Smiling is something almost all of us could do a bit more often. Past science shows that smiling – especially the kind of smile that involves the muscles around the eyes – creates a specific type of brain activation that’s connected to being in a happy mood. More recent research shows that even adopting this kind of smile, known as a “Duchenne smile” leads to lower heart rate levels and quicker recovery from stressful activities. Resilience and positive brain activity are maybe good reasons to grin a bit more in our lives, but there’s even a better reason.
The following video will show you exactly what that is.
It’s not our fault; blame it on the evolutionary impulse of our brains. We’re wired toward routine and because of that we often walk around asleep concerned about what is immediately in front of us. I was talking with a friend recently who has been jolted out of the matrix of life’s daily routine and into a space of awareness of human potential. He sat me down at his house and read me the following poem by poet/activist Drew Dellinger:
“It’s 3:23 in the morning
And I’m awake
Because my great great grandchildren
Ask me in dreams
Perhaps the 13th Sufi poet Rumi said it best, “Don’t turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters.” The entrance into all that’s beautiful in life is in what’s vulnerable. When something or someone is vulnerable before us we feel connected and connection is at the essence of feel well. This is because ultimately all things and people in life are connected and to feel connection is a feeling of belonging, it’s a feeling of being home. But to feel vulnerable we have to be brave and in this lies the freedom we long for.
The problem is our brains and our culture equates vulnerability with weakness. One of my newest favorite researchers and authors Brene Brown says, “Vulnerability sounds like
One of the secrets to wiring our brain toward happiness is in the simple understanding that what we practice and repeat starts to become more automatic. Call it a happiness or resiliency habit and it’s something that anyone can create. We all have thoughts and behaviors in our lives that lend themselves toward unhappiness, a neutral state, or happiness. While the brain defaults toward paying attention to negative stimuli to keep us safe, we are active participants in our health and well-being and can nurture a happier and more resilient brain.
Here’s a suggestion to start with that comes from the 365 Daily Now Moments:
“TAKE A MOMENT to look around. Where is the good in this moment? Look inside and out. What’s the good within you, what’s the good outside of you?
The gifts of life are truly here; we just need to come to our senses from time to time to notice them.”
The fact is our brains aren’t wired to be happy; they’re wired to keep us safe. That’s why left to its own devices the brain isn’t going to be aware of all the good that is around.
There are many writers, psychologists and mindfulness teachers who speak about the essence of our true nature being good, being happy, and being compassionate.
However, this only comes when we feel safe and secure.
Our brain is often times not in a state of feeling safe and secure and is more often on the lookout for what’s a potential danger around us. This is what’s been called the brain’s automatic negativity bias. In other words, we’re far more likely to pay attention to what’s not good than to what’s good. This is especially prevalent if you’ve ever struggled with anxiety, depression or any trauma.
But there’s good news:
Our most fundamental need in life is to be safe. When we feel safe, the body relaxes, we become more flexible in the way we see life and are generally happier. But throughout life we all suffer different traumas and feel vulnerable. Maybe we were made fun as a child at school, were a child of divorce, felt inadequate as a parent or perhaps suffered more severe traumas such as some form of physical or sexual abuse. All of these are now reference points for your brain to bring up from time to time arousing feelings of insecurity and vulnerability.
How to we heal insecurity and feel safe again?
I’m going to give you a simple acronym to play with that builds on the practice that Christopher Germer, PhD and Kristen Neff PhD use to cultivate self-compassion called “Soften, Soothe, Allow.” The new acronym of S.A.F.E which I’ll explain in a moment, integrates the ability to inquire a bit deeper into the vulnerability that is there and expands a wiser, more secure awareness of our common humanity.
The acronym for this practice is S.A.F.E:
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” ~ Aristotle
I’m not so sure I agree with you Aristotle. There are plenty of educated people who have trouble entertaining thoughts without accepting them. In any intense emotional state we become strict believers of the thoughts we think. If you’re depressed, educated or not, you often accept the thought that things are hopeless. When you’re anxious, educated or not, you believe that catastrophe is around the corner. It may be more accurate to say, “It is the mark of a wise mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
But what helps us shape a wiser brain?
When we think of what we’re thankful for we often think of the light in our lives. Who and what represents the light in your life?
The poet Hafiz writes in his poem “It Felt Love”:
How did the rose
Ever open its heart
And give to this world
All its beauty?
It felt the encouragement of light
Against its being,
We all remain
This is so true. It becomes easier to open up and reveal our own gifts to this world when we feel positive loving encouragement within.
Here is an opportunity to do a practice inspired by this poem that can help us cultivate a sense of gratitude and lovingkindness right now.
Here is short practice to feel that encouragement of light right now (what do you have to lose):
A research study just came out in the Journal of Neuroscience where scientists at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston used sea snail nerve cells to reverse memory loss. The scientists were able to help the cells compensate for memory loss by retraining them when the nerve cells were primed for optimal learning. Of course they’re hoping this has implications for working with Alzheimer’s, but the implications don’t stop there, it could also support a neuroscience for learning to trust ourselves in times of difficulty.
A study out of the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) recently came out that showed how a two week mindfulness training improved students GRE reading-comprehension scores and working memory, while reducing mind wandering among students prone to distraction. Of course this story went viral because of the value our culture places on test scores over almost anything else, including mental health. But underneath the better tests scores, this study reveals something far more important, it suggests that with practice teens can rewire the ability to regulate attention and stress. In today’s academic race to nowhere that might mean the difference between just surviving and thriving.
In my mind, it all comes down to stress.