You Have the Power to Rewire Your Brain for More Joy
Practicing mindfulness not only improves your ability to focus and feel joy, but it can also change the chemistry of your brain.
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Seeking to find happiness through a job before you find happiness on a personal level is like trying to stand on stilts in quicksand.
That's how Anahita Moghaddam feels about it, anyway. As founder of Neural Beings, a coaching practice that helps people and companies identify a purpose and hone in on a process to get there, she believes it is our "primary responsibility" to cultivate love and happiness within ourselves, first and foremost.
Speaking last October at The Feast social entrepreneurship conference in Brooklyn, N.Y., Moghaddam said that if you only look to your professional achievements to sustain your sense of purpose and well-being, a sense of emptiness or desperation is almost inevitable."When that job is gone or when you get fired or you get really disillusioned by what you thought, then you are going to suffer."
Instead, she guides people to an idea of living mindfully as a way to improve our focus and provide more joy in life.
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Moghaddam, who was born in Iran and grew up in Germany, bases her teachings on Eastern, ancient philosophies combined with a technical, scientific understanding of how the brain functions. In addition to her work as a coach, she serves as an ambassador to the Tibet Fund, an organization supporting Tibetan refugees living in India, Nepal and Bhutan.
If you can't remember the last time you did something other than sit at your computer and work, fret not. You -- and your brain -- are more flexible than you think. The brain evolved to be relational, meaning that it changes and grows depending on what it interacts with, says Moghaddam. Positive thoughts will reinforce neuron pathways for the feeling of joy; negative thoughts will reinforce neuron pathways for feelings of sadness.
"The number of possible combinations of neurons that fire and wire together is 10 to the millionth power in your nervous system. In comparison, the number of atoms in our entire universe is estimated to be around 10 to the 80th power. If we are 10 to the millionth power, that makes us almost infinite. So what are we? Who are we? And what can we do with this?" she said, speaking to an audience of a couple dozen conference attendees.
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Unfortunately, human brains have several biological predispositions to negative thoughts and feelings. First, the human brain evolved to identify and avoid threats. Often, that means that other humans instinctually register as competition, instead of teammates or comrades. Second, we're biologically predisposed to remember a single negative incident more than multiple positive experiences. Echoing neuroscientist Rick Hanson, Moghaddam says our brains are "like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive experiences."
Despite our Darwinian preferences, we can control their thoughts with mindfulness, a sort of meta cognition or skillful use of attention. Instead of letting your attention be co-opted by the nearest or next distraction or perceived threat, a practice of mindfulness will train an individual to focus his or her attention and energy strategically and purposefully.
Even if you haven't got hours each day to sit in a lotus position wrapped in a toga on the beach, you can take 10 minutes on the subway, for example, to sit calmly and quietly. Notice your body and your thoughts and where you are feeling stress or tension. If you can evoke a feeling of joy -- whether by remembering a person, a moment or a situation -- and hold your attention or awareness on that positive experience for 10 to 25 seconds, then you can begin to replace negative neuron pathways with more positive ones, explains Moghaddam. After as few as 11 hours of meditation practice, a human being's brain will begin to change, she says.
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Moghaddam's teachings may feel too-good-to-be-true hippie soft science. But they are rooted in chemistry and build on the work of doctors and neuroscientists. A popular 2011 study led by Massachusetts General Hospital researchers compared the brain images of 16 study participants before and after an 8 week-long mindfulness meditation. The study found that meditation, practiced over time, leads to physical improvements in brain matter. "By practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life," said Britta Hölzel, an author of the paper, in a statement.
As neuropsychologist Rick Hanson explains, changes in your thoughts can change the grey matter in your skull, and vice versa. "Mental activity is like a spring shower, leaving little traces of neural structure behind," he wrote in an article published in an industry journal. "Over time, the little tracks in the hillside draw in more water down, deepening their course. A kind of circular self organizing dynamic gradually develops, and then the mind tends to move more and more down that channel, and soon enough you've got a gully."
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There are benefits to living mindfully, other than happiness. People who try to live more mindfully can focus for longer periods of time. Think about sitting at your own computer. The distractions from email, instant message, social media, co-workers, office noise, a boss going on a rant. You could spend the entire day at the office and not get anything done. The ability to focus more strategically "makes you more clear. It makes you show up to your own life more fully," according to Moghaddam.
Ideally, repaving the neurons in your brain will help you lead a more satisfied life, but it also, as the ripple moves outward, a more productive and connected community. "Happiness and creativity are the purpose and they are also the byproduct of living mindfully, living with purpose," she says. "Social change really starts in your mind. Otherwise it is a social idea, and a concept that we grasp at, but it really starts in your heart."Related: Stress, Anxiety, Loneliness: How This Entrepreneur Lost Himself and Bounced Back Stronger