Neurological pathways to happiness...

Most of us have experienced that feeling where the one thing that went wrong is the thing that eats us up all day.  Ninety nine things went right but that one thing out of the hundred sent us spiralling. Some people seem to go through life not sweating the small stuff while others of us seem to just attract the negativity like compulsive shoppers to a boxing day sale. Things get to us.  They get under our skin. We get upset by the little things even when we know they’re not even that important. Even that in itself is irritating! So what’s happening there? Why are those little things getting to us? Maybe things like that didn’t get to you when you were younger and more carefree but over time you’ve become less and less easy going and more and more like your mother… or in my case my Nanna.   Shhh. Don’t tell her I said that she’ll get cranky.

As human beings we have a natural disposition to notice the negative.  It’s called our negativity bias. It was super helpful in ensuring the survival of our species.  Dr. Rick Hanson describes the importance of this by explaining that back in the day (way way back in the day), finding food was important. Avoiding danger was also important.  However, if we didn’t find food one day we could find it the next but if we failed to avoid a tiger there wouldn’t be a next day. So our brains were wired in a way to place more importance on avoiding danger and to do that we had to notice the negative and take action.  Fast forward a few million years or so and we are still wired like that only instead of it being food and danger it’s noticing that while thirty people commented something positive on that photo of our cat and only one person said they think our cat looks ugly and all cats are for people who don’t have friends all we can think is “how dare they?! Who even does that!?” BLOCK. (Sorry I digress).

What’s happening in the case of someone who’s getting all negative Nancy more often than not, is that survival mechanism is now in overdrive.  It’s especially prevalent in those who have experienced trauma as it has been tied to our survival mechanism but over the years, we have basically practiced noticing negatives. We have conditioned ourself to pay more attention to what is wrong and play more focus on the things that get us cranky.  This automatic response has become a neurological pathway or in the case of a super snarly someone a neurological highway.

So if that’s you - what do you do about it?  Well first a little admission. It’s me. The trauma survival part of this makes a lot of sense for me because growing up, I needed that ability and that sensitivity to noticing negatives.  I was in physical danger at times throughout my childhood, teens and early adulthood and if it wasn’t for my well embedded overactive nervous system I might not have survived a few hairy situations. It’s probably been a good thing except for the years of strain on my nervous system probably being one of the root causes of my fibromyalgia condition. The thing is, I don’t have to avoid danger so much anymore.  There is no danger for me to run from or hide from. My husband isn’t abusive. My life isn’t on the line. No one is throwing things or hitting things or hurling abuse. So maybe that’s why I’m noticing that the problem is me because it literally can’t be my environment anymore.  So let me tell you what I am doing about it and what you can do too if this resonates.


In the same way that you can really strengthen that negativity bias and make a neurological pathway to your own inner hell, you can do the exact opposite. You can literally create your own neurological pathway to happiness, reinforce it, nurture it and grow it until you’re conditioned to experience more joy than ever before.  

The way it works is that you catch yourself in little moments of happy.  Any time throughout the day if something makes you smile, take notice! “Hey! That thing there made me happy!” Give it some weight.  Think about it. Breathe. Soak in it. Play it over in your head. Ask yourself why it made you happy. Tell someone what happened.  Even if it seems little, or trivial it doesn’t matter. The point is, there’s a little bush track there and you want a highway. So walk on it.  Drive on it. Run a steamroller over it. Keep going over it. Look for other things throughout your day that lead to happy, or pride or joy. Write a gratitude list.  Tell someone you love them. Do something kind for a stranger. Anything that makes you feel some kind of positive emotion is going to count. Even going over old, positive memories is useful here so spend some time daydreaming about fun things and memories that make you smile, but triple ensure that anytime something positive happens in the here and now that you notice it and you file it in there by really paying attention and feeling the emotions, revel in it and don’t let it go un-noticed.

The key is to give it weight.  It’s like when something trivial someone does or says that pisses you off and you pick up the phone and tell your friend “Do you know what she just bloody said to me??”  In reality it’s probably trivial, and not even important but you’ve learnt not to let it go. Make a decision right now that you’re going to let go of the negative and you’re going to really emphasise the positive.  When something lights you up (trivial or otherwise) pick up the phone and call that same friend and share the joy. “You know what I did today? I bought a fern for the bathroom and I named it Frank”. All this weird ass positive stuff really does work.  Believe me. It might be backed by science but more importantly for me I can feel it. It makes me want to go and water Frank because that makes me smile.