Mental Wealth: Are Your Investments All in Your Head?
By Helene Roussi
That’s not a typo…I DO mean ‘Mental Wealth’, not ‘Mental Health’. ‘Wealth’ evokes images of abundance. It’s a ‘happy’ word no matter how you look at it. ‘Health’, on the other hand, can go either way. You’ll see why that’s important by the end of this article.
Look around. Do you know people who seem to be upbeat, and ‘bad days’ are only minor speed bumps on their life road? But others have a bad day and it puts them into a ditch? Have you ever wondered what the difference is? I sure have. It turns out some people have to work harder than others to experience ‘happiness’.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, a professor at the University of California, has studied the ‘Science of Happiness’ since 2001. Results of her multiple studies indicate that 50% of happiness is genetic, 10% is life circumstances, and 40% is within our power to change. This explains why improving life circumstances, like increasing income or changing appearance, does not make people sustainably happier. That’s only 10% of the picture. And as of right now, we can’t change our genetics. That leaves us 40% to work with to impact our happiness. No problem.
Except there IS a problem. We are hardwired to focus on the negative. It is an adaptive, self-protective characteristic. As hunter-gatherers we needed to constantly scan our environment to pick out threats. We are rewarded for focusing on the negative. Noticing that giant predatory kangaroo meant we stayed alive. This easily turns into a negative feedback loop. The good news is that by understanding how the brain fashions connections we can break out of the negativity loop and fashion durable positive thinking patterns. We can harness the power of the Tetris Effect.
The Tetris Effect, named after the computer game where players manipulate falling cubes, illuminates what happens when we learn. MRI imaging of subjects who played the game for 1.5 hours a week over a period of three months showed increased thickness in their gray matter, and improved function in visual-spatial skills. Amazingly, the amount of energy used in their brains while playing the game DECREASED from the beginning to the end of the study. In other words, as their brains mastered the task, they became more efficient. In other words, the more you do something, the less ‘brain power’ it takes to accomplish the task.
The ability of the brain to rewire itself is called, ‘plasticity’, and we can use this ability to break the negative thinking cycle and develop new positive pathways. The pathways are created by practicing positive thinking, then by using that pathway over and over it becomes automatic, something called, ‘Acquired Optimism’.
And that’s why the term ‘Mental Wealth’ is important. The words we choose are one way we wire our brain for positivity, and ultimately, happiness.
Helene the Happiness Geek is a copywriter, massage therapist, hiker, rock climber, drummer, martial artist, and mother of two very interesting sons. She and her dog, Marley, are a therapy team through Pet Partners. That, and researching/writing about the Science of Happiness, are ways she tries to be the change she wants to see in the world.