Can You Rewire Your Brain For Increased Happiness?
Do you ever feel like your brain is your biggest problem? Is it unhelpful? Sabotaging? Maybe even kind of crazy? Do you ever wonder where in the world those thoughts are coming from? Do you ever wish you could change them and become the sane and sensible human you think you should be? But if you could change your brain, wouldn’t you have already done so? Is it even possible to rewire your brain?
Not that long ago, it was believed that the answer was no. Once we hit the age of adulthood (sometime around age 30), the brain was fixed. In other words, it was believed that the brain you have is the brain you keep.
Yet, over the last few decades, we’ve seen a fundamental shift in that understanding and now have begun to explore how the brain can indeed change. It’s called neuroplasticity, a word that basically means the ability to change the structure, function, and response of the brain.
What is Neuroplasticity?
The research started to gain traction as doctors and scientists realized that after the body suffers an injury, the brain physically rewires, often creating new links to pick up the slack. Thus, they discovered, if your needs or experiences change, then your brain also changes in response. A new science was born as we learned that we can rewire the brain for growth and to fit our new experiences.
For example, people who experience brain trauma after an accident or stroke often find that their speech is affected. That doesn’t mean, however, that speech is lost or affected permanently. With therapy and rehabilitation, the person can once again learn how to speak by rewiring old pathways and creating new ones.
It isn’t just in response to what happens to us, though. We can choose to think, act, and behave differently on purpose. The person you are today doesn’t have to be the same as the person you were “yesterday.” According to this new science, you can become stronger, more capable, more energetic, more growth-oriented, and even smarter.
While all of us have different initial abilities and intelligence, no matter where we’re starting from, we can improve. We can advance our problem-solving abilities, reason more deeply and logically, acquire and understand new knowledge, change and integrate new ideas, and reach difficult goals as we alter our neurochemistry and the very structure of the brain.
In reality, it will take longer than a day to rewire the brain. Especially if you’re trying to reprogram negative thought patterns, it can take time. And you’ll have to put in effort, attention, and determination to rewire your brain and optimize your brain health. In other words, rather than looking for a means to an end, the focus should be on continuing to progress throughout life.
The point is that rewiring the brain is possible. 1 But how?!
How to Rewire Your Brain (in 8 Steps)
It actually doesn’t have to be complicated. You can even rewire your brain at home. Here are the top 8 ways to change the way you think, act, and ultimately, the structure and function of your brain:
Step 1: Be Curious
The most direct way to transform the brain is by deepening your knowledge in any subject you care about. This process helps improve memory and reasoning on that topic. And the easiest way to increase the depth of knowledge is to read and study.
Many people, however, don’t think a whole lot about what they read or how they learn. Yet, in a world that’s rapidly changing (faster than any other time in history), staying on top of what’s important to you can be difficult, to say the least.
Being open to learning means keeping an open mind to new, changing information. Nothing beats curiosity! 2 Expand your thinking by asking questions. (For inspiration, watch how children ask about everything around them and how much they grow and learn in a few short years.) And as you read, ask key questions, such as these from Jim Kwik in his book Limitless:
- How can I use this?
- Why must I use this?
- When will I use this?
These three questions will keep your mind engaged as you read. But don’t stop with just these questions. The more questions you ask, the more questions you have, and the more the brain opens, learns, and grows. Sometimes, the answers might be more reasonable than others (so don’t just believe anything and everything you read). The point is deepening knowledge by seeking new ideas (e.g., reading) and asking questions to allow the mind to expand.
Step 2: Break the Routine
If you want your brain to grow, you need to be willing to try something new and break away from the “same old, same old.” 3 Look at your habits—good and bad—and see if you can break from one for a day. Eat something different for breakfast. Take a new route to work, home, or the grocery store. Go to sleep on the other side of the bed or in a different room. Pick up a book or watch a movie that’s different from what you usually read (e.g., if you gravitate toward fiction, try a biography or documentary or vice versa). Expose yourself to different ideas, cultures, languages, industries, and worldviews.
Just find a way to break out of your comfort zone and try something new.
Step 3: Soothe Your Soul and Your Brain with Music
Want to lift your mood or decompress, improve your focus and concentration, learn and remember information better, and even stave off cognitive decline? Turn on some tunes! 4,5
But if you really want to rewire your brain, pick up an instrument. Musicians have been found in research to enjoy better audio and visual perception, better focus and attention, improved memory, and better coordination. 6 You don’t even need to spend a lot of money (unless you choose to). You can easily find free online tutorials and inexpensive used instruments (like harmonicas and ukuleles) to get started.
Step 4: Hit the Road, Jack
If you need one more reason to increase your travel budget, then how about this: Travel may keep your brain flexible, boost creativity, and widen your worldview (literally by exposing you to new perspectives). You don’t even need to go far. Just experiencing new sights and sounds can help improve communication skills and rewire your brain.
If you can’t “hit the road” yet, try a hike on a new trail or through a different neighborhood, explore a different grocery store (if possible, try one that specializes in international or ethnic foods), or virtually travel via documentaries (such as 365 Videos from National Geographic), virtual museum or gallery tours, or watching travel vlogs.
Step 5: Learn to Speak a New Language
Have you ever considered learning a new language just for fun, before a vacation, or to improve your career opportunities? No matter why or which language you choose, learning a new language is a great way to improve your brainpower and boost cognitive function.
Research has found that language study can boost gray matter density, which includes areas associated not only with language but also attention, memory, motor skills, and even emotions. 7 And other research has found that learning another language also increases neuroplasticity. 8
Learning a new language also helps strengthen connections in white matter, and that can improve brain connectivity and communication between various areas of the brain, which can enhance creative thinking, problem-solving, vocabulary, reading, and multitasking. 9
Step 6: Get a Move On
If you’re reading this blog, chances are good that you don’t need to be reminded how important exercise is and all of the benefits of exercise (e.g., stronger muscles, increased energy, decreased food cravings, improved fitness, etc.). You may, however, not realize how important exercise is to your brain health, including improved learning and memory. 10
Exercise has also been shown to enhance coordination and brain connectivity, 11 lift mood, and increase brain health. 12 Exercise also improves blood flow to the brain, which helps with cell growth and neuroplasticity.
Step 7: Make Play a Priority
Have you been wondering if you have a good excuse to invest in that new Xbox or PlayStation (or just pull your old one out of storage)? The answer is probably yes. Playing video games, it turns out, can offer real benefits, including improvements in:
- Motor coordination
- Visual recognition
- Spatial navigation
- Reaction time
- Decision making and problem-solving
- Creative thinking
- Resilience (which even translates to being able to bounce back better from setbacks in “real life”)
- Emotional skills 13
If you’re looking for certain skills, you will want to look at various game options, as different types lead to different benefits. For example, 3D adventure games may help improve memory and problem solving; puzzle games may boost problem-solving and spatial prediction; and dance and exercise games may improve visual-spatial memory and attention.
You don’t need to devote a ton of time either. (And too much can be counterproductive, especially if it prevents you from other healthy habits like exercising, reading, and trying something new.) Yet, with just a few hours a week playing, you can start seeing improvements after around 16 hours of total play. 14
Step 8: Be Happy
What if you want to be happier, less anxious, or more stable? Positive thinking or affirmations can actually make you feel worse or less likely to improve if you aren’t already a happy, optimistic person with high self-esteem to begin with.
Is there brain training that can actually help you become “happier”? The answer is absolutely yes. And it’s something you’re likely familiar with: Meditation & Mindfulness. 15, 16
Meditation is just a method of breathing deeply and allowing your thoughts to simply be. You can “quiet” your mind, but understand that thoughts will still come and go as you focus on your breath. You don’t have to spend a lot of time in meditation either to harness benefits (including rewiring the brain). As little as two minutes per day can help you change your mindset and find some peace. But it does take practice. The more you consistently practice your meditations, the more likely you are to rewire your brain for peace and happiness.
Another key practice to rewire your brain for happiness is to simply count your blessings. Take just a minute or two every day to think about or write down what you’re grateful for (pick at least three) to help reduce or even eliminate negative thoughts. 17
We already mentioned exercise, but it’s worth noting that just taking a walk three times per week has been shown to help rewire the brain to be more positive. And you can supercharge your walk by choosing a more natural setting (if possible, hike through the woods, by a body of water, or through a prairie rather than a city center) and being mindful as you move.
The Fundamentals of Neuroplasticity
Changing your brain isn’t easy. After all, if we could just “decide” to think differently, most of us would already do so about many aspects of our lives. It takes the right circumstances to rewire your brain. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to make it easier.
- Set the mood: To change your brain, you have to make sure your mind is on board as well. That is, ensure you’re alert, engaged, and driven to change. If you find you’re distracted, can’t pay attention, or just can’t make the effort, then you’ll find that your brain will remain in the “off” position, which makes any change that much harder (or even impossible). 18
- Put in the effort: The harder and longer (over time, not over a single session) you practice, the more new neuro-connections are made. Whether you’re learning a new sport, a new language, a new instrument, or a new way of thinking, you may not see results as soon as you’d like. But just keeping after it and remembering why you want to make the change can help you stay motivated to improve. 19,20
- Mentally rehearse: Have you ever watched a top-performing athlete before a significant competition? If so, you likely saw them visualizing exactly how their performance would play out. Athletes often imagine the movements and actions they’ll perform before ever stepping foot in the arena. Research has found that you don’t have to even move to improve performance if you use your memory and imagination to practice. 21
- Use it or lose it: Unfortunately, it’s just as easy to create negative brain changes as it is to create positive ones. Ensure you aren’t encouraging neuroplasticity to go in the opposite direction. Then, continue to reinforce the positive connections because when neurons are not strongly fired and wired together (or are simply no longer used), the network will likely be dissolved.
Now that you know you can teach your brain new tricks, find something you’ve perhaps always wanted to learn or change and get after it. Your brain is continually reshaped by your thoughts and experiences, and it’s never too late to shape the brain with novelty, attention, and challenge. 22
My mom is my personal inspiration. She started learning to play the piano for fun in her 70s and is getting better and better every time I hear her play. In the last decade, she also started weight training, has advanced in tai chi, and continues to learn and grow, combining the wisdom she’s acquired with a joyful willingness and curiosity to embrace new ideas and technologies. She’s even less “set in her ways” than she was when I was growing up. As a result, she’s the youngest 81-year-old I know.
Perhaps no one is too old to learn a new trick—just those who lose their willingness to open their minds and curiosity to all the world has to offer. Stay curious!