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Age-Proof your Happiness

This week I want to talk about happiness and how all you need is a simple change in attitude to maintain a youthful mindset.

Being back at the gym, catching up with the other gym bunnies and talking to clients, many conversations are focussed on you wanting to write-off 2020 and you can't wait to get to the end of the year. Yes, it's been a bit of a rubbish year, I agree, but this attitude is creating a feeling of unhappiness. We are mentally switching off from the joy of the present moment.

For those of you who don't know me yet – I'm a true believer that the mind and body are connected – what affects one affects the other, so for our health and happiness we need to look after both our mental and physical wellbeing.

What fascinates me is the human brain, and how little we know about it. Correction: a small percentage, i.e. neuroscientists, know a great deal about the brain in comparison to the rest of us, but by their own admission, the brain remains a mystery compared to the rest of the human body.

Every now and again, they make an exciting new discovery and find more evidence of the brain's ability to adapt and reinvent itself over and over again. I have spent time researching around the two areas of the brain associated with stress and anxiety – the front area of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex, and two almond-shaped clusters located deep in the temporal lobes known as the amygdala.

The amygdala plays an important role in our emotions and our behaviour and is best known for its role in processing fear, hence the connection to our anxieties. The prefrontal cortex is a uniquely human feature and allows us to develop free choice, a sense of right or wrong, helps us to regulate our emotions and is a massive part of who we are.

The brain and happiness

What has all this got to do with happiness? Well, the brain is changing all the time. As we change our minds, we strengthen or weaken the pathways that send messages across the brain and to the rest of your body. For example, the more we repeat a thought, happy or sad, the stronger a pathway becomes. Our thoughts, like most people, like to take shortcuts. It's like cutting the corner across the grass verge, and when more people tread the same path, a distinct pathway is formed.

Switch your focus

Positive emotion and wellbeing are associated with a greater level of activity in the left side of the prefrontal cortex. The left side of the brain halts negative thinking, so if you practice positive thinking regularly, the neural pathways in the brain associated with positivity will strengthen too.

Interestingly, people who practice gratitude consciously and mindfully are rewarded with an increase in the 'happy' hormones. Love also has a positive effect on stimulating brain positivity. Someone in love only needs to look at a picture of their loved one for the parts of the brain associated with rewards and positivity to light up and become more active.

Those who work in the field of health, mindfulness and meditation have known about this for a long time, but evidence now shows us that where we focus our attention can consciously change the way we think. If we draw all attention to things that make us mad, angry and unhappy and hang onto these thoughts, we will strengthen their power.

If on the other hand, if we choose to think about the more positive aspects of our lives, or focus consciously on positive or happy memories, then those neural pathways are going to be reinforced.

Use it or lose it

As we get older, we gradually shed some of our brain cells, a process known as cortical thinning. By the time we are in our 80's, we have lost approximately 4% of our total number of brain cells. However, it seems that the brain, along with the rest of the body, benefits from exercise. In one study, scientists compared the brains of meditators and non-meditators at the same age. Those who meditated regularly had less cortical thinning.

Think of happiness as a bottomless pot of joy, talent, hope and gratitude. The more you give to others, the further you spread the happy vibes, and the happier you will feel. Using our capacity for compassion and kindness strengthens our energy for living and our joy for life, so the pot will continue to remain filled to the brim.

If you disregard your pot of happiness, it will begin to evaporate. The less you use, the more you try to conserve for yourself, the more anger, resentment, and gloom enters the pot – the faster happiness will fade away.

Try it for yourself

Let's face it, 2020 so far has given us plenty of things for us to moan about. Here are three simple exercises you can use to turn those negative thoughts around and create some positive and happy vibes.

1. Be more self-compassionate

The loose definition of self-compassion is "treating yourself with the same kindness, concern and support you'd show to a good friend," which essentially means monitoring and mindfully guiding your inner voice to make sure you're speaking kindly about yourself.

To practise self-compassion, try to step back and evaluate the messages you're telling yourself daily, and respond to challenging situations by giving yourself the same advice you would offer a good friend.

2. Be mindful of your thoughts

The term mindfulness tends to be thrown about a lot these days, but being mindful about the thoughts you have can be a great way to practise positive thinking.

Mindfulness requires us to tune in to our senses and be more aware of what's happening in the moment – and that can include being more aware of whether our thoughts are positive or negative. It's not about losing the negative thoughts as such. It's more that by practising mindfulness, you'll be able to label negative thoughts as just being "thoughts," gently acknowledge them, and turn your attention back to thinking positively.

3. Practice gratitude

It's easy to forget how many things we have to be grateful for when we fill every second of our days with doing something "productive." But taking the time to assess all the amazing things we already have is a great way to train your mind to be more positive.

Studies have shown that taking the time to write down the things we are grateful for can help us to be more optimistic and feel better about our lives, so why not give it a try?

You could start a gratitude journal by writing down three things you are grateful for at the end of the day, or give a happiness jar a go: write down positive memories and put them in a jar to read when you're feeling low.

"See the positive side, the potential, and make an effort." ~Dalai Lama

Don't forget; I created my meditation masterclass for anyone who wants to learn how to start a daily meditation practice.

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