A couple of years ago, I’d come to a dead end—a failure I felt sure I could never recover from. I even considered whether my husband, children, and the world would be better off without me.
It was bad.
And then, in desperation, I grasped at the last straw I could come up with: a 30-day experiment in the laboratory of my own mind. I dedicated one month to the singular pursuit of joy, in hopes that month would change my entire life. I never actually thought it would work.
But it did. I mean, WOW, did it ever. And it didn’t even take that long! Once I cracked the code—once I figured out how to harness the neurobiology of joy and apply it in simple ways every day—my life morphed before my very eyes. I wrote down what I did so I could remember if I forgot. And it’s now a book, The Joy Plan.
A major element to my “joy plan” was changing the conversation that was happening in my head all day long.
Complaining is a habit you can break.
You see, I used to complain. A lot. Not necessarily because I was dissatisfied with my life. It was more like a nervous habit. I especially complained when I was speaking with someone I didn’t know well. But then a friend told me, “Your experience of life is shaped by what you say about it.” And I could see that he was right.
By complaining all the time, I was missing out on a different story I could be telling, and a different experience of life I could be living. I challenged myself to stop complaining for a week, and the challenge is still going more than two years later.
When we complain, we train our brains to focus on the negative, which then predisposes us to see more negative showing up in our lives. Complaining also releases the stress hormone cortisol, which has a whole cascade of harmful effects on our health.
Whatever we do repetitively, whether that’s biting our nails or making time to exercise, becomes a habit. Complaining is the same. In fact, 90% of our thoughts are repetitive, so they really become a strong habit. The thoughts on a feedback loop in my mind focused on things I was unhappy about, and the words I spoke about those thoughts came out as complaints.
Make the switch from “No” to “Yes.”
Until I switched the theme. I practiced thinking joyful thoughts long enough that those thoughts became my new habit, and I no longer felt the urge to complain. Although this is simple, it’s not necessarily easy. But with practice and perseverance, it does work.
Instead of always saying “No” to things in my mind, I look for ways to say “yes.” Rather than bumming out about what I don’t want, I do my best to focus my attention on what I do want. Because complaining doesn’t solve problems; it blocks solutions.
Creating a regular gratitude practice helped me tremendously in this process. I’d heard that frequent gratitude can increase happiness, but I didn’t really know why—other than the seemingly obvious fact that if you focus on what you are grateful for, you’ll likely realize that your troubles aren’t as bad as they seem.
As it turns out, gratitude mostly works because of the effect it has on the brain.
Gratitude is registered in the brain as optimism.
Optimism, regular positive thoughts and reactions to life’s challenges, is observable in brain scans. Optimistic thoughts calm and soothe the amygdala, the part of the brain that sounds the stress alarm. Optimism also lowers the stress hormone cortisol, releases pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and relaxation.
Thoughts and words of gratitude are powerful triggers of optimism. When these thoughts are repeated frequently, the brain’s neural connections grow stronger and faster. Eventually, new neural pathways are formed—like well-worn highways your brain uses habitually because they are familiar.
This happens with any type of repetitive thinking, but can be harnessed for positivity with a regular gratitude practice. Frequent gratitude trains the brain to choose positive thoughts.
Consistency is the key to changing your mindset, and your life.
Before my “joy plan,” my default thoughts were usually of the worry or fear variety. Switching my internal chatter to thoughts of appreciation and enthusiasm didn’t happen overnight. Just like any new habit, creating an attitude of gratitude takes practice. For me, that means being grateful every day in one form or another.
I designated a “Gratitude Notebook” and carried it around with me all the time. Day after day, I wrote in my notebook whenever I thought of something I was grateful for. The notebook filled up quickly, and I found I was writing about the same topics over and over. As my gratitude practice evolved, I set aside time every morning to write in that notebook, ensuring my day started with a positive focus that sent warm fuzzies to my brain.
If the notebook feels like too much, you can simply spend a few minutes thinking grateful thoughts each morning when you first wake up. Before you even get out of bed, think of all of the things you are thankful for in your life–your loved ones, your home, your job, your body, etc. Make a mental list instead of writing it down–your brain won’t know the difference, and you’ll still experience the positive benefits of gratitude.
You may also want to spread the love by telling others how grateful you are for them, in small ways every day or every week. Each act of gratitude will not only feel good for those on the receiving end, it will flood your brain with joy triggers that can have a profound effect on your life.
Become a silver lining-spotter.
As the ancient saying goes, “We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.” A shift in perspective can sometimes change everything. While some days will be harder than others, no matter how hard or scary it feels, there is always something to be grateful for.
These days, I look for the silver lining in every situation like my life depends on it. Because ultimately, my experience of life does depend on this. While there are many things that are beyond my control, my attitude is always up to me. An attitude of gratitude is always an option.
Partially excerpted from The Joy Plan: How I Took 30 Days to Stop Worrying, Quit Complaining, and Find Ridiculous Happiness.