You're probably familiar by now with the concept of brain plasticity - the notion that our brains change and grow in response to experiences and stimuli. This has been one of the biggest advances in neuroscience in recent years, and one of the reasons it is significant is because it raises the possibility that deliberately training our minds can lead to greater happiness and wellbeing.
Previously, your happiness levels were viewed largely as something you were born with. Most people identified as being naturally optimistic or pessimistic, but current research calls this into question. Modern neuroscience is now demonstrating that we can in fact change the structure of our brains, and subsequent behaviour for the better.
Dr Richard Davidson, based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been conducting ground breaking research in this area for a number of years, and suggests that happiness is a skill that can be learned, much as we learn a language or musical instrument. Think about that for a moment...most of our yearnings, drives and goals relate to increasing our happiness levels. We may differ in the way we approach this, but it is a fundamental drive that is universally experienced by everyone. And we have within our reach a clear path which will lead us toward greater levels of wellbeing. I don't know about you, but I find that incredibly exciting.
No one thinks twice about incorporating physical exercise into their daily life with the expectation that it contributes to better physical health. We know that deliberately exercising our muscles results in them growing and changing. And yet we've not yet reached the stage where it's accepted that to train our minds results in measurable changes and improved mental health - or even if we know it, it hasn't become as widely advocated and acted upon as including physical training into our lives. This, despite a significant (and growing) body of evidence that demonstrates that things like meditation and mindfulness practices result in greater wellbeing. And the time needed to achieve these benefits has been shown to be more than realistic for the majority of people - a matter of minutes every day. So that these benefits are more than accessible for everyone.
Practices like mindfulness meditation or a gratitude or compassion practice have been demonstrated to change both the structure and function of your brain.
Many people struggle initially to establish a regular mindfulness practice, and research has suggested that structured programs like an 8 week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course decreases levels of anxiety and depression, and results in measurable changes in the brain.
Gratitude practices such as keeping a regular gratitude journal have been shown to increase happiness and wellbeing.
Whatever practices you use, consistency is key, as it's only repetitive experiences and practices that result in changes in brain function and behaviour.
Have you ever tried incorporating mindfulness or gratitude practices into your daily life, and if so, what sorts of changes have you noticed?