Columns, Imagine That

Standing in the sunshine

A 2008 study out of Harvard Medical School found that happiness is indeed contagious. Surveying 5,000 participants, the researchers concluded that a person with a close contact whose happiness was highly rated was 15 percent more likely to be happy themselves. On the flip side, a Parenting magazine study of 500 mothers found that only 53 percent were satisfied with their own state of mental health. So what about the other 47 percent?

Are our children affected by our own state of well-being. And, if so, how can we increase our happiness for the sake of our kids?

The good news is, our brains are hardwired to be optimistic. A recent article in Time magazine reported how our brains are built to give us a sunny outlook on the future. The secret to optimism lies in imagination: How we envision the future serves as a self-pep talk that inspires enthusiasm about events to come.

Laura Mann

If you get a flat tire, it’s less stressful if you have gotten a flat tire before and know how to deal with it.

Our frontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls, among other things, goal setting and language skills, responds more drastically when we think about positive future events (getting a promotion, going on vacation) than it does when we envision negative future events (illness, injury). If we think about the good that might happen, we are more likely to take risks in order to make good things happen; if we think about the worst that could happen, we’re less likely to venture out and break new ground.

The Time article points out that, if it weren’t for the risk-taking behaviors that happen when we focus on positive possible outcomes, we may not have evolved from being hunter-gatherer cave dwellers.

‘Don’t worry, be happy’

Thinking positively also affects those around us. How do we, for the sake of our family lives, train our imaginations to focus on positive thoughts? Basically, the best way to begin on the path to happiness is to “fake it ‘til you make it.” Put on a smile even if you don’t feel like it. Start telling people that you’re on a quest for happiness. If something negative happens, ask yourself what you can learn from it.

One interesting nugget gleaned from the Time article states that people are less likely to be negatively impacted by harmful events if they have experienced that event before. For instance, if you get a flat tire, it’s less stressful if you have gotten a flat tire before and know how to deal with it. Learning from our mistakes is a higher brain function that we can use to our advantage.

Another way to get happier is to surround yourself with happy people. Think about the happiest people you know, and make a point to spend some time with them. Remember the Harvard study? This increases your chances of happiness by 15 percent — certainly worth a shot.

The final step to happiness comes from our imaginations, so gear up that frontal cortex and start planning for a rosy future. This may be easier than we think — we are, after all, hardwired to be optimistic.

If you’re dreading something, think about the best possible outcome, and think about what you can do to ensure that happens. Often, chronic worriers find it helpful to write down what they’re worried about. It looks less intimidating on a piece of paper than it does when running in circles around your brain.

Lastly, share these tactics with your child. If she’s worried about school, have her write down her worries, or picture a good outcome. Throw a few unexpected compliments her way, when she doesn’t expect it. Slip a note into his lunchbox with a positive message on it. Make a smiley face out of the ketchup on her hamburger.

Little things can make all the difference in the world, and every tiny step is progress on the road to being happy. Imagine that!

Laura Mann is a freelance writer and blogger, and a student in Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas. She often co-authors the “Imagine That!” column with her father, storyteller Michael Mann. This column was written by Laura.

© Michael Mann, 2011, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

Tags: , ,