For thousands of years, humans believed that emotions were predetermined hormonal responses out of our control, but in recent years researchers are beginning to shift their understanding. Part of this is due to something called “the predictive brain.”
It used to be understood that if, for example, you saw a bear, you would feel fear, which would, in turn, prompt your body to exhibit the physiological signs of fear like increased pulse, dilated pupils, and a surge of adrenaline. Now, however, we understand that it actually works in the opposite direction. When you see a bear, your body reacts first, and these physiological signs prompt your brain to feel fear.
This matters because it demonstrates that we as humans can use the predictive brain to alter our response to certain situations. If we feel the physiological symptoms of fear, or stress, or sadness, we can actually interfere before our brains acknowledge the emotion.
Neuroscientist Anil Seth points out that manipulating your predictive brain isn’t about forcing a different emotion in the moment, but rather conditioning your brain to choose positive, uplifting emotions. She calls this “emotional muscle memory.” There are some general ways to practice this such as getting regular physical exercise, eating well, and engaging in meaningful relationships, but you can also train your brain on a situation-to-situation basis.
For example, if it starts to rain right before you were going to go on a walk, rather than being sad about the poor weather, you can instead recognize that the rain is giving necessary nourishment to all the local plants and giving you an opportunity to bust out your new raincoat.
Dr. Sriram Shamasunder, a physician at UC San Francisco notes that gratitude plays a big role in emotional muscle memory. It instantly trains your brain to focus on what is going right, so next time you face a challenge, your brain anticipates well in the situation.
We all want to feel happiness, but searching for it can feel futile. It turns out, like any other skill, the best way to find joy might just be a little practice. Here are three strategies you can use to start cultivating joy today.
- Share your appreciation. Take five minutes a day to write down what and who you are grateful for at this moment.
- Take an awe walk. Turn off your phone, take out your headphones, and go for a short walk to take in everything awe-inspiring in your neighborhood. Maybe you see a small flower coming through a crack in the sidewalk or an excited dog sniffing a tree. Practice noticing everything around you that brings you joy.
- Listen to some nature sounds. We wrote before about how the sounds of nature can boost mental health. If you don’t have time to get out for a walk, just putting on nature sounds in the background of your workday can turn the day around.