3 ways training your mind makes you happier
Did you know that training your mind is one of the most effective ways to ensure you feel happier in your life? Unfortunately, few of us consider training our mind a priority, or even really know what it means.
We know about training our bodies, which is nice and concrete. We can see what happens when we train our body, and when we do not. Training our minds might not appeal in the same way, maybe because we cannot see our mind. It can feel weird to train something that we cannot see or touch. Also, for some reason, while our culture accepts that we need to train our body to get stronger and fitter, it is different for our mind. Our society not only tells us that we should automatically be strong in our mind, it also has a very rigid idea of what a strong mind is. It seems that a mind that is always happy and in control equals a strong mind. This allows little room for the reality of human experience. Which, whether we like to admit it or not, is full of wanted and unwanted emotions, challenging thoughts and lots of random stuff. Striving for the ‘always happy and in control’ mind does not help us get happier or calmer. What does help is allowing ourselves to be human in our mind and body and managing that in the most effective way possible.
A strong mind gets real about human emotions but does not get caught up in itself.
A strong mind is an asset that is too valuable to leave aside. Let’s explore three reasons how training our mind leads to feeling happier.
#1 Create focus and Calm
Ever find yourself awake at three am worrying about something? Unable to get back to sleep because your mind will just not shut off? Believe it or not, overthinking is just the mind’s way of trying to help us out, it is trying to find a solution for something that is bothering us. However, while the mind can be very helpful in some situations, it can make things more difficult in many others. For example, we often think about something that happened in the past, or worry about something that might happen in the future. When we do this our mind is in rumination, going over and over how we should have done things differently, or we fantasise about how things might go wrong in the future. This does not help us and rumination can in fact make us feel less happy and more stressed.
A trained mind can step out of rumination. It has nothing to do with stopping or controlling thoughts – because we cannot. But we can learn to know when we are ruminating and step out of it.
We can step out of rumination by taking a different perspective, a perspective based in our body. By becoming aware of our body and of what is going on right now, you are literally getting your attention out of your mind (and your thoughts) and into something else (body sensations). When you train the skill of stepping out of your thoughts, your mind will become calmer and more focussed (check out: Psychology Today—Brain Scans Show How Meditation Improves Mental Focus)
#2 Realise our interpretation is not fact
The way we interpret things is key to how we feel about them. I remember one spring I heard a squeaky sound coming from somewhere near my balcony. I thought it was a nest of young birds as I saw birds flying back and forth. The sound did not annoy me at all, in fact, I liked it. One afternoon my neighbour came around and told me the noise was coming from a newly installed weather vane, but that he was going to fix it, and apologised for the sound. Once I knew it was not a nest of cute young birds, the sound started to annoy me, and I got annoyed at my neighbour a couple of days later when he still had not fixed it. Same sound, different interpretation, different feeling and also a different relationship with my neighbour.
When our thoughts tell us something is not how we want it to be, it can make us feel all kinds of difficult emotions, like frustration, sadness or anxiety. With exactly the same circumstances, with thoughts that tell us that all is ok, we do not generate those same emotions.
How we think about something has huge implications for how we feel about it. And the more we think something, the easier it becomes to think it. If we are annoyed at our neighbour about a sound, this thought can become quite dominant and next time something happens with that neighbour we are quick to remember our ‘annoyed’ thoughts and have them again. You can see how we can get ourselves stuck in a spiral of thoughts and emotions, and how that can influence us.
A trained mind can prevent this and break the spiral. Not by changing what you think, or thinking positively, like you hear so often, but by not reacting automatically out of our thoughts and emotions. We cannot just tell our minds to think a certain way, but we can train our mind in non-reactivity, which means we do not react automatically out of our interpretation. We can also train our mind towards more constructive thoughts and away from destructive thoughts – and this will have a massive impact on how happy we feel.
#3 Know the pitfalls
Our minds, just like our bodies, are complex. Our brain has evolved over thousands of years and some of its core skills, often directly linked to our physical survival, evolved early on. Other skills, like analytical thinking, developed much later. Our mind has to constantly make sense of all the different messages that the different parts of our brain. The older parts of our brain tell our mind very quickly that there might be danger lurking, it does not distinguish between actual physical danger or perceived danger (we can think ourselves into a physical danger reaction). The newer parts of our brain have to be alert and awake to know when the danger is real and action is needed, and when danger is perceived and created by our own interpretation.
This is no small task. To manage this, our mind has developed short-cuts. The short cuts we create are based on all kinds of things, including our predispositions and our experiences.These shortcuts can be very helpful but can also be challenging. Through our shortcuts we create habits and draw conclusions about what is happening around and inside of us. We might be right sometimes, but very often we are not. Without being aware of it, we often react out of habit – not driven by choice, but by habitual, engrained, reactions that can feel automatic.
For example, we get an email from our boss. She says she wants to see us first thing in the morning. We know that she never emails us, and has, in the past, only done so if something was wrong. Our shortcut tells us: ohoh… there must be a problem. We feel stressed out, we start ruminating about what it might be that she wants. We go home and our habit tells us totake a drink to relax. We do take a drink, as it does help to relax, but the mind keeps racing, so we take one or two more. It helps a little, but then we wake up and think again about that email. We don’t get a great night sleep. We feel groggy from having had too much wine. We walk into our boss’ office the next morning, and before she can say anything, we are already telling her that you have no idea what the problem might be. She just wanted to ask you if you were willing to become a mentor for a new employee.
When we train our minds, we become more aware of the complexities of our mind, and the traps we might fall into because of our shortcuts and habits.
With this awareness we can choose differently, change our habits and support our ability to be happier and experience less stress and anxiety. You can watch Dan Harris and Joseph Goldstein talk about awareness and the power it brings.
Training our mind is simple, but not easy
So, if you want to start to train your mind and experience the benefits of that there is no reason to not start right away. It’s very simple. Stop reading, set your phone’s stop watch to five minutes and close your eyes and focus your attention on your breathing.
5 minute awareness meditationStart meditation
5 minute awareness meditation
Did you try? Simple? maybe. Easy? Far from it, your mind probably drifted of numerous times. That is ok, that is what minds do. It is great to notice that.
Training our mind can be done in different ways, but one of the main tools is meditation, which, if you did the short exercise of focussing your attention on your breath, you already did. Other tools include learning more about the workings of the mind and actively changing and challenging certain behaviours and habitual thought patterns. None of it is rocket science, but all of it takes commitment and effort. Unlike what we might think, meditation and training our mind is not about feeling relaxed and chill all the time. Just as when we train our bodies, there will be moments where it hurts, where we don’t feel like exercising, or where we wonder if it has any benefits. But it does, and as you continue to train your mind you will start to notice the difference in your life, and you will also have many moments where training your mind feels good, strong and powerful.