When Bobby McFarren first came out with the song, Don’t Worry, Be Happy, I thought he must just be high on something. It sounded too pat an answer to life’s many difficulties. It couldn’t be as easy as just telling yourself or someone not to worry and focus on being happy, could it? Maybe he was a typical laid back man from the tropics who lazed around in the sun all day. What did he have to be worried about? Well, it turns out he was from the States and a world class musician to boot. And what he had to say is true. We can control the level of our worry by focusing on being happy.
How can we do that? Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist, and Dr. Richard Mendius, a neurologist, havewritten a book called Buddha’s Brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, Love & Wisdom. This book outlines in detail how to decrease our stress and be happy. According to them, scientists have recently mapped out the neurotransmitters (chemicals in the brain) that are involved in emotions such as anxiety and depression. These chemicals are key to firing parts of the brain that alert us to danger in our environment so that we have an increased chance of survival. Over the thousands of years of human evolution, these pathways have developed to a level that our brains can make split second decisions whether to fight or flight or just relax. Since these pathways are key to our survival, they get the most traction in our brain.
We have evolved to pay greater attention to unpleasant experiences. This has created a negativity bias that overlooks good news and focuses on any possible dangers or threats in our environment. With the development of our prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain that separates us from other animals), we have even been able to imagine possible scenarios, thus developing anticipatory anxiety about the danger we might meet in the future. While this might serve us well if we were ever to meet such a circumstance, for the most part this tendency causes us to worry unnecessarily, even before something happens. It causes unnecessary suffering more often than it prepares us for disaster.
The good news is that we also have the ability to retrain our brains to focus on more pleasant experiences which can increase the neural pathways that are devoted to feeling good. You can actually change the “wiring in your brain” by using some simple, easy remedies. Drs. Hanson and Mendius suggests first of all that we look consciously for and take in positive experiences, letting them sink into our awareness by actually savoring them. This helps them to be consolidated in our memories. We can then use the positive memories to counteract a painful one that is occurring in the present. For example, during the birth of my second child, I was able to use the memory of how good it was to hold my first child after he was born to help me cope with the pain of labor.
Their book is full of many other helpful suggestions that help us cool the fires of the sympathetic nervous system which is the one that produces the stress-related hormones.Instead, we use these techniques to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which allows calming, soothing and healing hormones to spread throughout your body. Some of these techniques are familiar to many of us, such as progressive relaxation, deep breathing, mindfulness, meditation and imagery. Cognitive behavioral therapy techniques can be of help in this area as well, challenging negative thoughts with realistic challenges. The authors’ suggestions are too many to cover in this brief article. I would recommend that you read their book. Don’t be scared off by all the technical terms for the brain and its wiring. The authors really explain this in a way that we all can understand. Dr. Hanson also has a website that is worth visiting . (http://www.rickhanson.net/)
So Bobby McFerrin was on to something in 1988 with his catchy tune. I even can catch myself these days humming a few bars as I take his advise and let go of the negative filters. Instead, I choose to focus on the blessings and gratitude I feel for all that is positive in my life. I would suggest the same for you. Don’t Worry, Be Happy–it will change the way your brain works!