At the most basic level, depression is just the routine activation of certain brain circuits, which everybody has, in specific patterns that result in depressive symptoms in that person. (See: What Depression Looks Like In Your Brain) These patterns take time to develop in your brain and conversely can be altered over time by consciously taking simple steps to work with your mind and behaviors to rewire the brain, one small change at a time.
One of the easiest practices you can do in-the-moment to point your brain in a more positive direction is to go to your “happy place.”
I really dislike the “just think happy thoughts” philosophy because I believe it only sets people up for disillusionment and disappointment. (See: When Being Positive Is A Negative) You can’t just sit around thinking positive and running from reality. At some point, you actually have to act on those positive thoughts and make things happen. Then, you have a much better chance of getting positive results or at least, gaining beneficial growth from the experience.
However, I do acknowledge and advocate that thinking happy thoughts can be an essential first step to get the positive momentum to move forward. One study actually showed that simply having a “happy place” or even several happy places to go to can boost your mood and serve as a catalyst to start your brain on a more positive path.
I want to be very clear here. I’m suggesting that a person intentionally direct their thoughts in a way which will benefit them. I’m not talking about unconscious mind wandering, rumination, projecting, or avoiding which can contribute to depression.
Recall Happy Memories
Studies show that thinking about happy times boosts serotonin levels in your brain. Serotonin is essential for the proper functioning of your prefrontal cortex, which governs self-reflection and the regulation of emotions, helping it to override old panic patterns. Try visualizing a joyful time in detail or even writing it down.
Normally, a person can come up with happy memories or thoughts without any problem, but for a depressed brain, this can be hard to do. Any brain can benefit by having a go-to list of happy memories or things and utilizing memory techniques to recall them when needed.
One particular memory practice, called the method of loci technique, has been around since ancient times, is still used by memory champs today, and is particularly successful in helping to form lasting memories. The method of loci relies on a person’s spatial memory by pairing something you want to remember with a physical location with which you are very familiar and positively associated. For instance, you might think of your home and picture things that make you feel good that you want to recall placed around it. As you imagine yourself moving through the house, each room has a happy memory or thing in it for you. Or you could position happy stuff all along your drive to work.
In this way, you can create a “happy place” that you’re more likely to remember and can go to in times of stress or sadness.
Think Of Happy Things
For the same reason recalling happy memories works, thinking of things that make you smile and feel warm and fuzzy will work too. In The Sound of Music movie in the “My Favorite Things (Maria)” song (I’m showing my age), Julie Andrews sang:
When the dog bites, when the bee stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad.
She was right. Why do you think there are so many videos and posts of cute kitties and puppies on social media? Smiling and being happy for a moment causes your brain to release happy neurochemicals which can start or keep it on an upward path, and it just plain feels good.
Have A Happy Daydream
If you’re more of a dreamer, then you can employ the same principles by imagining a happy daydream. Over the course of the day our minds tend to aimlessly wander which can be detrimental, but consciously directing your mind to travel in a positive way, visualization, can be very beneficial. Visualization is a recognized mind-body therapy that has proven effective and extremely powerful in improving performance, changing behavior, or influencing an outcome.
In her book Creative Visualization: Use the Power of Your Imagination to Create What You Want in Your Life, Shatki Gawain offers the following guidelines for visualizing:
1. Set a goal – decide something specific you would like to have, work toward, realize or create.
2. Create a clear idea or mental picture or feeling – This should be in present tense.Think of the situation already existing and immerse yourself in feeling of it.
3. Focus on it frequently – Bring the idea to mind often in quiet meditation or casually through out your day. Make it part of your reality in a light, relaxed way.
4. Give it positive energy – Think about your goal in a positive, encouraging way. See yourself receiving it or achieving it. Feel the feeling of doing that.
My Happy Go-To List
I don’t really have a happy place, but I have my own go-to list of happy things which I bring to mind when I need a pick-me-up or a smile. A few of the things on my list are:
The hydrangea bushes in front of my house – They remind me of my maternal Grandmother who loved flowers and whose house was surrounded by similar blue hydrangea bushes. When I saw those, I knew it was the house for me and where I was supposed to be.
Kitty cuddles – I have six cats. (Yes, six!) Rubbing a cat, seeing them snuggle, nuzzling me, or thinking about them and their antics make me happy. Just this morning, one usually rather majestic kitty was running around, stopping and starting, and revving up his rear end in a very undignified way. I laughed out loud.
Memories of nursing my son – Recalling myself as a new mother, sitting in the rocking chair in the nursery, breast feeding my son until we both feel asleep can always bring me a warm, fuzzy feeling. That was the most peace I’ve ever known.
Alegria – This song from the Cirque du Soleil show by the same name is the last piece of music my brother, Chris, listened to in the hospital room the night of his death. While the song is associated with a sad occasion, it fills me with joy to find out years later that the word “alegria” is Spanish for happiness and cheer. I love that. It makes me smile to hear the song and to think of that and him.
Unfortunately, there’s no quick answer to get happy. Happy happens in individual moments found in the small practices and decisions you make every day. Happiness is not a destination, but a journey. As with any journey, you have to start with a single step and keep taking steps, which include rest stops along the way at your “happy place.”
What’s one thing or place on your go-to happy list?