How To Train Your Brain To Be More Positive, Creative, and Resilient
Scientifically proven strategies from the bestselling book ‘The Happiness Advantage’
Most people can name one or two books that have played an important role in their lives. These are not necessarily the best books they have ever read, but they are meaningful because they were a catalyst for change or a new way of thinking.
For me, one of these books is The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. I had never been interested in reading anything related to self-development, and I can’t recall how I found this book, but I’m so glad I did. It inspired me to go on this self-growth and creative exploration journey, ultimately leading to trying out online writing.
More than anything, it opened my eyes to the concept of neuroplasticity. This is the idea that we can rewire and change our brain. Science has proven that it is possible to train our minds to be more positive, creative, resilient and productive; to see more possibility wherever we look. Like Shawn says, it’s no longer a question of if but how much change is possible.
The formula we have all grown up with — if you work hard, you will become successful, and once you become successful, you will be happy— is broken.
Shawn starts the book with this simple statement.
Success first. Happiness will follow. Positive psychology and neuroscience have disproved this belief. Not only is it wrong, but it is also the other way around. Happiness and optimism drive performance and achievement, leading to more success. This competitive edge is called The Happiness Advantage.
Why does happiness lead to a competitive advantage?
Research has shown that positive emotions flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin, making us feel good and dialling up our brain's learning centres to higher levels. As a result, it’s easier to retain and retrieve information. Negative emotions, on the other hand, narrow our thoughts and range of actions. As any modern worker can tell you, today’s workplace is incredibly competitive and fast-changing. Being able to come up with creative and novel solutions to problems quickly is an important skill.
Based on his years of research at Harvard, Shawn has outlined seven actionable and proven principles that can help you achieve this Happiness Advantage. This article will focus on just four of the seven key principles that resonated strongly with me.
The Tetris Effect
The Tetris Effect is a side effect that can occur after playing the game for multiple hours where you start seeing Tetris shapes falling from the sky everywhere you look.
Similarly, in real life, our brains scan our environment for the patterns that we have trained them to watch for. There are two kinds of Tetris mindsets:
- A negative Tetris Effect where your brain gets stuck in seeing obstacles and issues
- A positive Tetris Effect where your brain is primed to look for positives and opportunities
Our brains are constantly bombarded with competing demands on our attention. We have created a kind of mental spam filter that separates relevant from irrelevant information to deal with this. The problem is that we can’t always trust our brain filter to know exactly what is best for us. Depending on the Tetris Effect, the brain will scan only for what it is programmed to look for. A brain stuck in a pattern that focuses on stress, negativity, and failure can have significant consequences for our state of mind and how we deal with everyday situations.
The good news is that it is possible to convert your brain to a positive pattern-seeking mindset, to prioritise the positive over the negative. This gives you access to three important resources:
- Happiness: the more you focus on the positive around you, the better you’ll feel.
- Gratitude: the more positivity you see, the more grateful you’ll become.
- Optimism: the more positive you feel, the more you’ll expect this trend to continue.
What you can do
A simple and scientifically proven way to train your brain to be more optimistic is Gratitude Journaling.
By taking the time to write down what you are grateful for every single day, you force your brain to scan the past 24 hours for the positives. After a while, your brain will start looking out for and noticing all the good things happening throughout your day.
I started Gratitude Journaling after reading the book, but I did not stick with it because I did not put anything in place to make it a habit. I started again in April 2021 and have slightly changed the process:
- First thing in the morning: I keep a physical notebook and a pen by the side of my bed. I set an intention to let this be the first thing I do before reaching for my phone.
- Keep it short: I write down 3 Gratitudes as well as 1 Thing to Focus on and 1 Thing to Let Go of. None of these needs to be profound or complicated; they just need to be specific. Doing this takes me less than a minute.
- Be consistent: I am currently on a 52 days streak, and I am noticing the results in myself. I find it easier to shrug things off. I look for the good side in everything.
When faced with an obstacle or a failure, our brains will map out different mental paths to help us cope.
Shawn outlines three paths we can take when faced with a difficult situation:
- The path whereby the negative event produces no change, and you end up where you started
- The path whereby you go deeper towards the negative consequences and get stuck in a negative downwards spiral
- The path whereby you use adversity to become even stronger and more capable than before
The last path, the Path Up, is the one we want to be taking. The challenge is that when we feel helpless and hopeless, we often forget this path exists, and we don’t look for it.
Finding the Path Up is what separates people who become successful from those who don’t. It’s not talent or intelligence, but resilience and persistence in looking for and finding the Path Up versus succumbing to defeat and disappointment.
Think of JK Rowling, whose book proposal was rejected by 12 publishers. Or James Dyson, who made 5,127 prototypes of his first vacuum before he got it right. Or Walt Disney, who got fired from his job because of his “lack of creativity”. They were able to use every failure and obstacle as an opportunity for growth and ultimately achieve great success.
What you can do
Shawn outlines two approaches that can help you find the Path Up.
- Change your Counterfact
Imagine: you walk into a bank. There are 50 other people in the bank. A robber walks in and fires his weapon once. You are shot in the arm.
How would you tell this story to your friends the following day? Do you consider yourself lucky or unlucky in this scenario?
That depends on the counterfact that you have selected. A counterfact is an alternate scenario your brain creates to help you evaluate and make sense of your experiences. These counterfacts are entirely hypothetical, so you have the power to choose which one to believe. In the bank robbery example, one counterfact would be that you could have been shot somewhere far worse than your arm. Or more people could have been hurt. Choosing this alternate scenario will make you feel incredibly fortunate. A very different counterfact would be to imagine a scenario of not having been shot at all. Or leaving the bank 10 minutes earlier and missing the robbery. Choosing those counterfacts will make you feel unfortunate in comparison to reality.
When facing adversity, remember that you have the power to consciously imagine a counterfact that makes you feel fortunate rather than helpless.
2. Change your Explanatory Style
How do you choose to explain and interpret adversity? There are two kinds of people. People with an optimistic explanatory style — interpreting obstacles as local and temporary — and people with a pessimistic explanatory style — seeing obstacles as global and permanent. Your explanatory style has a direct impact on your actions.
While an optimistic explanatory style comes naturally to some people more than others, these techniques can be learned.
One way described in the book is the ABCD model of interpretation:
The event which we can’t change.
Our reaction to and our interpretation of the event; why we think it happened and what we think it means for the future.
This is entirely dependent on our Belief. If we believe a problem is temporary and local in nature, we maximise the chance of a positive consequence.
On the other hand, if we see the event as unsolvable and pervasive, we are more likely to bring about negative consequences. That’s where Disputation comes in.
When leaning towards a pessimistic path, it’s important to challenge or dispute the Belief. Ask yourself: what is this belief based on? How do I know this to be true? Would I let a friend get away with this reasoning? What are some other plausible interpretations of this event? Is there another counterfact I can think of? Research suggests that this works best if you externalise the voice and pretend like you’re having this conversation with someone else.
If the event is objectively and truly bad, the question is if it as bad as we think? We are much stronger and resilient than we give ourselves credit for.
Adversity never hits us quite as hard or for quite as long as we think it will. Keeping this quirk of human psychology in mind can help move towards a more positive interpretation of obstacles and failures, helping us to find the Third Path upwards. As Stoic philosopher Seneca said: “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.”
The Zorro Circle
Feeling that we are in control, that we are masters of our own fate at work and at home, is one of the strongest drivers of both well-being and performance.
We all know that stressing about a project or jam-packed to-do list is not helpful. But if we know this, why is it so easy to lose control and feel overwhelmed? Shawn blames this on the Dueling Brain, with two parts of our brain in conflict with each other:
- The Jerk: evolutionary speaking, this is the oldest part of our brain. The knee-jerk emotional system used to be crucial for our ancestors to survive: quick reactions, quick decisions, flight or fight response.
- The Thinker: this part of the brain has developed in the modern world where problems are more complicated and require rational thinking and decision making. We want to think before we react.
We rely on The Thinker to tackle most of our daily challenges, but the moment we start feeling stressed, the Jerk will often take over. This biological reaction is called Emotional Hijacking. We lose control and do not see how to move forward. This is not our fault because this is again a natural reaction inside our body, releasing cortisol, the toxic chemical associated with stress.
What you can do
When feeling overwhelmed, it is helpful to focus on small manageable goals to regain the feeling of control. That’s where The Zorro Circle comes in.
The name comes from the movie where Zorro’s teacher would draw a small circle around Zorro and tell him to stay within the circle while he trained. He was not allowed to move outside of the circle. Each time Zorro mastered that area, his teacher expanded the circle a little more and a little more until Zorro was a master swordsman.
- The First Circle of Self-Awareness
Research has shown that verbal information almost immediately diminishes the power of negative emotions. So by writing down your feelings or simply talking to someone about why you’re stuck, you are taking your first step in regaining control.
- The Second Circle of Control
Like in Stoic philosophy, it is crucial to distinguish between what you can control and what you can’t control. Identify the areas where your efforts will have an impact and focus your energy accordingly. Let go of the areas where you have no control.
- The Third Circle of Action
Look only at the list of things that you can control and define one small goal that you can quickly accomplish. This will give you a sense of focus and achievement, and once you have that momentum, it will be easier to tackle the next task, and the next, and the next.
The 20-Second Rule
As James Clear says in his book Atomic Habits, habits are the compound interest of self-development. I am a firm believer that good habits are key for cultivating a positive, optimistic mindset.
But why is changing our habits and sticking with them so difficult?
The issue is that our brains will always prioritise the path of least resistance and short term gratification. We’re evolutionary hardwired that way, and we have not evolved much compared to our ancestors.
There is no use in trying to fight this tendency and relying on willpower and motivation. Willpower is finite and gets thrown out the door the moment we are stressed or tired.
However, you might have noticed in your own life that we don’t enjoy the easy path nearly as much as we think we will. Just compare how you feel after spending an entire day indoors watching Netflix to how you feel after being outside all day, surrounded by people and nature. Being active is more enjoyable, but it requires more effort or “activation energy” — the initial spark needed to catalyse a reaction.
What you can do
The trick to creating good habits is by reducing the activation energy required to less than 20 seconds — so the desired path becomes your path of least resistance.
Want to play the guitar every day? Don’t store the instrument away but leave it out where you can see and quickly grab it.
Trying to go to the gym first thing in the morning? Have your gym clothes ready next to your bed. Shawn even went as far as going to bed in his gym clothes, just for a couple of weeks to create that habit.
Similarly, get rid of bad habits by increasing the activation energy necessary to more than 20 seconds. A great example in the book is someone who wanted to stop watching television every night after work, so every morning, he would take the batteries out of the remote control and put them away in a cupboard.
The key to creating lasting habits is consistency. Do it daily, so the actions become automatic. Identify the activation energy the desired practice takes — the time, the choices, the mental and physical effort they require — and think of ways to reduce it.
- Tetris Effect 🟨 : retrain your brain through Gratitude Journaling to scan your environment and experiences for patterns of possibility and positivity everywhere you look.
- Falling Up 🛣: find the mental path that lets you approach failure and obstacles as an opportunity for growth and learning. Remind yourself that adversity never hits you quite as hard or as long as you imagine it will.
- The Zorro Circle 🥷: when your emotions take over, regain control by focusing on small, manageable goals and gradually expanding your circle to bigger tasks.
- The 20 Second Rule ⏰: create healthy habits by reducing the activation energy required to perform the ask, and it becomes your path of least resistance. Avoid needing to rely on willpower or motivation.