I was a bit apprehensive about doing a talk to the Sunday Assembly group about how to wire the brain for joy on the 15th November 2015, just two days after the terrific atrocities that happened in Paris. I was still feeling quite stunned and heavy hearted, as I know so many other people were too. But when I contemplated what my talk was fundamentally about – simple strategies that anyone can use to move their thoughts and feelings away from being stuck in stress and sadness and pain and back towards joy and awe and wonder – I realised that the timing of the talk couldn’t be more perfect. For you see, despite the number of awful things that are happening in the world currently, I still believe, wholeheartedly, that when humans are born they are naturally filled with unconditional love – free from prejudices or judgement of others. They (we) are born with innocence and acceptance and trust and it is only after the world throws at us what it might (and some people get thrown worse stuff that others) that the brain begins to move away from the natural set point of joy towards stress, negative thinking and sometimes far worse.
However, despite joy being the natural place we come from, the brain still has a negativity bias that is designed to look out for danger to keep us safe. So when it feels like danger is around every corner, it is far too easy to fall into the trap of forgetting the good stuff that is already present in our lives and focussing instead on what could go wrong. So, that is precisely why I felt the timing of a talk about joy was apropos; to serve perhaps as a gentle reminder that it is important to feed joy into our brains (to mentally change focus) – which can in turn create new neural pathways in the brain and release feel good neurochemicals into our bodies. Whether that’s achieved through doing good in the world, having fun with friends or reminiscing about past moments of joy, doesn’t matter, as long as the little things – the good things – are paid attention to and savoured and cherished.
I am reminded by the now overused, but still poignant, quote by Fred Rogers, who said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” I would like to add to that that when everything seems to be going wrong, look out for what is going right. Even just by noticing the sound of laughter or a flower growing in an unexpected place or the feeling of rain on your face as you walk down the street and recognising for a moment, even just a few seconds, that you can feel grateful for these small things, releases dopamine and serotonin in the brain and brings up a feeling of calm and connection with the world around you. Even if these moments of joy aren’t in your immediate vicinity, you can still bring experiences to mind that, when coupled with positive feelings, can release feel good chemicals and create new wires in the brain. As explained in the talk and as a reminder to those who were there (and for those who may have missed it), a simple technique that can be used to do this is as follows:
Close your eyes, take a deep breath and then bring to mind a memory from the past in which you achieved something – perhaps something you thought you couldn’t do. Go back to that memory, seeing through your own eyes, and feel that sense of accomplishment and pride in your body. This activates the brain’s dopamine receptors. Secondly, cast your mind out into the future and imagine yourself surrounded by people who you trust, really feeling “seen” and recognised by them. Feel that nice feeling in your body to activate oxytocin. And finally, bring your attention to the present moment and notice something you are immediately grateful for (health, a roof above your head, etc.) and feel that feeling of gratitude in your body to activate serotonin.
Practicing the above means that you have a tool that makes use of your positive neurochemicals that you can use to rewire your brain towards joy whenever you want to. And you don’t have to follow the same pattern as today – the important thing is that you’re looking to the past, present and future and finding moments of joy that will help you to keep the positive neural pathways in your brain strong. And the more you practice, the more joyful you will become. May the joy be with you!
A copy of the PowerPoint presentation used on the day can be found here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/jp28lp4slvjhc85/NeuroloJOY.pptx?dl=0
And my website can be found here: http://www.innerbalancetherapy.co.uk/