Is the brain like a muscle?

So far this week, we’ve learned a couple of key lessons from Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage. First, happiness is more than a feeling; it is an indispensable ingredient of our success. And second: there are some serious benefits to being happy.    

Shawn then raises the question: “Well, that’s great for the happy people, Shawn, but what about the rest of us??” 

There’s good news here, too.  In recent decades, scientists have learned the brain is much more malleable than we realized previously.  Regarding the brain, the old understanding was: you got what you got and that was that.   

As Larry David says, not so fast… 

Researchers who studied the brains of London cab drivers learned that, as a group, they have significantly larger hippocampi, the part of the brain devoted to spatial memory.   

What?!?   

The streets of London are not a grid system but instead an uber-complicated maze.  So, to earn their licence, London cab drivers must pass a difficult navigation test called The Knowledge.  And as a result… their brains get bigger.   

What does this have to do with happiness?  Well, turns out, we can teach our brain to be happy.  For example, small, momentary blips of positivity can have a big impact on our overall happiness – as well as our success.   

Exhibit 1: When doctors were primed to be happy (by being given a piece of candy, of all things…) they were able to make a diagnosis twice as fast with double the accuracy.  [Note to self — bring a Jolly Rancher the next time I go to the doctor…]   

Exhibit 2: Students who were told to think about the happiest day of their life prior to taking a standardized math test outperformed their peers. 

Exhibit 3:  Four-year-olds who were told to think of something that makes them happy prior to doing a set of tasks significantly outperformed those who weren’t, doing the tasks more quickly and with fewer errors.   

Reflection: What assumptions do I have about my ability to become happier? 

Action:  Is there an experiment I can try today to prime myself to be happier?

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