How to …

There’s a Science to It!
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LEARNING TO BE SINGLE AGAIN IS HARD

After 23 years of marriage it was hard to keep my spirits up as I learned how to live as a single woman again. I’m having trouble with that again during all this isolation due to COVID.

I TRIED TO BE HAPPY

I’d plan something fun to do (like go to the farmer’s market or the movies) and I’d enjoy myself!  Then I’d hope and pray that feeling good would last longer than 20 seconds. But this almost never happened. Instead, the happiness would vanish and I’d find myself depressed again.

FEELING DEPRESSED IS DEPRESSING!

Worse yet, I was depressed that I was depressed again. There was something about the “up” energy of those happy moments that made the “down” energy of those sad moments worse.

AND THEN I LEARNED WHY

I was reading a book that my son, Mr. Science, had given me. This book explored the science behind happiness (WTW?!!). I was skeptical, but the author was convincing AND he had lots of initials after his name. In a chapter about something called “negative bias” I learned why it was so hard to be happy!

OUR BRAINS ARE WIRED TO REMEMBER PAINFUL EVENTS

Back when we were cave-girls and boys, this negative bias kept us alive. If we lost a tribe member to a snake bite or lion raid, our brains made sure we remembered that snakes and lions kill people. This information kept us safe. It kept us alive. We still need our negative bias for this purpose. We use it when we drive (“Stay in your lane so you won’t crash!”), we use it when we go out at night (“Did that shadow just move?!”)

BUT REMEMBERING YOUR PAIN IS NOT HELPFUL NOW

When you’re recovering from a painful event, like the divorce or the death of your partner, negative bias is no longer your friend. But you still have it, whether you like it or not.  

ARE YOU CHASING YOUR TAIL IN UNENDING CIRCLES OF SADNESS?

Every time my sadness returns, I feel like a hamster on a wheel, running to nowhere as fast as I can. To continue this metaphor, I’m in a tiny cage inside my mind. My best girlfriend then and now is named Depression. She’s always available on the weekends when my friends aren’t.

HERE’S HOW TO USE BRAIN SCIENCE TO FEEL BETTER FOR GOOD

The book also introduced me to something scientists call neuroplasticity. That’s a big way of saying that your brain is, in fact, quite flexible and open to suggestion.  The really cool thing is that you can literally hard-wire your brain to be happy. (There’s even a book about it called “Hardwiring Happiness” by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.) But as I discovered early in my widowhood, you can’t just plan a happy experience and trust it to last. It doesn’t work that way. But it does start that way!

PLAN A HAPPY EXPERIENCE

Call your pet over for some loving, arrange a bouquet of flowers, take a long walk, bake something sweet. Having this experience is the first step. The second step is to let this experience expand in your mind. Pull those happy feelings as far into yourself as you can.  Keep absorbing the sweetness of the experience. Focus on it for as long as you can. Repeat this process several times each day. Become aware of moments when you’re happy and when you feel those, stay with the happy feelings, absorb them into yourself.

FOCUS ON YOUR HAPPINESS AND YOU’LL HARD-WIRE IT INTO YOUR BRAIN

When you linger with a happy experience and expand it you are literally rewiring circuits inside your brain. The more happiness circuits you make, the happier you become! How cool is that?

But this science stuff gets even better. The more you practice having happy moments and then absorbing them for 15 or 20 seconds, the more happy moments you find in your day. If you build circuits for happiness every day in a few months you’ll actually BE happier.

WHEN DARK THOUGHTS COME, YOU’LL HAVE A STRATEGY

Your new happiness circuits are ready to help when those dark thoughts arise. When you feel depression or sorrow sneaking into your thoughts, tap into your happy memory circuit and let it touch the darkness. Expand your awareness of the happiness you hold there. Let it get bigger and bigger and bigger. Now link this expanded happiness to that dark thought. Literally let the happiness push the darkness out to the edge of your awareness, where it belongs.

AS CRAZY AS IT SOUNDS, YOU REALLY CAN WIRE YOUR MIND TO BE HAPPY AGAIN

I’ve used this science again this year as the isolation from COVID started closing in on me. When I saw my old girlfriend Depression arrive and pour herself a glass of wine I grabbed my dog and began playing keep-away with him. I let the joy in his cute little eyes burrow into my mind. I let his silliness and joy get bigger and bigger and sink deeper and deeper into me. And the more I did that, the further away she got, until finally, good old Depression took her drink and moved on.

GO GET YOUR HAPPY ON

What brings you joy? What makes you want to dance like no one’s watching? Make a list of experiences you easily create that bring you a happy moment and then take that moment and expand it for 20 seconds. Once it’s big enough to feel, let it sink into every cell, and you’ll have just created a neural pathway for joy. When you create and savor enough moments like this, your brain will learn how to crowd out the pain.

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