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Retrain Your Brain: Choosing Joy

Retrain Your Brain: Choosing Joy

These exercises aren’t intended as a replacement for counseling and medication. If you are experiencing intense or prolonged bouts of depression, or have been diagnosed with a serious mood disorder, please contact a mental health professional or your school’s health services if available. If you’re not sure where to begin, try an online resource like the JED Foundation, which is a nonprofit that provides skills and support to teens and young adults to protect emotional health and prevent suicide.

Did you know our brains have a bias towards negativity? This bias towards negative experiences used to be a vital part of survival (like hunter-gatherer types learning which mushrooms are good to eat by remembering which will make you violently ill), but today it can keep us stuck in old patterns of negative-thinking, making us feel anxious, inadequate, and depressed. With mindfulness and repetition we can actually retrain our brains to embrace the positive, building resilience and a steady self-worth. Here are a few exercises you can use to retrain your brain to focus on the positive.

One Minute For Good

(adapted from The Practical Science of Hardwiring Happiness by Dr. Rick Hanson)

This is a simple exercise you can use daily to start building a general sense of well-being and safety. When you first wake up or before going to bed, take a moment to breathe. Pay attention to what’s happening in your body and mind without judging it or trying to change it.

Next, let your breath soften and slow down. Release any tension you may be holding in your body. What’s one thing you are grateful for or glad about right now? Take a breath to savor that thought and the feeling it creates.

Bring to mind one or more people (or a pet) who care about you. Allow yourself to sink into the feeling of loving others and feeling loved and appreciated by them. Remind yourself of your own warmth and caring for others. 

Finish up with a few more deep breaths while you sense the love and contentment sinking into you.

Go For A Noticing Walk

This is a great exercise to reach for when you’re under stress or feeling overwhelmed. Take a short walk outside and practice noticing your surroundings. Pause to listen and look up. Whether you see something grand and majestic, like a panoramic view of the sun dipping into the ocean or something minuscule, such as the spots on a ladybug, look for the unexpected and inspiring. Look for what moves you, what pushes your sense of what is out there in the world.

What you’re doing is creating awe, a moment of pause that allows the nervous system to relax. When you build a habit of finding awe and inspiration in your everyday environment, you actively create the conditions to find joy daily.

Recruit Your Friends

For this exercise you’ll need a few trusted friends. Have each friend write out three things that they’re grateful for in the other people on notecards, then share the cards with each other. You might be surprised to learn what others see in you. Keep your cards somewhere you will notice them daily, like beside a mirror. Use the cards as a daily reminder that you are loved and worthy.

Start a Happiness Journal

Spend a few minutes each day writing about something that made you happy. This practice creates and reinforces a habit of noticing positive experiences and encoding them in your memory through the act of writing. In one experiment with happiness journals, subjects were asked to spend 20 minutes every day writing about an "intensely positive" experience. A control group was simply asked to write about a neutral topic. The group who wrote about positive experiences reported greater levels of happiness and higher health outcomes than those in the control group. 

Bonus resource: try NPR’s ‘Joy Generator’ for quick, guided exercises and tools to spark joy.