Summer is my happy place. I love sitting by the pool on a warm, sunny day. Feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin. Listening to the sounds of singing birds and the breeze rustling through the trees. This is my go to image when the weather isn’t so sunny and the outer circumstances of my life make it difficult for me to find my inner sense of peace and contentment.
Where do you find your happiness? A walk on the beach? A hike in the woods? Going on an adventure? Creating a work of art? Dancing into the wee hours of the night? Spending time with family and friends? What if you could bottle up this feeling? What if you could preserve some of your happiness to use during those times when it’s not so easy to stay positive?
While many people come into therapy to process their more negative experiences, I like to direct my clients towards the positive too. By tuning into the moments of contentment, we not only experience more joy in the moment, but we can actually change the hardwiring of our brains (see Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence by Rick Hanson). The imprints from these positive experiences can then become anchors that keep us from floating away into the sea of negativity. Here’s how it works:
The first step is to notice when you’re having a positive experience. Tune into to things that really bring you joy. Enhance the experience by involving all of your senses (e.g., sight, sound, touch, taste, smell). So, for example, if you’re enjoying a moment at the beach, notice the feel of the sun and the smell and taste of the salt in the air. Hear the sounds of the surf and the caw of the seagulls. You can also pay attention to internal sensations, like the rhythm of your breath and the feeling of calm and contentment in your stomach and chest. The richer the image, the more parts of your brain get involved. Also, the more you savor the experience the more you’ll enjoy it.
Next see if you can think of a word or phrase to describe this experience (e.g., “peaceful feeling on the beach”). This invites your more cognitively oriented brain structures into the action. Keep it simple as too much thinking can take you out of the experience. If negative thoughts intrude, neither engage with them nor block them out. Instead, see if you can gently redirect your attention back to the positive experience. Don’t stress if you can’t. There will always be more positive moments on the horizon. You just need to keep yourself open to them.
Tuning into your moments of joy, peace and gratitude is more than enough to make lasting changes in your brain. You can further enhance this effect by using techniques from Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) (see Tapping In:A Step-by-Step Guide to Activating Your Healing Resources Through Bilateral Stimulation by Laurel Parnell), Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) or other meridian tapping techniques, or even the power of your imagination. I often tell clients to imagine that they are able to capture the essence of a positive experience and keep it in their pocket to use when needed. So, for example, if you experience a great sense of accomplishment after completing an arduous hike, you can imagine saving that feeling for a time when you may need a burst of confidence.
Having trouble locating those positive moments? Start small (e.g., savoring that first sip of your morning coffee or the feeling of relief after you’ve finished a stressful meeting at work). Even the tiniest bits of pleasure count. Some people also find it helpful to keep a gratitude journal to record any positive experiences and/or anything that you are grateful for. By tuning into the positive you will shift both your perspective and your brain so that you will begin to bring in more and more of the good stuff.