Who doesn’t have 10 seconds to feel happier?
I recently experienced a bout of depression that had me going to bed at 8p.m., crying in public, and going days without eating because I’d completely lost my appetite.
The idea that I could have done something to drive my blues away and make myself happy seems, frankly, both totally idiotic and borderline offensive. Anyone who suffers from depression knows what I mean. Depression is a real thing, not something you can just think away.
That said, psychologist Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, believes we can train our brains to be happier on a day-to-day basis, and can actually back up his claim with science. And, since I’d rather feel happy than terrible, I was ready to hear about it, and try it for myself.
How long does it take to feel bad?
If you’re skeptical about whether you can feel happy in just 10 seconds, try this: think about the last thing that made you angry. You probably won’t have to dig too deep. I can think back to just a few minutes ago, when I clicked away from writing this to check my email and saw an annoying, mansplain-y message from an acquaintance. Remembering it and picturing the know-it-all look on his face was enough to raise my heart rate and make me feel stabby, in far fewer than 10 seconds. Go ahead and reminisce about your last irritating encounter – really let it soak in.
Feel bad yet? I bet you do, way down in your bones. Brooding about all the crappy things that have happened to us, focusing on things that make us angry, and fixating on our fears and anxieties has a measurable physical effect on us, making it difficult to breathe, think straight, or be optimistic about anything. And it’s easy to do. Try making a list of 10 things you’re grateful for: things that make you genuinely happy. Now make a list of 10 things you’re worried, mad, or sad about, that give you a pit in your stomach. Which one took longer to write?
Now that we’ve established how easily you can make yourself feel terrible in less than 10 seconds, maybe it’s a little easier to believe we can learn to feel better in that amount of time, too.
How to be happy
The same way thinking about a negative experience made you feel bad, putting your focus on something positive can make you feel better. There’s a catch, though. Our brains, explains Hanson, are wired to pay far more attention to negative information than positive. In his book, he outlines the way evolution screwed us over in this way (yeah yeah, while also helping us survive as a species, whatever).
In order to combat this programming, we’ve got to work much harder to be happy than we do to be miserable. Think of your brain like one of those stress-relieving squishy toys: no matter how hard you squeeze it, it will return to its original shape once you release your grip. People who seem to be naturally happy have gotten good at focusing on things that give them a lift, and actually reprogrammed their brains to tend toward feeling good.
Think about it: do the happiest people you know also have the most reason to be happy? Or does their happiness seem independent of what’s going on in their lives? I’ve met many people who seem to have it all – great job, plenty of money, good health, solid relationship – who were very unhappy. On the flip side, I know people who are struggling to get by, constantly getting knocked down by life, who are joyful and serene.
Practice, practice, practice
Okay, so how do we really do this? Hanson recommends training your brain, just like you’d train your body. Think of happiness like a muscle that’s going to get bigger the more you exercise it. Several times a day, take 10 seconds to think about something that makes you truly joyful, happy, or grateful. It could be anything: that first cup of hot coffee in the morning and how good it smells, the satisfaction you felt when you hit “send” on that email you’d been putting off writing for days, your cat purring in your lap, the time your partner surprised you with flowers at work.
“Any single time you do this won’t change your life,” cautions Hanson. “But half a dozen times a day, day after day, you really can gradually change your brain from the inside out.” It’s like flagging certain experiences in your memory, so you’ll be sure to remember them. Throughout the day, when you find yourself ruminating about something that makes you upset, angry, or fearful, simply move away from that thought and refocus on a positive thought or experience that relaxes you and helps you feel calmer.
“Having internalized again and again a sense of calm, a person is going to be more able to face situations at work, or in life in general, without getting so rattled by them,” Hanson told The Atlantic. Hanson’s method isn’t a cure for depression, or a substitute for therapy and/or medication if you need it, but over the days, weeks, and years, you actually can become happier – 10 seconds at a time.
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Comment: What makes you feel instantly happier?
Elizabeth lives in Brooklyn with two daughters, occasional mice and innumerable to-do lists. She runs a nine-minute mile, bakes a mean chocolate chip cookie, and can always be persuaded to sing at a karaoke bar. Follow her on Twitter.