to seeing the negative in situations or the positive,” says Fox. “That said, pessimism has its place. We need a bit of pessimism at times! But too much of it can be pervasive and take over our wellbeing and general peace of mind so it’s good to work towards a balance.”

Why do we become pessimistic?
Fox’s research has focused on whether a pessimistic mindset is genetic or environmental, but one thing’s for certain: we do ourselves no favours by not trying to head our brains off at the pass. Letting pessimistic thoughts run rife helps create well-worn ‘grooves’ in the brain – otherwise known as neural pathways – which makes being a grumpy old man (or grumpy old woman!) even easier.

“If you think of a beach with a trickle of water coming down into the sand, initially the water will go in one direction and you will get a little stream developing,” says Fox. “If the water keeps going in that direction it will just dig out quite a big trench and it will get deeper and deeper and more entrenched. That’s how cognitive biases develop. It's a bit like that with the neural pathways. The more they go in the same direction, the more entrenched and more difficult to change they will be.”

Our brains are biased towards one way or the other – and if we have a certain genetic profile we’ll be much quicker to develop a cognitive bias, she explains. “We also know that people with anxiety disorders have a very strong bias in their attention system, tuning in naturally to negative things.”

Are you a pessimist or an optimist? Take the test!
Fox appeared in a Horizon episode a few years ago with Michael Mosley, a self-confessed ‘pessimist’ who wanted to see if he could change. The research team set Mosley a number of tests including mindfulness meditation and Cognitive Bias Modification – otherwise known as ‘positivity training’ – which he had to do three times a week for seven weeks.

“We have little tests on the website that can give a general indication of whether you’ve got a negative or a positive bias, and you can go through what is a kind of retraining procedure,” explains Fox. “What we find over time is if you do it on a regular basis, it really does start shifting your bias in a much more positive direction. Effectively, you can retrain your ‘mental habit’ to either tune into the negative or into the positive.”

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Take the time to practice mindfulness and reduce stress

Other ways to boost optimism

1. Practice mindfulness meditation
“There’s a lot of good evidence for this type of meditation in helping wellbeing, which helps you to control stress reactions, avoid distraction and strengthen those neural circuits that help us control and train our focus, if you like. You should ideally try and do it for 10 minutes a day, 3 days a week to see the benefit.”

2. Keep a gratitude journal
“We asked people who suffer anxiety and depression to keep a diary of all of the good and bad things that had happened across a day, and when they returned to the diary a week later they were astonished at how many good things did happen to them. Doing this helps you remember more good stuff and notice more good things, too – it retrains negative biases in a more healthy direction.”

3. Smile more
“As I talk about in the book, actions are more important than thoughts when trying to change, and the act of smiling can really improve your mood.”

4. Get the fun balance right
“Having fun is important and research shows a happy person with a healthy wellbeing typically have three positive experiences for every one negative experience. That’s optimal for good mental health.”

5. Mix it up
“Break up your habit or routine – instead of always going the same way to work, try a new route, for example. Or read something you’d never normally read; watch a film you’d never normally watch.”

Too old to change? Think again.
What’s most fascinating about this research and other neurological studies being conducted is that we’re learning just how malleable our brains actually are, says Fox.

“As a student learning neuroscience, I was told that after a pretty young age things [in the brain] are pretty much set in stone and you couldn't really change them much,” she recalls. “But now we know that's no longer true – it’s not easy to change how you think, but it’s definitely possible. All of these neural circuits are really much more elastic than we thought.”

She adds that there isn’t an age limit on changing your brain – so if you do want to become more optimistic, you can’t use being old and set in your ways as an excuse!

“There’s a lot of Swedish research about new brain cells being developed in quite elderly people and that’s really fascinating. There’s no question that it’s never too late to change.”

Have you tried retraining your brain to be more positive? 

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