The practice of mindfulness can help us develop happiness at work, and at home
It often seems as if there is some obstinate force that keeps us unhappy. The truth is we are wired to be dissatisfied. No matter how much we achieve or have, it never seems to be enough. When we do allow ourselves moments of happiness, the feeling seems to fade so quickly. This seemingly destructive behaviour is linked to our DNA. Our bodies and minds still work in pretty much the same way they did thousands of years ago, when life was short often brutal and highly competitive. If our ancestors ever actually became happy with their lives, they were as good as dead. It is a crude system, but it has worked for thousands of years. Even though we don’t have the same scarcity of resources (compared to cave dwelling ancestors) our brains still function in the same way and this often manifests as feeling insecure and ungrateful.
Accepting that unhappiness is the default wiring of our brains is the first step to ending this self-sabotage. The practice of mindfulness can help us “catch” our faulty programming and help us make different choices. Catching ourselves is the key – and it’s often harder than we imagine. It takes effort and focus to become aware when we are operating on autopilot.
Science has shown through the measurement of brainwaves (by EEG) that regular mindfulness practise leads to significant changes in our brain structure. A key element to this change is the neuroplasticity of the brain. Neuroplasticity means our brain changes as we learn. As we learn a new skill (e.g. language or music) the structure of our brain and cognitive abilities change and new pathways are formed. Think of mindfulness as developing our mental muscles in a similar way to how we develop our bodies. Each time we lift a weight, we strengthen the muscle we are working on. Mindfulness is a mental focus technique that enables us to stay focussed on what we are doing, as we are doing it and helps us develop happiness. This practice is a powerful antidote to our distracted natures in an age of information overload. When practised regularly, mindfulness can bring more calm and effectiveness into each day, reducing negative stress and enhancing our mental capacity.
5 ways mindfulness can deliver happiness at work and at home:
1. It helps us get out of repetitive negative thought loops
Often what gets in the way of our happiness are habitual loops of negative thinking. This habitual self-talk can create a downward emotional spiral and impact our confidence and attitudes to events in many unhelpful ways. Mindfulness is a form of self-awareness that helps us to become more aware of the nature of our minds and more skilful in noticing when we are getting caught up in these destructive patterns of thought. When we learn to observe our own self-talk, we can actively choose to disengage from it and refocus our attention on ideas that support us rather than pull us down. It doesn’t matter whether it is a loop of fear of the future, replaying past events or self-judgment, the skill of mindfulness helps us become more aware and enables an opportunity to change. We can move from being a slave to our habits to becoming a partner to our mind. Next time you catch yourself in a negative thought loop, see it for what it is, your mind caught up in habitual loop of unhelpful thinking. Realise that at any moment you can make a choice to disengage from the pattern and refocus your attention on something else more productive. Focusing our attention on our body through becoming aware of all our senses (smell, taste, touch, etc) can short circuit negative thinking and ground us back into the here and now.
2. It helps us feel more connected to others
A sense of belonging and connection are also part of our DNA – as outsiders did not survive as well as those who were part of a group. We have evolved to be in relationships. Part of this social connection is physical contact. Children who do not receive enough physical contact develop more slowly than those who do. The healthy development of our brains requires contact and interactions. In order to thrive we need to feel connected to others. Mindfulness can help deepen and enrich our relationships as we can be more present and pay more attention to those around us. If you have ever had a conversation with a manager at work (or a family member at home) who was also looking at a digital device you know how valuable attention is in making you feel seen and valued.
3. It enhances our sense of gratitude.
Practising mindfulness helps us slow down for a moment and reconnect with what is happening from moment to moment. This allows us to pay attention to what we appreciate and what matters, something that can get drowned out by the overload of information in the digital age. Mindfulness allows us to notice more of what is happening around us, and within us. When we are fully present in the moment wonder and gratitude can spontaneously emerge leading to greater happiness at work and at home. It could be the taste of a home-cooked meal, or noticing the beauty of a sunrise, mindfulness can add gratitude and enhance our appreciation of the ordinary things which are often lost in the moment.
4. It makes us more resilient
Resilience is our ability to recover from setbacks, keep moving forward and adapt to change. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is the part of the brain that helps with self-regulation and enables us to learn from past experiences. Research shows that just a few hours of mindfulness training increases activity in the ACC, promoting optimal decision making and also showed higher performance on tests of self-regulation and resisting distractors. That means that with regular mindfulness practise we can change the way our brains react to setbacks and make better decisions in our lives.
5. It shrinks the stress region in our brain
When we get stressed a part of the brain called the amygdala takes over control and releases chemicals which trigger the “fight or flight” reaction. The amygdala is a key stress-response region in our brain and plays an important role in stressful situations. Studies have shown that mindfulness practise can shrink the size of the amygdala, and even increase our stress reactivity threshold. Through regular mindfulness practise we can change how we react to stressful situations, thereby improving our mental and physical well-being. This can help us find our sense of inner peace. Too often we get caught up in the habitual treadmill of constantly needing stimulation to give us a hit of happiness and pleasure. These extrinsic rewards can be money, relationships, approval (e.g. Facebook likes), or success but this kind of happiness that is dependent on external factors has diminishing returns, and can increase our feelings of being out of control. Intrinsic rewards, on the other hand, are another form of wellbeing and happiness not dependent on external circumstances, but rather that emerge from an inner sense of wellbeing and alignment with our own values. Regular mindfulness can help us develop this sense of inner wellbeing that allows us to feel more content without the need to obtain anything from the outside world.
Happiness at work and home is made easier by regular practise of mindfulness.
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