A Neurobehavioral Strategy for Finding Happiness in Troubling Times

DO Something Positive

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How often have you hoped your happiness was “just around the corner?” The only thing necessary was an election going a certain way, a job promotion, or receiving an invitation to a coveted party. In each of these situations and countless others, happiness becomes a condition dependent upon other people. It is a recipe for misery.  

But what’s the alternative? Neurobehavioral research may provide an answer.

Neurological Research On Negativity

Research has shown that the mind fixates more on negative events than positive ones. You had a great day today—except for the driver who cut you off at an intersection. Instead of the brain focusing on what went right, it hones as if it was a guided missile to the driving episode. Even more alarming is that repeated negative experiences develop new neural connections that act like out- of-control cancer cells, crowding out what is positive in your life.

The chain reaction is similar to the memory of the inconsiderate driver that leads you to suspect your spouse is having an affair—which then moves on to remembering your mother’s criticism of your career—which brings you back to the despair you felt realizing you were not invited to the party.

If neurobehavioral research on negativity is correct, then the road to happiness may require breaking the pattern that leads to unhappiness and creating positive experiences to replace the negative ones.  But how do you do that? How do you battle your brain’s propensity for having a “half-empty” mentality rather than a “half-full” one?

Thinking Positively

Pop psychology would have us believe that the only thing necessary to become happy is to think positively. However, in 30 years as a communications counselor, I’ve found few people think their way to happiness; instead, happiness is more likely by doing something positive.

The struggle between thinking and doing is illustrated by the experience of feeling a pebble in your boot. You hope it will squiggle to the side and become inconspicuous—but it rarely does. No matter how lovely the scenery or delightful the conversation with fellow hikers, you see everything through the pain of that pesky pebble. Eventually, you stop, unlace your boot and remove the offending culprit.

It would have been nice if you could have “thought” the pebble out of your boot, but unfortunately, you don’t possess a Star War’s transmutation skill. The same relationship applies to happiness.  

THINKING Your Way to Happiness

There is the old joke about a man who goes to the doctor’s office and says, “My arm hurts when I do this,” rotating his arm in circles. The doctor thoughtfully looks at the arm and then says, “Well, don’t do that.” Just as the doctor’s advice sounds too simplistic to be helpful, so is telling someone to stop being negative in order to have a more positive life.

Many of my psychologist friends would suggest psychotherapy as a way of finding happiness.  They believe that through talk therapy, the negativity in one’s life can be replaced by positive emotions. If only life could be so simple. In the 1970s in Chicago, an urban renewal experiment was tried where blocks of decaying houses and apartment buildings were torn down, depriving drug dealers and other criminals of a safe haven.

The assumption was that once the negativity was removed, life on the south side would become more positive. Unfortunately, with a lack of funds, acres of city blocks were left vacate and criminals reentered the spaces. Significant changes didn’t occur until the fenced-off areas were filled with housing.

The same relationship applies to becoming more positive. Changing one’s thinking doesn’t necessarily lead to a more positive life. Good thoughts don’t fill bellies, nor are words a substitute for actions.  

In working with people who were in the process of dying and those with chronic illnesses, I rarely saw anyone become happier just through thinking. And if they did, it was short-lived. The change required actually doing something positive. That something fell into two categories: behaviors benefiting just self and behaviors benefiting self and others.  

Behaviors Benefiting Just Self

The answer to the question “What makes you happy?” for some people involves engaging in something creative, like playing a musical instrument, writing poetry, making a delicious gourmet dish, or sculpting stone. However, for others, like a client with ALS (Lou Garrick’s Disease) who could only move her eyes, happiness came from a more basic behavior. Every week when I visited, she would ask me to take her hand, place it on her cat’s back, and move her hand in a stroking motion. The pleasure this simple behavior gave her was more significant than any insight she had through counseling.

Behaviors Benefiting Others

In the Merchant of Venice, Portia pleads for the life of Shylock by saying that mercy benefits not only the person receiving it but also the one giving it. The same reciprocity occurs with behaviors that helps you and other people.  During one of the most negative periods of my life, I became a bedside hospice volunteer. Few friends could understand my decision, and even fewer comprehended my explanation; “I receive more than I give.” If activities such as volunteering are rewarding—terrific! If not, don’t feel guilty about wanting to knit or play your flute.


Life now is difficult, and some think it will become worse before getting better. Infusing your life with positive behaviors will hopefully act as a deterrent to your mind’s propensity for connecting and recalling negative experiences.

Do at least three positive things every day for a total of at least one hour. Two hours would be better and three phenomenal! Will it make the pandemic disappear or prevent you from being infected? No, but take the doctor’s advice and stop doing those things that hurt. You can become happier by relying on what you do rather than on the whims of others.

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