3 Practices for the Brain to Live a Happier, More Fulfilled Life

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“Pssssst… you are not good enough.”

“You don’t fit in.”

“You never have their attention.. just like when you were a kid.”

Do they sound familiar?

Do those little voices in your head pop up from time to time – and make you stumble, second-guess yourself or sabotage your relationships?

I’m a huge overthinker, and I’m almost ashamed to say those voices and limited beliefs showed up so often that they became my comfort zone. When something good happened – like when I made huge achievements, I would brush them off, say I was lucky, and would not let myself enjoy the taste of success and happiness.

I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Seriously, how can we enjoy life and live life to the fullest if we keep sabotaging ourselves?

As I learnt more about therapy, personal development and the brain, combined with my own experience in battling with my own (mostly negative) thoughts, I concluded that there are 3 things we can do – better make them habits – to live a happier, more fulfilled life true to ourselves. Think of them as exercises for the brain to strengthen our abilities to see the world as it is, instead of from our biased lens, past experience and stories we tell ourselves.

🤔 Is There Limit On Happiness? Why We Are Always Unhappy Despite Our Achievements

Bebe Rexha said it best in her song “Sabotage”:

Why do I sabotage everything I love?
It’s always beautiful until I mess it up
Why do I sabotage everything I love?
The walls are closing in because I built them up

Yes, we know we are the reason, and we can be our own worst enemy from time to time. But why do we do that?

In the book “The Big Leap”, Gay Hendricks talked about this precise problem we all face:

There is something important you should know about the Upper Limit Problem: when you attain higher levels of success, you often create personal dramas in your life that cloud your world with unhappiness and prevent you from enjoying your enhanced success.

You might have heard of “hedonic treadmill” – or hedonic adaptation. As we experience something good, like progressing in our career, upgrading our lifestyle, we feel great, but only for a short period of time. We quickly adapt to this “new normal” and we start chasing for more. The more you want, the faster the treadmill goes and the faster you want to run, to go after the next thing.

But it’s not just that. The truth is, many of us are so used to the constant state of worrying, feeling stressed or anxious, and the belief of “we don’t deserve to be happy”. You can blame the news, social media, advertisements and the stories you tell yourself for that (more on that later). As time goes by, we normalise this inadequate feeling, and we start thinking “happiness” is not normal, not real, or not possible.

Negative thoughts and feelings became our comfort zone.

This is why we don’t allow ourselves to be happy. Happiness is unfamiliar and foreign to us.

This is why we sometimes say things like, “Well, I’m just lucky” to brush off our effort and hard work behind great achievements.

This is what Gay Hendricks talked about as the “Upper Limit Problem” (or ULP, if you will) in his book. We all have a cap subconsciously about how much happiness we allow ourselves to feel.

To change this, we first need to understand how our brain works.

🧠 The Brain’s Function: to keep us safe, or to make us happy?

Think back to the pre-civilisation times when our ancestors lived in the jungle with the wildlife. They were constantly looking out for dangers and threats. This is the brain’s main function: to protect us from dangerous situations by scanning through our environments constantly. To keep us alive.

📺 The Negativity Bias, And 4 Sources of Negative Information That Make Us Anxious and Depressed

In today’s terms, it is called the “negativity bias”: we pay more attention to negative information far more than positive ones. Our brain doest that naturally to detect dangers. We don’t need to look out for wild animals attacking us anymore, but there are still noises of negativity everywhere that we pay attention to:

  1. News (news is, by default, something out of the ordinary. Usually something bad that spikes our anxiety and reactions)
  2. Advertisements (companies telling us that we need certain products and services because we, or our current lives, are not good enough)
  3. Social media (admit it – we compare our lives with others, and we change our definition of “good life” based on what the society tells us)
  4. Our own thoughts (how we interpret past events that define who we are)

 

See if you have experienced any of the followings:

  • We pay attention to bad news more than good ones
  • We remember insults more than compliments
  • We dwell on unpleasant events more than pleasant ones
  • One bad thing that happened at the end of the day ruined the good feelings from numerous good events earlier

The negativity bias shape how we see the world. If we are not careful, we develop a more pessimistic view of the world, more negative self-talk (those I mentioned in the beginning of this article) which spikes more anxiety and depression (1).

So, does that mean it’s a lost battle since our brain’s primary function isn’t to make us happy?

🎮 Rewire Your Brain

Luckily, there is a solution:

The art of getting beyond our Upper Limit Problem has a lot to do with creating space within us to feel and appreciate natural good feelings.

What exactly is Gay Hendricks talking about?

It’s time to rewire our brain on 2 levels.

We can learn to pay more attention to our surroundings and our thoughts.

🌴 Pay Attention to Our Environments

It’s easy to overlook things that we take for granted: sunshine, water, shelter, people who care about us, or a secured job. They are all good – as in they provide us safety, contentment and happiness, but we don’t often think about that. We don’t pay attention to that until they are missing (think about rainy days, when we are sick, or when we have major lifestyle changes).

When you look around carefully, you will discover the beauty in life. The world is not like what you see on TV. Despite the “bad news” that TV channels tend to focus on, the world is not as bad as we think. The bad things are not 100% of it. We need to create space and time to appreciate the world, and look at things from different perspectives instead of from our distorted lenses.

💭 Pay Attention to Our Thoughts

We can also change the stories we tell ourselves, hence tame those voices in our head. We can take a step back and look at things as they are. Pay attention to the difference between observation and interpretation:

  1. Your boss has her arms crossed when she’s talking to you vs “oh no, I must be in trouble”
  2. Your crush uses his phone more often during the date vs “he’s not paying attention to me – I must be losing my attraction”

 

By learning to see things are they are, we can train ourselves to observe, but not engage in our thoughts. When we catch ourselves interpreting events, we can learn to pause, and think about why we tell such stories. Did someone hurt us in the past? What patterns show up? Why do we always think we are the problem?

On both levels, cultivating awareness is key to experiencing and appreciating positive events in our lives.

Gay Hendricks also recommended repeating this phrase to ourselves every day to let the message sink in:

I expand in abundance, success, and love every day, as I inspire those around me to do the same.

Research found that self-affirmation may boost problem-solving skills under stress (2), change our perspectives on seeing life events, and reduce threat’s impact on ourselves (3). Personally, I have not dabbled into this much, and it is not the main focus of this article.

You can read more on how to tap into positive affirmation practice here.

Regardless of whether you believe in manifestation and/or affirmation or not, one thing stays true:

Our brain likes evidence.

We don’t believe in something, or to act on anything unless we see evidence.

This is why we have to train our brain, and take actions consistently.

⚙️ Why Thought is the Most Powerful Tool in the World

Our brain is always looking for evidence to confirm beliefs we shaped previously. Our worldviews are shaped from our childhood, experience and other external sources like the news and social media.

⚔️ Confirmation Bias Can Be a Double-edged Sword

This is the good, but also the bad side of how our brain functions: a loop is easily generated when it comes to confirming beliefs and narrating stories (4).

Here’s an example of a negative loop:

Say your parents brought you up alright, but they had high expectations on you and they gave little praises as you grew up. You normalised the constant feeling of inadequacy. This belief of “I’m not good enough” or “I’m not worthy” extended to other aspects of your life: your studies, your relationships and your career. Every time someone said something (or not said something), you would interpret events based on your belief and the stories you told yourself. In that way, everything you saw and did further confirm your belief that you were not worth it.

Now let’s look at an example of a positive loop:

Say your parents taught you to appreciate the nature and things you own at a young age. They loved you, nurtured you and provided for you. You learnt to see the world as “good” – through this filter, it was easy for you to naturally look for good things in life to confirm those beliefs. You might attract people who share similar vibes. You understood how insignificant your worries were every time you had a walk in the nature. You were not immune against “bad news” and setbacks in life, but you had a strong system and unbiased lenses to maintain your belief that the world is generally good.

Our thoughts make or break us.

Our thoughts might be the most powerful tool in the world.

How are you going to use your brain to your advantage – so that you can experience more positive emotions and success in life?

As mentioned above, rewiring the brain is not easy. But from my own journey from surviving to thriving, I have 3 habits to recommend to you – as exercises to train your brain so that you can live a happier life, and enjoy life to the fullest.

🗓 3 Habits to Train Our Brains for a Happier Life

✍🏻 Think About Your Thinking: Journaling

There is no self-development without self-awareness.

Journaling is a low cost and low barrier method to improve your self-awareness. Through laying out your thoughts, not only are you able to spot patterns and logics, you also learn to rewrite stories of your past through different perspectives. You will see life differently, which breaks you free from unproductive thoughts and negative patterns.

Sometimes we say we are “deep in thoughts”, but that might not be analytical – more like ruminating and getting absorbed in memories. Journaling isn’t just about documenting your day (although it can be helpful). It is also about analysing your thoughts and emotions in a productive manner. Through thinking about your thinking, you gain insights to your thought patterns, emotions and behaviours so that you can do something about it.

If you’re interested in getting started but not sure how, I have some FREE resources for you:

🎥 Watch my video here for tips on using Notion to improve mental health (the ultimate note-taking and organisation tool in my opinion).

📄 Some free Notion Templates (just click duplicate on right top corner):

🧘🏻 You Are Not Your Thoughts: Meditation

Remember I just suggested that our thoughts might be the most powerful tool we have, and we can learn to use it wisely?

We can manage our thoughts. Tame our mind.

You know this mindfulness practise never gets old: meditation.

No, you don’t sit crossed-legs and think of nothing.

It is impossible to think of nothing.

Meditation is an exercise to learn how to observe, but not engage in your thoughts.

Most of us are living in our own heads, using our heavily tinted lens to see the world.

But we are not our brains. We are not our thoughts.

We have CONTROL over our thoughts – maybe not 100%, but we can do something about it.

Meditation is like watching clouds float by in the sky, or leaves gently flowing down the stream: we can just sit back and observe our thoughts instead of interacting with all of them.

Our thoughts are not the reality.

Most of our worries don’t happen in real life.

Hence, the quickest way to realign our body and mind is to pause, and focus on the present moment.

You are physically safe, despite your mind telling you that it’s a dangerous world.

You are in exactly where you need to be, despite your mind telling you happiness lies elsewhere.

It is not easy – that’s why I strongly recommend you to make it a habit. it’s never too late to start building a strong foundation in your mind so that you build resilience and calmness.

If you’re interested in trying out meditation, have a look at these handpan guided meditation soundtracks I created that suit your needs:

Handpan Guided Meditation
Create your own sanctuary. 5 soundtracks for your everyday needs: finding focus, boosting energy, practising gratitude, relaxation and in times of chaos.

💛 Fill Your Heart with Gratefulness: Practise gratitude

We can learn to appreciate things in life through paying attention and intentional practice.

When I first started practising gratitude, it sounded like bullsh*t to me. Especially when I tried to write down 3 things I was grateful for first thing in the morning when the day just began. I had nothing to talk about, I thought. There was a point when I wrote down “sunshine” and “health” every day but not really feeling it.

Until I lost what I took for granted.

When I lost hope, when I was sick, when every little thing in life I used to enjoy was taken away from me – then I learnt the lesson.

Why worry about the future (in which you mostly do not have control over) when all you have is now?

Why dwell on the past (and worse, regrets) when you can make a change now?

When nothing is certain nowadays, all we can do is treasure what we have now, and embrace the present moment.

When we are grateful, we don’t crave for more or worry about what might happen – the major sources of unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

When you feel grateful, your mind has no space for worries.

💬 Final Words

If you read till this point, you understood how the brain works, and what you can do to experience more joy in life.

Here’s a TL;DR version:

  • Journaling helps you spot the patterns of your thoughts (especially negative ones).
  • Meditation helps you disengage with your thoughts.
  • Practising gratitude helps you rewire pathways in your brain to generate more happiness and positive stories.

 

Our brain is powerful. And we are the CEO of our brain.

What are you going to do today to make use of this powerful tool in order to live a more enjoyable and fulfilling life?

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📚 References

(1) Williams, L., Gatt, J., Schofield, P., Olivieri, G., Peduto, A., & Gordon, E. (2009). ‘Negativity bias’ in risk for depression and anxiety: Brain–body fear circuitry correlates, 5-HTT-LPR and early life stress. Neuroimage47(3), 804-814. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.05.009

(2) Creswell, J., Dutcher, J., Klein, W., Harris, P., & Levine, J. (2013). Self-Affirmation Improves Problem-Solving under Stress. Plos ONE8(5), e62593. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0062593

(3) Sherman, D. (2013). Self-Affirmation: Understanding the Effects. Social And Personality Psychology Compass7(11), 834-845. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12072

(4) Peters, U. (2020). What Is the Function of Confirmation Bias?. Erkenntnis87(3), 1351-1376. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-020-00252-1