Can You Train Your Mind for Happiness?

Posted On 04 Jun 2015

A simple answer is yes. At birth, our genetics provide us with a happiness set point that accounts for about 40% of our happiness. Having enough food, shelter and safety makes up 10%. Then we have 50% that in entirely up to us. By training our brain through awareness and exercises to think in a happier, more optimistic, and in a more resilient way; we can effectively train our brain for happiness.

New discoveries in the field of positive psychology show that physical health, psychological well-being and physiological functioning are all improved by learning to “feel good”. (Fredrickson B. L. 2000)

What are the patterns we need to “train out” of our brains?

  1. Perfectionism– Often confused with conscientiousness which involves appropriate and tangible expectations perfectionism involves inappropriate levels of expectations and intangible goals. It produces problems for adults, adolescents, and children.
  2. Social comparison– When we strive to do and be better than others rather than better than we did in the past.
  3. Materialism– People who attach their happiness to external things and material wealth are always in danger of losing their happiness if their material circumstance changes (Carter, T. J., & Gilovich, T. 2010.).
  4. Maximizing– Maximizers search for better options even when they are satisfied. This leaves them little time to be present for the good moments in their lives and with very little gratitude.

(Schwartz, B., Ward, A., Monterosso, J., Lyubomirsky, S., White, K., & Lehman, D. R. 2002.)

What are the patterns we want to encourage?

  • Gratitude – a sense of reverence for things received.
  • Resilience – the ability to bounce back from setbacks or failures.
  • Connectedness – this can either be the sense of all being connected to one another at a level of consciousness or a sense of social connection that provides emotional support.
  • Mindfulness – the awareness that arises out of paying attention in an open, kind and discerning way (Shapiro, S. L., Carlson, L. E., Astin, J. A., & Freedman, B. 2006).
  • Optimism – expecting that the future will be desirable.


How is our brain is “wired for happiness”

Can You Train Your Mind for Happiness? - Brain scan

Our brain comes ready for happiness. We have care giving systems in place for eye contact, touch and vocalizations to let others know we are trustworthy and secure.

Our brain regulates chemicals like oxytocin. People who have more oxytocin trust more readily, have increased tendencies to monogamy, and a more care giving behavior. These behaviors reduces stress which lowers production of stress hormones like cortisol and inhibits the cardiovascular response to stress (Kosfeld, M., Heinrichs, M., Zak, P. J., Fischbacher, U., & Fehr, E. 2005).

We are remarkably capable of happiness if we just get out of our own ways.

Watch the following TED talk for a better understanding of how to wire your brain to accept the positivity and happiness in your life.



Misconceptions about mind training

Some of the simple misconceptions about retraining your brain are simply untrue. Here are a few myths that must be de-bunking.

We are products of our genetics so we cannot create change in our brains. Our minds are malleable. Ten years ago we thought brain pathways were set in early childhood, in fact, we now know that there is huge potential for large changes through to your twenties and neuroplasticity is still changing throughout ones life (Maguire, E. A., Gadian, D. G., Johnsrude, I. S., Good, C. D., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R. S., & Frith, C. D. 2000).

The myelin sheath that covers your neural pathways gets thicker and stronger the more it is used (think of the plastic protective covering on wires). The more a pathway is used the stronger the myelin, the faster the neural pathway. Simply put, when you practice feeling grateful, you notice more things to be grateful for.

Brain training is brainwashing. Brainwashing is involuntary change. If we focus on training our mind to see the glass half full instead of half empty, that is a choice (And a healthy one!).

If we are too happy we run the risk of becoming overly optimistic. I personally think there is NO SUCH THING as overly-optimistic and science shows that brain training for positivity includes practices like mindfulness and gratitude. No one has ever over-dosed on these habits.


Carter, T. J., & Gilovich, T. (2010). The relative relativity of material and experiential purchases. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(1), 146.
Fredrickson, B. L., Mancuso, R. A., Branigan, C., & Tugade, M. M. (2000). The undoing effect of positive emotions. Motivation and emotion, 24(4), 237-258.

Kosfeld, M., Heinrichs, M., Zak, P. J., Fischbacher, U., & Fehr, E. (2005). Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature, 435(7042), 673-676.

Maguire, E., Gadian, D., Johnsrude, I., Good, C., Ashburne, J., Frackowiak, R., & Frith, C. (2000). Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97(8), 4398-4403. doi:10.1073/pnas.070039597

Shapiro, S. L., Carlson, L. E., Astin, J. A., & Freedman, B. (2006). Mechanisms of mindfulness. Journal of clinical psychology, 62(3), 373-386.

Schwartz, B., Ward, A., Monterosso, J., Lyubomirsky, S., White, K., & Lehman, D. R. (2002). Maximizing versus satisficing: happiness is a matter of choice.Journal of personality and social psychology, 83(5), 1178.

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