Blake Snow

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Easy peasy: 5 ways to rewire your brain for happiness

Grant Wood/Wikimedia Commons

Grant Wood/Wikimedia Commons

As a leading psychologist, Shawn Achor has spent two decades studying happiness. His bona fides include award-winning researcher and teacher at Harvard, best-selling author on positivity, and popular TED lecturer.

So when he speaks you should listen. For instance, Achor asserts our circumstances — including age, race, gender, social status, and wealth — only account for 10% of our happiness. The rest is determined by our genetic baseline for happiness (i.e. optimist vs pessimist) and our individual intentions, including the way we spend our time and the things we ponder.

Obviously, happiness means different things to different people. But there are plenty of standardized things we can do to boost our chances of finding it. Somethings such as knowing oneself, learning how to forgive, and balancing the personal, professional, and social demands on our time can be life-long pursuits.

But other happiness-building attributes are quite easy, Achor argues. In order from least difficult to most difficult, they are as follows: 

1. Count your blessings. The fastest way to rewire your brain for happiness is to count three new things you’re grateful for everyday. If you do this for 21 consecutive days, Achor says “the brain retains a pattern of scanning the world for the positive instead of the negative.” Unlike watching the news which reminds of us of all that is wrong in the world, positive thinking reminds us to notice the good first and foremost.

2. Keep a journal. Family photos and home movies succeed in triggering good memories. But they fail to capture our thoughts at the time, something that can only be done with a journal. To help your brain relive the best of life, write about positive events within 24 hours of experiencing them, Achor counsels. If you’ve missed that ideal window, writing something is better than nothing and can still lead to happiness.

3. Be alone with your thoughts. This includes no-distraction thinking, prayer, phone-off meditation, and single-tasking. I’d also add counting deep and slow breaths from 0 to 10, Mr. Miyagi style. More than anything, being alone with our thoughts allows our brains to “get over the cultural ADHD that we’ve created by trying to do multiple tasks at once,” Achor says.

4. Serve others. Life isn’t as convenient for some as it is for others. Just ask royalty. But life is challenging for everyone, no matter who you are. And there’s always someone who’s worse off than you. You won’t realize that, however, until you start looking for ways to serve those around you. Soup kitchens, giving money, visiting the sick, encouraging others, making someone laugh, and random acts of kindness never fail to boost our happiness. Even something as simple as writing an email to praise or thank someone can have a measurable impact, Achor says.

5. Exercise regularly. Getting in the habit of regular exercise requires a lot of momentum. In that sense, achieving regular exercise is difficult. But once you find an activity you enjoy — if not hate the least — and stick with it, regular exercise is not only possible, it’s not that big of a deal. Not only does physical fitness improve health, energy, sleep, skin, and many other things, it teaches our brains that behavior matters, Achor says. Don’t know where to start? Try the scientific 7-minute workout three times a week (app here).

Special thanks to Adam Miele for introducing me to Achor’s work.