We often say that creative thinking makes us feel happy, but what if it’s also the other way around? What if being happy makes us more creative and better thinkers?
Research by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough validates that acts of gratitude increases productivity, produces better thinking, improves relationships and has a number of other psychological and emotional benefits.[i] They also say that while any act of gratitude is good, the more involved one is in expressing that thanks, the greater the benefit. It’s one thing to send a thank you card or a nice email, but quite another to seek a person out and express one’s genuine thanks in person, eyeball to eyeball. The benefits of such an act can last for hours, or even days.
There are some who believe that pessimism is our most natural mindset.[ii] The idea is way back in our cave-dwelling days, as a survival tactic, we learned how to pay attention to things that might hurt us or wanted to eat us. Over hundreds of thousands of years, such fear-based thinking became hard-wired in our brains. As uninspiring as it might be, a pessimistic, fearful brain became our most natural way to think.
One of the challenges of pessimistic thinking however, is what it does in the emotional centers of the brain, particularly the hippocampus and the amygdala, the areas that manage fearful emotions and the “fight or flight response” that becomes active when we sense danger. Jennifer Moss, author of Unlocking Happiness at Work, explains it this way, “When sudden stress occurs, the amygdala will shut down the entire brain operation to prepare the body to pool all of its resources for survival. Not an optimal time for creative thinking…. This would compare to Facebook losing 30% of its developers or American Airlines taking 30% of their pilots out of service. But when we pull that part of our brain back online, creativity and innovative thinking increase substantially.”[iii]
So, how do we move our brain to transition from its naturally pessimistic state, to become happier versions of ourselves?
According to Emmons and McCullough, one of the best ways to think optimistically and to become happier is to regularly express genuine gratitude. Happiness and gratitude go hand in hand. In fact some researchers suggest that happiness and the expression of gratitude are inexorably linked – you cannot have one without the other. Peter Vishton, Associate Professor of Psychology at William and Mary says, “If you want to feel happier, think about the things for which you’re thankful. Adopt an attitude of gratitude, and you’re likely to feel better. You’ll feel happier. How does this work? One of my favorite [answers] is that expressing gratitude serves to call your attention to the good things in your life. Almost everyone has both positive and negative aspects of their lives at any given time. It’s just the nature of human existence. In many cases, our current happiness or unhappiness isn’t based on the particular amount of good stuff and bad stuff in our lives. In many cases, our current happiness is strongly influenced by which stuff is commanding our attention and our thoughts.”[iv] Thomas S. Monson said it best: “Think to thank.”[v] You’ll be happier.
Another way to improve your mood, and as a result your thinking, is to smile, even if you don’t feel like smiling. As corny as it sounds, smiling is an easy way to trick your brain into thinking that you are happy.
Dr. Isha Gupta, a neurologist from IGEA Brain and Spine says that a smile – even a forced smile – spurs a chemical reaction in the brain, releasing certain hormones including dopamine and serotonin. “Dopamine increases our feelings of happiness. Serotonin release is associated with reduced stress.”[vi] The brain doesn’t seem to know, or care that the smile isn’t real. It assumes it is and acts accordingly.
It’s almost counterintuitive, but it appears that happiness is not about what’s going on outside the body, about what you have and what your circumstances are, but rather it’s about what you focus on and which thoughts get your attention. Focus on what you don’t have, what you’ve lost, or your misfortune and fears, and you’ll be unhappy. Focus on good things, and on those people who have helped you in meaningful ways, and you’ll be happier. Your level of happiness or unhappiness is based upon what you spend your time thinking about and what you dwell upon.
What’s also true is what you tend to think about and dwell upon becomes a habit. Happy people have made it a habit to think happy thoughts. Unhappy people have made it a habit to focus on unhappy thoughts. Truly, happiness is all mental. As Abraham Lincoln wisely said, “Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
Although happiness is a result of our thinking, your thinking can be influenced by what you do and how you act. Smile, and you will feel happier. Act happier, and you will become happier – and a happier brain is likely to return the favor by giving you better idea
[iv] See Outsmart Yourself: Brain-Based Strategies to a Better You, Professor Peter M. Vishton, The Great Courses, 2016. Lectures 23 and 24