How to help your brain create shortcuts for happiness.
by Tchiki Davis, Ph.D.
“Have you found happiness?”
Whenever I hear this question, I wonder why happiness is being treated like a lost set of car keys.
When we talk about “finding” happiness, it implies that we think happiness is something we should look for. But it’s not…
Happiness is something we must BUILD.
It turns out that happiness emerges when you build a certain set of skills—happiness skills. These skills can be cognitive, emotional, or behavioral and they include things like positive reappraisal, gratitude, self-compassion, and many others.
If you practice these skills enough, happiness will start to become automatic.
How does happiness become “automatic”?
Think back to when you learned to ride a bike. It was really hard at first, right? But you practiced again and again, and now you don’t even have to think about what you’re doing. Now, when you ride a bike, it feels easy—almost automatic.
Happiness works the same way. So when you practice the right skills, and you practice them enough, they become automatic.
How is this possible?
Well, the thing about the brain is that it’s got a lot to do, and it works really hard. When the brain has a task that it has to do frequently (think walking, talking, writing), it makes its own job easier by creating “tricks” or “shortcuts” to save time and energy. This is why things that felt impossible when we were young now feel easy— so easy, in fact, that we don’t even think about them as being skills.
The same thing can happen with happiness. When you practice things like gratitude or mindfulness, your brain creates shortcuts for these skills, making it easier and easier each time you do it (like riding a bike!)
It is these skills that enable you to respond to life’s ups and downs with excitement, joy, and positivity. And it is these responses that lead to happiness, resilience, and even career success.
So, your only objective is to figure out how to make your happiness skills automatic.
Here’s how to do it:
- Prioritize the right skills
To start building happiness, you’ll first want to know which skills you need to build. Why? Well, let’s use math as an example. Pretend you are a new student at a new school. Because I don’t know what you learned at your previous school, I give you a placement test to find out which skills you have mastered and which skills you still need to learn. Let’s say I discover that you are ready for algebra so I put you in an algebra class. Great! You’re all set.
But what if I didn’t test your skill level. Instead, I just put you in a calculus class. You’d struggle, right? Or maybe it turned out that you were ready for calculus and I put you in an algebra class. You’d be bored, right? Or maybe you skipped some foundational steps and didn’t even yet know multiplication and division. Then you’d have a heck of a time keeping up with either algebra or calculus, don’t you think? This is why prioritizing the right skills, right from the beginning, is an extremely important when it comes to building happiness.
Take a moment to think about the last time you learned a new skill—maybe speaking a new language, playing an instrument, or perfecting a craft. How long did it take you? How many total hours did you spend until you got good at it? The bad news is that if you are an average human being, learning any new skill takes some time.
But I do have some good news. You can make the happiness process go faster by practicing the right skills in the right way. More specifically, you can practice the skills that have the biggest impact on happiness and practice them in the ways that are the most enjoyable for you. This way you’ll make more progress in less time and you’ll be less likely to quit along the way.
Among the happiness programs that I have worked on, I am always delighted to see just how quickly people make significant progress building their happiness. But I am often discouraged to see that just when people start to get the hang of this whole happiness thing, they hit a brick wall.
Why? Because after you prioritize skills and practice them for a while, you’ll plateau and may even start to backslide towards where you started. This phenomenon is known as the “hedonic treadmill”. It’s like you are forever running and not getting anywhere. So you have to be sure to get off the treadmill and switch things up regularly.
Imagine this. In the first grade, you learn addition. Then in second grade, you learn addition again. And in the third grade, guess what you learn? Addition. Do you see where I’m going with this? To progress and improve, you have to switch things up. So, when you are feeling confident with a happiness skill, or feel yourself backsliding, it’s time to pause, see what else you need to learn, and challenge yourself to do so.