This is how to rewire your brain for happiness: 4 secrets from research

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Someone compliments you and you think, “They don’t mean it.”

Something good happens and you hear, “I don’t deserve this.”

You’re meeting new people and it’s, “They won’t like me.”

And you usually accept those words because they’re coming from inside your head. It’s like the horror movie where the calls from the killer are coming from inside the house.

These are called “automatic thoughts.” And they suck. But we all know the answer: you just need to think happy thoughts, right?

Wrong. Let’s get our psychology lessons from somewhere other than Instagram memes, alright? “Think happy thoughts” doesn’t help unless you don’t need help.

From The Confidence Gap:

Their study, entitled “Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others,” … showed that people with low self-esteem actually feel worse after repeating positive self-statements such as “I am a lovable person” or “I will succeed.” Rather than being helpful, these positive thoughts typically triggered a strong negative reaction and a resultant low mood.

So when you’re really feeling down, happy cliches won’t cut it. Nope. So we’re gonna need to science the hell out of this one. We need to rewire your brain, bubba.

From Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders:

This new approach— cognitive therapy— suggests that the individual’s problems are derived largely from certain distortions of reality based on erroneous premises and assumptions. These incorrect conceptions originated in defective learning during the person’s cognitive development. Regardless of their origin, it is relatively simple to state the formula for treatment: The therapist helps a patient to unravel his distortions in thinking and to learn alternative, more realistic ways to formulate his experiences.

It’s not hard or expensive, but it’s gonna take some practice. (Look, if you can spend 10 minutes taking a Facebook quiz to find out which Harry Potter character you are, you can spend 5 minutes a day to live a happier life, alright?)

And once you get good at this it won’t just make you happier — these techniques are proven to help with all kinds of issues from procrastination to anxiety to anger.

From Thoughts and Feelings:

Challenging automatic thoughts is a powerful way to counter perfectionism, curb procrastination, and relieve depression and anxiety. It is also helpful in treating low self-esteem, shame and guilt, and anger. The techniques in this chapter are based on the cognitive therapy of Aaron Beck (1976), who pioneered this method of analyzing automatic thoughts and composing rational comebacks to refute and replace distorted thinking.

We’re gonna get some solid answers from Dr. Matthew McKay’s “Thoughts and Feelings” and even roll psychologically old school with UPenn professor Aaron Beck’s 1979 classic “Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders.”

Let’s get to it…

Cognitive Therapy 101

“Thoughts determine feelings.”

Remember that. Make a note. Get a tattoo. This powerful idea goes back thousands of years to the Stoics. Aaron Beck even quotes Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus (the Biggie and Tupac of Stoicism) in his book.

From Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders:

If thou are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs thee, but thine own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now. – Marcus Aurelius

“Always trust your feelings” sounds sweet but you wouldn’t tell that to someone with a phobia, a hoarding problem, or — god forbid — homicidal impulses, would you? No. Teenagers and golden retrievers are excellent at blindly following their feelings but neither are regularly consulted on their decision-making skills.

Feelings aren’t truth incarnate. They depend on thoughts. If I think you’re pointing a gun at me, I feel scared. If I realize the gun is actually a water pistol, I don’t feel scared anymore. The thought determines the feeling. And this has a very powerful corollary — if you change your thoughts, you can change your feelings.

Your brain is a pattern-recognition machine. It makes observations and starts forming rules about the world. It’s good at this. You probably haven’t tried to move things with telekinesis since a few failed experiments in elementary school. If you even thought about levitating the cat these days your brain would immediately say, “That’s not going to work.” Boom — an “automatic thought.”

Problem is, sometimes your brain makes errors when it’s forming its rules. Like the time you got made fun of in grade school during “Show and Tell” and its takeaway was, “Public speaking is terrifying and always shall be henceforth.”

Yeah, these automatic thoughts are usually negative. It would be great to have ones that told you how sexy you look but instead they’re usually focused on avoiding discomfort. And sometimes your brain is like an overprotective parent, and makes rules that are way too general.

It might observe “Last time we went outside it was very cold.” There are a number of lessons your brain could learn from this. For instance:

  • GOOD LESSON: “I should wear a coat before going outside.”
  • BAD LESSON: “I should never leave the house for any reason whatsoever.”

The old grey matter goes way too far and “better safe than sorry” becomes “better safe than anything.” These rules lead to a lot of automatic thoughts which lead to galactic-sized landfills of fractally horrible feelings that’ll make HP Lovecraft seem like “Marley and Me.”

Common problematic rules include:

  • “In order to be happy, I have to be successful in whatever I undertake.”
  • “If my spouse (sweetheart, parent, child) doesn’t love me, I’m worthless.”
  • “To be happy, I must be accepted by all people at all times.”

And we get so used to these rules and their automatic thoughts that we don’t even notice them anymore. We simply sigh and say, “I just know this isn’t going to work out for me.”

(To learn more about how you and your children can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)

So what do we do? Well, listen up…

Not to me. To yourself. Start noticing those automatic thoughts before you let them dictate your feelings.

That’s our first step…

Listen

Next time you react to something with an inappropriate level of sadness, anxiety or fear — just freeze. Stop. Rewind the tape of what just transpired in your head and ask yourself:

What automatic thoughts led up to these feelings? What unspoken rules are they supporting?

Because we aren’t going to blindly let them run the show anymore. They’re gonna get their day in court. And it all starts with one very simple question:

“How true is this?”

Time to play prosecutor. If we’re going to let this thought determine our happiness, it better have a lot of evidence behind it that will stand up in court:

  • Automatic Thought: “Nobody likes me.”
  • Deliberate Thought: “Oh really? So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I would assume that a survey of all 7 billion people on the planet has been performed for a statement like that to be accurate. Was such a survey done? No? Then I submit to you it should not be entered into evidence in this courtroom.”

Aaron Beck talks about making a distinction between “I believe” (an opinion that is subject to validation) and “I know” (an irrefutable fact). If we can show these thoughts aren’t true then the scary gun becomes an innocuous water pistol — and the fear vanishes.

From Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders:

The cognitive therapist induces the patient to apply the same problem-solving techniques he has used throughout his life to correct his fallacious thinking. His problems are derived from certain distortions of reality based on erroneous premises and misconceptions. These distortions originated in defective learning during his development. The formula for treatment may be stated in simple terms: The therapist helps the patient to identify his warped thinking and to learn more realistic ways to formulate his experiences.

(To learn how to deal with passive-aggressive people, click here.)

Your rules and automatic thoughts may be idiosyncratic but they’re far from random. In fact, the errors they suffer from usually fall into just a handful of categories.

So if we identify the type of error they’re making we can apply a more specific challenge to it that will start you on the path to rewiring things — and feeling better…

Round Up The Usual Suspects

Let’s look at the 8 most common errors and find out how your prosecutor can dismantle them in court.

(Yes, you probably engage in a number of these but let’s focus on identifying your primary one for now because time is short and I have a lot of very important TV to watch.)

1) Filtering

This is when you focus on the negative and ignore the positive. If you win a free Ferrari and your first reaction is, “The insurance payments are gonna kill me” — that’s filtering.

Plan of attack? You need to change your focus to the legitimate good aspects of the situation. Force yourself to list all the positives. You’re not just “thinking happy thoughts” — you’re trying to balance the scales and be objective.

2) Polarized thinking

Seeing everything as black and white. If you’re not perfect, you’re a failure. If they don’t love you, they hate you. If winning a silver medal in the Olympics makes you a “loser”, that’s polarized thinking.

How do we attack this one? Realize that seeing the world as black and white is inherently inaccurate and unrealistic. I wish life was that simple. It’s not. Big heaping piles of nuance all over the place.

So correct this tendency by making yourself evaluate in percentages: “80% of this is awful but 20% is pretty good.”

3) Overgeneralization

Making broad conclusions based on little evidence. One breakup means “no one will ever love me.” Extreme words like “all,” “every,” “none,” “never,” “always,” “everybody,” and “nobody” are a tip off that you’re overgeneralizing.

This one is easy to attack because statements containing superlatives like “all” or “never” rarely withstand logical scrutiny. Consider the amount of evidence you have. One instance does not make a trend.

4) Mind reading

This is when you assume you know what others are thinking or feeling: “Sarah is frowning so obviously she hates me.”

Sorry to break the news to you, Professor X, but you are not psychic. And the more psychic you think you are, the more problems you will have in this life.

How to beat this one? Much like with filtering, you want to generate alternatives. Why else might Sarah be frowning? Could be hemorrhoids. Sarah doesn’t hate you. Sarah has butt problems.

Or you can try this incredible technique: Just ask Sarah why she’s frowning.

5) Catastrophizing

Did you forget your keys? Then you must have Alzheimer’s.

When you always jump to the worst possible scenario, that’s catastrophizing. (Or it’s a tumor.)

You conquer catastrophizing by being a bookie. Assess the odds. If you had to bet real money, would you wager Phil isn’t answering his phone because he’s a moron who forgot to charge it and the battery is dead, or because a meteor storm took him out along with the entire Eastern seaboard?

Statistically, I’m gonna have to go with “Phil’s a moron.”

6) Magnifying

Every molehill becomes a mountain. Small error? Nope, it’s a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Minor obstacle? Of course not; it’s an insurmountable barrier.

Plan of attack here is reminding yourself of specific examples of when you handled situations that were far worse.

It isn’t overwhelming and unbearable — it’s a long line at the grocery store, alright?

7) Personalization

This is when you assume everything people do or say is some kind of negative reaction to you. (Isn’t it amazing how you can have low self-esteem and still be utterly obsessed with yourself?)

Again, you want to generate alternatives. But when doing this you want to keep in mind something that is mildly distressing but nonetheless utterly true:

Most things are not about you because, in the grand scheme of things, you’re not that important.

Yeah, yeah, you’re important to family and friends — but I’ll lay odds right now that in 50 years public schools will be open on your birthday.

Everything is not about you and it only takes a little time being paranoid or being famous to realize that this is usually a wonderful thing.

8) “Shoulds”

“Shoulds” are rules you make about how other people or the world is “supposed” to behave. People should drive like this, they shouldn’t talk like that and, my god, what is the world coming to…? Since you’re not god, people don’t obey your shoulds and the result is you walk around perpetually frustrated.

And there are also shoulds we put on ourselves: I should always be the best. I should always be the perfect friend/parent/spouse. I should never get upset or feel hurt. And a zillion others no mortal can ever live up to.

Plan of attack? First, you are not in charge of the universe so stop expecting your fiats to have any effect whatsoever on other people’s behavior. People aren’t frustrating you; your absurd expectations are.

Second, remember that values are personal. You think people “should” be on top of everything. But maybe they value not being a stress case. Different values, different behaviors. Remind yourself that not everyone has the same values you do.

(To learn the secret to never being frustrated again, click here.)

We’ve covered the big 8. Figured out which one causes you the most grief? Alrighty, time to rewire your brain.

No, this will not void the warranty, I promise…

Rewiring In Progress

We know how to defuse negative thoughts but nature abhors a vacuum (and so do most household pets). So we need new thoughts to replace the problematic ones. What to do?

First, put an APB out on the automatic thought you usually have. Keep listening for it now that you know how to identify it.

And then you gotta catch the puppy when it’s pooping on the carpet. That’s how you train dogs and that’s how you rewire your brain. Catch it in the act of making the error and let your prosecutor go all Law and Order on it:

  • You: “Phil’s late.”
  • Your Brain: “Clearly, Phil has died in a car crash. The best thing to do now is engage in profound anxiety. I’ll initiate Hysteria Protocol 847…”
  • You: “Whoa, whoa, whoa. That sounds like the catastrophizing thing I read about in that supremely excellent blog post. It’s 6 AM. The likelihood of Phil having died in a car crash right now is quite low while the likelihood of him having overslept is very high.”
  • Your Brain: “Grrrr… Fine, fine. Hysteria Protocol 847 deactivated.”

Now it won’t go that simply the first time out. Your brain will try all kinds of tricks. But the important thing is to not accept its automatic responses as gospel. Don’t fight the feelings — argue logic and evidence against the underlying thought.

And once you win, keep that new thought as a mantra for future court battles. “People are rarely late because they died. They’re late because of something innocuous that isn’t worth getting upset over.”

And as your shiny new thought proves accurate time and time again, your brain will slowly adopt this rule and reduce the negative feelings associated with the old one.

Keep correcting the puppy and eventually, your carpet is poop-free.

(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)

Okay, rewiring completely. Let’s round it all up and uncover the biggest mistake people make when using these techniques…

Sum Up

This is how to rewire your brain for happiness:

  • Cognitive Therapy 101: Thoughts determine feelings. Change your thoughts and your feelings will follow.
  • Listen: Don’t let your reactions “just happen.” They could have gone another way. Why didn’t they? What did your brain say that made you pick A instead of B? What “rule” was its decision based on?
  • Round Up The Usual Suspects: Get Dr. House on the case. Which thinking error are you falling prey to? Correct diagnosis leads to a cure after the third ad break.
  • Rewire:  You gotta catch the puppy in the act. Yes, your brain is an adorable, insufferably incontinent creature — but we can fix that latter part.

Automatic thoughts are frustrating — but don’t get angry with them.

Because “them” is, well, you. Kinda. Getting angry with the thoughts won’t help you. Either of you. You and not-you need to get along. Sharing a skull with someone is challenging so be nice to everybody in there and life gets a lot easier.

Your brain does not hate you. It’s trying to help. Again, it’s like an overly concerned parent that wants to protect you from pain. So instead of declaring all-out war with the thoughts in your head (that’s the express train to crazytown, by the way) it’s far better to treat them like the overbearing parent they are. Thank them for their input. Then calmly go through the rewiring process.

You live most of your life inside your head. Make sure it’s a nice place to be.

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This article first appeared on Barking Up The Wrong Tree.