Inside the Brains of Happy People

By Barbara Pierce

Lately, I’ve felt down, stressed out and hopeless about the future.

There’s so much going wrong in the U.S. and in the world. I’ve lost the optimism I generally have. That’s not a way I want to feel. It’s definitely not a good feeling.

Optimism means seeing the positive side of things, expecting things to turn out well, feeling like I’m able to make things work right for me. I want to get that mindset back. It’s connected to happy. I want to feel happy.

Happiness doesn’t come easy, as most of us know. Disappointments and annoyances grab our attention like pesky gnats. Even the good things in life lose their luster over time. With a jam-packed schedule and more and more stuff to do every day, happiness seems out of reach.

“Inside the brains of happy people” — this headline in a magazine caught my attention recently. Maybe this will give me some ideas about how to feel happier, I thought. I began reading articles and blogs on what makes people happy.

Research suggests that happiness is something we can cultivate with practice. Here are some of the practices of people who are fairly consistently happy:

Acknowledge the good: The brains of happy people are tuned to notice and enjoy the positives in life that may pass others by. They appreciate life’s little pleasures. They seem to be wearing rose-colored glasses.

Our human brains are wired to focus on threats, on negative things. But research suggests that we can compensate for this bias by consciously trying to focus more on the positive. Happier people are not necessarily naïve or blind to negativity, but accommodate to it, recognizing both good and bad things in life.

This is a particularly interesting finding, said one of the researchers. Their positive outlook on life is not a reflection of naivety or ignorance of the world’s threats and dangers, but an effort to see positives where they can find them.

If things aren’t going right for them, they find the best solution available to solve the problem, tackle it and move on. If it can’t be solved, they move on.

Nothing fuels unhappiness quite like pessimism. The problem with a pessimistic attitude, apart from the damage it does to your mood, is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you expect bad things, you’re more likely to experience negative events. Pessimistic thoughts are hard to shake off until you recognize how illogical they are. Force yourself to look at the facts and you’ll see that things are not nearly as bad as they seem.

Happy people don’t ignore threats. They’re just better at seeing the good.

Embracing a purpose leads to happiness: “All we really need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about!” said an author back in the 1800s. He’s definitely right! “You have to find something that really interests you and pursue it ferociously,” said an actress of the past. People with a sense of purpose live happier lives. Numerous studies show the happiest people are those who are caring for others.

You can’t think your way into your life’s passion and purpose; you have to ‘do’ your way in. Take steps towards what you think you might want. Try out different things. The more you act, the more you’ll get clear on what matters to you.

Connect with others: Connecting to the people around you is one of the surest routes to happiness. Bonding with others keeps us strong and happy. Social media gives us only a momentary buzz. Put down your device and focus on in-person interactions with others.

If you want to connect with others, you have got to get out there and make it happen. Go to places where you may find people with the same interests as you, reach out to them.

Get your body moving: Even moving for just 10 minutes releases a chemical in your brain that helps you feel happy. Happy people exercise regularly. Do whatever form of moving feels good to you and what you’ll stick with — walk, garden, work out in the gym, dance.

Get enough sleep: Happiness is also linked to getting enough sleep. Those who are happiest get an adequate amount of top-notch sleep, seven to nine hours.

To summarize: I need to notice and be grateful for the small positives, focus on them instead of the negatives. I need to spend more time with real people, put down my devices and move my body every day, as well as getting enough sleep. If I make the choice to do these things, maybe I’ll be happier.

I can do it! How about you?

Barbara Pierce is a retired licensed clinical social worker with many years of experience helping people. If you would like to purchase a copy of her book, “When You Come to the Edge: Aging” or if you have questions for her, contact her at