Are we born happy and positive?
Turns out we are NOT, but we can’t help it. It’s not our fault that we have difficulty being happy. Many of us feel happy is a thing you have to schedule.
Sadly, we aren’t wired for it.
Our nature and historic DNA predisposes us to negativity – that pesky fight or flight and survival of the fittest. Our earliest ancestors spent most of their time in avoidance – avoiding hunger, avoiding being eaten, and fighting to survive.
Our predilection to avoid negative outcomes has us prewired for a negative bias. It leads our brain into using up to two thirds of its neurons detecting negativity: should I fight or should I go? That constant focus is further complicated because it’s stored in our long term memory. We hold on to negativity longer, making bad feelings stronger than good.
It’s not all gloom and doom though.
We can turn it around, and we should, because stress takes a toll on us with higher blood pressure, increased aches and pains, cognitive impairments, and a diminished quality of life.
We all seem to have time for stress in our lives. In my work, I see that family caregivers of those living with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s/Dementia appear to have a particularly high level of stress.
So, how do we do it? How do we GET happy?
Since we spend a great deal on negativity, we have to rewire ourselves, retrain our brains. It’s the pursuit of positive experiences and the techniques associated with storing and holding on to them that leads to the Holy Grail of HAPPINESS.
Here are 4 Happy Practices to rewire and retrain your brain
1. Practice Healthy Habits
Not surprisingly, eating a healthy diet and adopting a regular exercise routine allows us to feel better. It doesn’t take more time to eat right. It takes focus on feeling better, which leads us to a more positive outlook.
Okay, exercising might take some extra time. Instead of watching another episode of Real Housewives of Wherever, try just 20 minutes of walking a day. That alone can lower blood pressure and reduce stress levels. The National Institutes of Health suggests that aerobic exercise is associated with a reduced risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. It may even slow the progression of dementia.
2. Practice remembering the positive moments
Do you know a particularly happy person? They seem alive, walking with a bounce in their step and nothing ever seems to get them down, leading you and others to believe that nothing bad or negative happens to them. That’s simply not true. Bad things happen to everyone but, if we focus on finding positive moments, we don’t have to see the negative or, if we do, we learn to let it go quickly.
To rewire ourselves we must spend as much time with our positive moments as possible. We currently take time to ruminate on the negative so let’s take THAT time to reminisce on the positive.
Journaling helps to savor the moments by spending more time it. Write about how it felt and what you saw. Think of colorful adjectives to describe the experience. Studies suggest that something as simple as “listing” our gratitudes – or counting our blessings is effective in holding positive moments.
We ask family care givers to focus on the good days — Take MORE time to consume those good-day-making moments. Was Dad more lucid today, resulting in the two of you having a great conversation? Wrap your arms around that conversation. Write about it, feel it, experience it. It was a good day!
Consider other moments you might experience. Every moment has the ability to envelop all our senses, enabling the ability to build a positivity bias.
3. Practice flipping the script
The adage when life gives you lemons, make lemonade is a great example of a script flip. We get to control how we imprint what happens to us. Now there’s a time-saver.
For family caregivers living with an Alzheimer’s sufferer, new behaviors seem to appear out of nowhere that we find unpleasant and over which we have no control. Such might be the case when Mom arrives to the breakfast table wearing nothing more than a strand of pearls and a smile.
You have some choices: get angry, reason with her, or simply say —
Nice pearls Mom. Let’s make a fashion statement and pair it with that pink robe you have then pour her a cup of coffee.
Questioning the behavior or displaying anger doesn’t help Mom and it certainly doesn’t help you. Letting it go helps you, reframing the situation (or flipping the script) helps you.
4. Practice Mindful Meditation
Mediation is one of, if not the, most important way of developing focus on positivity. It’s like a clearing of the brain. We are returning our brains to a state of equilibrium which allows us to recharge, replenish, and rest. Through it, we develop greater present moment awareness and emotional regulation–in other words–we are less stressed.
The benefits cannot be overstated. Studies show that we can change the structure of our brains in as little as 8 weeks of meditation. We gain greater clarity, feelings of calm, and even increased cognitive ability as the practice, “changes gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes and emotional regulation.”
With the ability to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and increase cognitive ability, family members caring for someone with dementia/alzheimer’s will benefit greatly from the practice. What’s more promising is the growing body of evidence supporting the positive aspects of meditation in that it made seniors feel less lonely and isolated — a link to an increased risk of developing the disease.
There are fundamental ways we ask family caregivers to prepare themselves for the journey from addressing legal and financial issues to learning as much about the disease as possible. Self-care is paramount for the journey too. It gives you, the family caregiver, the strength and tools for navigating the road ahead. Taking time to adopt Happy Practices will go a long way in ensuring your own self-care.