It was another winter day but as the sun came up, the day was brighter and warmer. After I dropped my daughter off at her school and going back home, I bumped into my neighbour. She was a short rounded woman whose name I kept forgetting to ask but whose smile so kind and radiant I never fail to recognise. With silvered short hair, wrinkled complexion, and a pair of black designer spectacles, she looked to be in her early sixties. Being her companions most of the time were the twin dogs always well dressed in vibrant coloured outfit. But this time, she was on her own.
“Long time no see. It’s so good to see you again. How are you doing with the treatment?” I asked her.
“Everything is great. Thank you for asking. At that time when you saw me, my husband had an accident and my daughter was having a tough semester at school. So I told myself that I had to go through this so I am the strength my family could count on. And here I’m, feeling much better,” she said, her face filled with that warm complacent smile.
Cancer treatment was what she had been going through. And those last few words from what she shared couldn’t strike me more about how far I have gone on my own journey of constructing my interiority with inner strengths.
When I was small, I had every reason to be unhappy. I was born and grew up in a broken family. I was sheltered in a small house the roof of which was made out of dried palm tree leaves so wobbly that rain could easily leak through. My neighbourhood was rampant with drug use, curses, gossip, judgement, and fighting. The village school I went to had bullies everywhere. My day wasn’t a typical day of a kid my age. When they played, I was busying carrying bottles of beers with my two little hands under burning sun, fetching two baskets of eggs on the old bike in heavy rain back to my grandmother’s little convenient store, or helping her do accounting in a well worn notebook full of names, items and numbers. In a bigger context, my country was a poor one.
One would think I would grow up being negative, feeling pity for myself and blaming my circumstances. As time passed by and as I grew up, I turned out to be a human being the opposite of that hypothesised image. And as my life purpose got unfolded with life, I happened to manage happiness in big organisations throughout most of my years in corporate. So I am not only a happy person, per the feedback of the world around me, but also the Chief Happiness Officer of that world, building happiness at home and at work. A year ago, I gave myself the permission to decode the making of my positivity to share that further with the world. Being a brain-based coach, doing lots of research in the field of neuroscience and positive psychology, and peeling layer after layer of my interior facade, I found the following mental activities that shape my happiness wiring.
1. Hardwiring positivity through installing little things
The human brain is pre-programmed with negativity bias. This is due to the survival instinct from our ancestors millions of years ago. Therefore, it often scans the environment for dangers and negativity, and because our mental resources are limited, the brain tends to let positivity slip through. In the rare instances when it notices positive facts, it doesn’t hold onto them long and intensively enough so they could be “installed” into our neural structure. For example, on the way to a restaurant for dinner with loved ones, we watch out for dangers like cars passing by or any road blocks to get to the dining place safely. When the food is served, our head may be occupied with the millions of things in our to do list or imaginary worries about the future and as a result, we don’t truly enjoy the dishes and the conversations, hence the lose the opportunity to hardwire those happy moments into our brain.
When I was small, as my family was poor, I found myself constantly feel grateful and fully appreciate whatever landing at our door. A second hand shirt from a wealthy cousin brought me endless amount of joy. I would pour the bag full of clothes out, carefully studied each item with admiration and got excited about having them on throughout the week. Seeing my classmate in a new cool T-shirt, I longed for one and when I had it, I was happy for days. When my mum brought home some ice-cream, I ate it as if I were starving and treated to a sumptuous meal. My tongue felt the creamy, rich and cool texture. My nose worked hard to breathe in the nice smell of chocolate or young green rice. It was like there were only me and the ice-cream in the whole universe.
Later on, I learnt that those small things became big things. With this deep gratitude neural trait built up over years, growing up, I appreciated every opportunity that came my way. Work, however hard or boring at times, never shrank me down. I felt grateful as many others dreamed of my job but the one who occupied it was me. I also had a firm belief that I stumbled on a job for good reasons, the biggest of which was to learn. With that, just like the fast-track program for talented students I was in at university, I sailed through my working life ahead of the curve many a time. I was often the only or among the youngest in a field or at a level. Every challenge became an opportunity for me to harness my skills and transform myself into a more well-experienced and stronger professional.
So yes, sinking the whole of me into the shirt and the ice-cream did make me an achiever at work. Now as I am an adult who doesn’t like shopping for outfit and who hesitates to consume sugar, I maintain my happiness hardwiring activity with the simple yet powerful gratitude exercise each day. I still have long-lasting enjoyment of small things in life from the super fresh produce delivered at my door to the giggles of my children.
2. Hardwiring happiness through installing big things
I have always been driven by a calling since I was small. As a secondary student who loved writing, I dreamed of being an author writing stories that uplift lives when growing up. So I spent a lot of time outside of my daily routine to write. When taking the entrance exam to university, I had this fire in me: I wanted to become a diplomat. So I studied English really hard. Graduating with my bachelor degree, I determined to be a policy maker. So I worked hard to earn a scholarship that allowed me to do a Master in Public Policy. When being at graduate school, I discovered the world of human capital development. I yearned for making an impact in the area and the best place to train myself would be in corporate. So I prepared for interviews and landed a job in Human Resources at a big MNC that went through a major business transformation. Exposing to many talents, I targeted to be among the best in my field. So I searched for and came across a leadership program that accelerated my career. It was smooth sailing, or at least I thought it so.
As I further uncovered my purpose along the way, I also had the chance to live my values through supporting causes that I cared about like women advancement and career development training within my companies and for the community. Now as the Founder of my own company, I envision myself empower thousands of mothers to discover their unique talents and purpose and live them every day while having it all (yes, if one know that “it” truly means!).
Having those visions and knowing my values have propelled me forward. Struck by hardship, I quickly orient myself to the image of the person I want to become or the best scenario I want out of the situation, and work on the ways to get there, instead of ruminating on things that block me and allowing the negative thoughts to spiral in my head leading me to a different unwanted outcome. Each time I reach my vision, I have given the majority of my 60,000 thoughts a day a healthy direction and further hardwired the positivity neural pathways in my brain structure.
3. Replacing negative self-talk with re-anchoring
Life happens to everyone, unhappy and happy, negative and positive, weak and strong. The difference between those with inner strengths and those with self-limiting beliefs and doubts is how smoothly they could steer themselves through and the person they become after each life storm.
Every time I was hit by rejection or adversity, I was aware when I fell into the negative self-talk trap and found ways to re-anchor my world view. It is hard to seek for a different perspective if we live in our head. When we let our thoughts out through saying out loud, writing down, or speaking with an un-biased person, our whole brain is activated to create new beneficial wiring, instead of deepening the negative wiring.
When I was a school girl, I knew nothing about how the brain works. However, I consistently did one thing that shaped the positive connection in my brain: journaling. Pouring my thoughts on the paper helped dampen down my Emotion Brain. That allowed the limited amount of my mental resources to go back to my Logic Brain so it could function properly, see options and find solutions. Often, my entries started with how bad I felt and concluded with a mantra that lifted me up and inspired me to take the right sensible action. Journalling is still my trusted happiness coach these days when I am already a mom of school boy and girl, a wife, and an entrepreneur. Using the questions from my coaching practice to guide my thoughts make my personal free, easily accessible, always listening coach – my notebook, even more powerful. Some of them are:
How can this situation be worse? / What are the five ways it could be worse that didn’t happen?
What is my vision for this life area? And what is the outcome vision I have for this situation given that bigger vision?
What are the hidden advantages of this terrible situation? A failure / challenge is a blessing in disguise, so what is the blessing here?
What is the bigger metaphor here? What are the possibilities / opportunities? How overcoming this challenge help me move nearer to my goal?
Which past lesson could I use here? What does it tell me to do this time?
What would the wisest and highly respected person I know advise me to get through this situation?
These three mental activities have been well weaved in the texture of my life and help shape the person I am. I’m grateful. And the next time I bump into my kind looking neighbour again, I bet she will look better, inside out. With the right anchor in her brain, I believe she will be soon free of cancer.
Happiness is the best medicine.