Hardwiring Happiness – Amy Nguyen

Five years ago, as the Head of Employee Happiness for a unicorn company, I thought I had everything. However, when I returned to work after giving birth to my second child, I worked long hours and through the weekend, and at some point, I realized the happy me was gone. So I embarked on a quest to revamp my happiness index by befriending science, including the work of psychologist Rick Hanson, and using that lens to decode the origin of my youthful positivity despite a difficult childhood.

I was born in a poor country, in a neighborhood rampant with drug use and fighting, in a broken family. My father was an “exported laborer” (a term coined during the Doi Moi period, when Vietnam had just opened up to the world) in Germany and had abandoned my mother, sister, and me for his new family there. We lived in a small house with a roof of dried palm leaves so wobbly that rain could easily leak through. Yet I never felt a lot of pity for myself—in fact, most of the time, I felt grateful and full of zest. A second-hand shirt from a wealthy cousin brought me endless joy. An ice cream my mum brought home made me feel like I was being treated to a sumptuous meal.

In the end, I learned that a key ingredient to cultivating authentic happiness was the brain’s ability to hardwire positivity into its structure. The human brain is pre-programmed with a negativity bias, a legacy of the survival instinct from our ancestors millions of years ago. It scans the environment for dangers, and because our mental resources are limited, the brain tends to let positivity slip through. Often when it notices positive facts, it doesn’t hold onto them long and deeply enough so they can be “installed” into our neural structure. With this in mind, I realized there were certain behaviors that had already predisposed me for happiness, like the following:

  1. Reliving a beautiful moment. Sometimes, I recall a memory from childhood, like a sunlit window in my aunt’s French-styled apartment in the old quarter of Hanoi, or a memory of my beloved grandma who passed away a few years ago.
  2. Delighting in small happy things. I tend to notice these and sink into them: a little pumpkin in my summer garden, a piece of dark chocolate, the smell of the dried lavender on my desk. 
  3. Creating opportunities for joy. It could be as simple as spending a day as a local traveler in my neighborhood or cooking something I’ve never attempted before. Whatever it is, I try to experience it with all five senses. 
  4. Connecting with a positive vision. While indulging in beautiful things present and past, I also visualize my future as if it were real and feel excited about it. 
    I’ve been up-leveling my happiness ever since—by hardwiring positivity and joy from the little things to the big things. When I do, magic comes.
    Your prompt for the week:
    Reliving beautiful moments, delighting in small happy things, creating opportunities for joy, and visualizing an exciting future are great ways to hardwire happiness. Choose one that is calling to you, and write about it. Make it a habit and watch the wonders unfold.

How a Gratitude Practice Can Make You (and Your Brain) Happier

Develop A Gratitude Practice

Did you know that practicing gratitude is the most consistent, scientifically backed way to increase your happiness? In fact, there are 26 studies and counting that show the positive correlation between gratitude and happiness.

I started a regular gratitude practice a few years ago after a major breakup. Starting a gratitude practice has been the single most positive, life-changing practice I have ever developed.

A gratitude practice trains your brain to look for the good. As you train your mind to look for the bright parts of your day (no matter how bad the rest of it was), it starts to rewire itself to look for the positive events in your life.

The pre-frontal cortex determines what is important to you based on how much attention you pay to it. The more you pay attention to negativity, the more your brain will strengthen neural passageways and synapses that support negative thought. The more attention you pay to positivity, the more your brain will start to re-allocate energy to developing the neural circuits that support those types of thoughts.

Yes, you can actually train your brain to be happier. It’s much like building muscle at the gym and working out. Whatever muscle you work regularly becomes stronger. The grass is greener where you water it. With limited water, what types of thoughts would you like to feed?

Through a consistent gratitude practice, I watched myself grow into a positive, resilient person who truly considers myself to be my greatest asset. I have experienced more joy than I’ve ever been able to experience, and I can now easily find at least three things to be grateful for each day.  (On certain, more challenging days, one of the things I might be grateful for might be the fact that I did *not* spill coffee on my shirt on the way to work, but – you get the picture.)

So why wait? A gratitude practice is one of the absolute easiest things you can start doing to become happier, and you are scientifically guaranteed to reap huge rewards.

Here’s my challenge for you.

Each day, think of 3 things you were grateful for that day, and then 1 thing you are looking forward to in the next day.

It doesn’t matter how small the things you’re grateful for are – just find something. In fact, being able to experience joy from the little things in life and being happy with what you have are huge when it comes to happiness. (More on that in a later blog post.)

Want to share the love? Ask your friends what they’re grateful for. Better yet, check in with them weekly.

Their answers just might bring a smile to your face.

Passing Through

Nothing here on this earth is ours to keep. We are just here, passing through and enjoying the beauty that is given to us. So let go of attachment, let go gracefully of what is not yours to keep, and give love freely and unconditionally. Enjoy what you are given and embrace simply what is – and not what is past, what is in the future, or what could be. And when you enjoy what is, you will start to realize that what is becomes all you’ve ever wanted. There is something so beautiful about that.