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How to be happy - retrain your brain.

Happiness- a multi-billion-pound industry. An industry tapping into a social desire, need even, to understand, to acquire and to try to hold onto this emotion, all of the time.

When I decided on happiness for my topic this week, I had a look at my subscribed podcast list and the books I have lining my office, knowing that word, or at least the theme, was likely to be prevalent. I counted thirteen podcasts which either featured happy in the title or were in the genre of positivity and wellbeing and eighteen books. I am possibly, single handedly, funding the industry! We all seem to strive for and crave more happiness.

It was one of these podcasts in particular that formed the basis of my idea for this week. Listened to across two of my runs, I got to the episode I have heard raved about. The Diary of a CEO, featuring Mo Gawdat. Well, I finally got there, almost a year after it first went out, and if you haven’t heard it, it really is worth a listen… but please read me first. 😊

As I puffed along through local fields of sheep and horses and listened to Mo share some of his story and a lot of his thoughts and learnings, I found myself nodding along and even, at times, muttering to any of the livestock showing me any interest, how true his words were. It’s fortunate I generally only come across the odd dog walker.

There is one single theme from this episode that I wanted to write about, and it is a theme that is so very dear to my heart. Something I was taught in my MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy) course by the OMF – yes, I’m still banging on about them. A very calm lady, our teacher named Marie, offered us a reframe, a tool, against all the anxiety we had in the room, the catastrophising, worrying, panicking, swirling, gnawing doubts and fears we had about whether “it” was all going to be ok - because many of us couldn't see how it could be.

It's a tool I use daily, and one I embedded in my coaching practice from day one. It’s just a question – is that true? Is what your brain is screaming at you, actually, in fact, true? I ask myself and my clients, is that a fact or a thought? Fact or story?

It’s incredibly disarming. I remember being asked it by Marie. I had just shared some deep dark stuff in our group, that had only previously seen the light of day with my therapists, things that continued to take up considerable space in my head, occupy much of my waking and sleeping time, cause me pain and sadness and an anxiety that resulted in bitten nails, angry red skin, an over sensitive stomach and to cry – a lot. And then there was Marie with her forget-me-not blue eyes opened wide, who simply asked “yes, but is that true?”.

I can tell you that my initial reaction, at least inwardly, was one of utter indignation. Well of course it was bloody true, didn’t my therapy bills demonstrate a problem? Didn’t an antidepressant prescription say the same? Wasn’t I here, on this course because I needed help? And was I stupid? Was I a liar? Was she really asking me if I was making all this up?

Turns out that was exactly what she was asking me. What a bloody nerve. And then… a glimmer of an idea… what if it wasn’t true? Turns out I was making it up. And how I knew was because I could produce not one iota of evidence to back me up, not one fact. Indeed, any evidence I could think of, facts I had ready to lob at the serene Marie, actually backed the dawning realisation that it wasn’t true. Potentially deeply humiliating and a chance for my little inner critters to pop in to remind me that actually, I am a cretin. Fortunately for me, Marie didn’t appear to have a judgemental bone in her body, I got a knowing smile as I sat flushed, mute and clearly looking flummoxed, and as a group, we launched into what to do with this new realisation, and basically how it was going to change our lives. And it did.

Mo Gawdat talks about a simple flow chart, and I loved the idea of a visual prompt for this, so I bashed one out, which I hope you can take and start using. Start rewiring that brain and moulding it into something new. Remember the superhighway analogy – the neuroplasticity?

Now this is all great for managing personal angst and inner critics, but it does also have a place in business. My goodness if I had had the wherewithal as a manger to ask this question of my team and colleagues more often, if I had been able to help them dig past the fears, anxieties, aversion to risk and difficult conversations, that were often in the room with us (often coming from me too of course!), the time we could have saved, the unhelpful emotions we could have dismissed, the things we could have tried differently, the honesty we could have shared…

But does it make you happy? If you weave this practice into the fabric of your daily life, will happiness appear and stick around? As far as I am concerned, yes it does, and I am the first person to get on my box and say happiness, like any emotion is transient, we cannot be happy all of the time, it just isn’t reality; but we can influence how we choose to see our lives and circumstances. We can accept everything our brain tells us as fact and potentially find ourselves in a deep dark hole, where joy feels very remote, or we can test ourselves by asking if what we think is true… and regardless of the answer we can choose our reaction.

Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.” His Holiness the Dalai Lama

In life we can experience some awful things, things that cause us significant pain, trauma and grief. And we are changed as a result of them. And yet, and this is a very unpopular theory, we can, absolutely can, choose how we respond – we can choose gratitude, we can choose to seek out and walk toward joy. Remember those books I mentioned? The hard hitter: Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl, someone who learnt how to be positive as concentration camp prisoner. It’s a fascinating and humbling read.

So yes, our life is going to include the good, the bad and the ugly; our mind is going to take these experiences and create thoughts from them. Thoughts are not fact, they are not truth, they are thoughts. So next time your mind tells you a thought – ask of yourself – is that true?

Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be. Abraham Lincoln

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