Training Your Brain to Be Happy

Often called the study of happiness, positive psychology can more broadly be defined as the study of human potential. Traditional psychology is based around the “cult of the average” and focuses on individuals who lie below the norm—those who suffer from mental illness and distress—and offers solutions to get them back on track. While this function of psychology is critical to human health, it only tells half the story. Instead of just trying to get people back up to average, positive psychology asks: what lies above average?

To understand the full range of human experience and potential, we cannot study only what goes wrong; we must also study what goes right. Positive psychology research seeks to identify the conditions that lead to optimal functioning. What are the positive emotions, character traits, and skills that allow people to thrive? And how can we get more of them? The end goal is to learn things that can be taught to all. Instead of trying to maintain the status quo, it seeks to bring the average up.

The lens through which we view reality shapes our performance and our happiness. Our brain is a single processor, and considers each circumstance through one lens. We can scan the world for problems (which we quickly become experts at finding) or we filter information through a positive lens, scanning for opportunities, reasons for gratitude and happiness.

Too often, happiness is prolonged as something we “achieve” later on, after hard work and success. We think, If I could just land that job, afford that house, get promoted, get my child into that prestigious school, THEN I would be so happy. However, this system of thinking is flawed because research shows that the precursor of success is happiness. Our brains are hardwired to perform better when we are positive. Optimism turns on learning centers in the brain and increases learning. In fact, studies show that two-thirds of students’ grades and IQ and 75 percent of job success depend on these three factors:

  1. The belief that our behavior matters and that our actions make a difference in our lives and in the world (optimism)
  2. Having a positive social network at home/work/school (defined as the support of family, teachers, friends and other communities)
  3. The ability to manage stress in a positive way

A strong social network is the greatest predictor of success both at school and at work. Scientists have discovered that interdependence is better for our genes, and we are hardwired to feel empathy and sympathy. This is why positivity and negativity are so contagious among people. Our mirror neurons become activated when we see smiling, laughter, impatience, even yawning. We pick up positive and negative emotions very quickly. It is scientifically true that happiness is contagious, and it’s up to us to broaden and build our mirror neuron development to work in our favor and in favor of those around us.

So if optimists and positive thinkers have so many advantages, what can we do about it in our lives? We can retrain our brain to increase our levels of happiness.


While becoming happier is no simple feat, research has identified steps you can take to raise your baseline level of happiness. To get you started, we’ve listed five exercises below that take advantage of your brain’s neuroplasticity—its ability to change and grow in response to your actions. That means every time you do one of these tasks, you’re actually training your brain to be happier. We have also included a brief summary of the supporting research so you can learn about the specific benefits of each exercise.

  1.   Three Gratitudes

Before you go to bed each night, write down three things that you’re grateful for. Try to do this every night for at least a week. The more specific your list is, the better. For instance, if you are grateful for your children, write down something specific they did today that made you smile.

The Benefit: Research shows that people who keep a daily gratitude list feel better about their lives as a whole and feel more optimistic about the coming week. Compared to control groups, they exercise more frequently and report fewer physical complaints. They also experience more positive emotions, fewer negative emotions, and exhibit more helpful behavior towards friends and neighbors (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).

  1.   Maximizing Strengths

Go to to take the VIA Strengths survey and find out what your Signature Strengths are. Post it somewhere in your home large enough to see and remember daily. Now try to use one of these strengths in a new and different way every day for a week. Try to shape a normally boring daily task into one that uses your strength in a creative way.

The Benefit: In a 2005 nationwide study, people who completed this task every day for just one week showed increased levels of happiness and decreased symptoms of depression directly after the experiment AND a full 6 months later (Seligman, et al., 2005). Students who use their signature strengths have higher GPAs and fewer absences (Harter, 1998). Employees who have the opportunity to use their top strengths at work every day report greater job satisfaction and 38% higher productivity levels (Gallup, 2005).

  1.   Journaling

A few times in the coming week, take 20 minutes to write in your journal about a recent positive experience. Try to be as specific as you can about the experience and why it made you happy.

The Benefit: People who write about positive experiences at least 3 times a week report enhanced positive mood and a 50% drop in doctors visits up to three months later (Burton & King, 2004). Also, couples who journal about their relationship are significantly more likely than control group couples to still be together 3 months later (Slatcher & Pennebaker, 2006).

  1.   Creating a Habit

Think of a positive action you would like to incorporate into your daily routine and start doing it once a day. It could be meditation, walking, writing a handwritten letter to everyone you know, or reading 20 pages of a book. Even if you enjoy the activity, it will be difficult to maintain at first; introducing any new task requires activation energy that is often hard to come by. But the more days in a row you complete the action, the more you will be training the neural pathways in your brain and the easier it will become. Eventually, your brain will have adapted accordingly and your positive action will have turned into second nature.  

William James, the father of American psychology, said that it takes 21 days to make a habit.

  1.   Mindfulness

Every day, take 5 minutes to sit quietly and watch your breath go in and out. Try to clear your mind of other thoughts and just think about your breathing.

The Benefit: People who meditate on a regular basis experience less stress, enjoy more energy, and bounce back from illness faster. They report higher levels of happiness and lower levels of depression. They also have a decreased risk of heart disease and a higher tolerance for pain (Shapiro, Schwartz & Santerre, 2005).

Research continues to show that developing these habits and a positive outlook opens possibilities. Of course, this doesn’t mean we are sugar-coating the positive or being unrealistic about real challenges in our lives. Rather, you are practicing rational optimism where we begin with reality, then add our positivity.


Published previously: “Positive Psychology.” Arrow Dynamics XI (25 Jan. 2010): 1-5. Print.