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M.J. Ryan on Being Happier
M.J. Ryan is what one might call a happiness expert. The author of several books on being happier, including The Happiness Makeover: How to Teach Yourself to Be Happy and Enjoy Every Day, Ryan is one of the creators of the New York Times bestselling Random Acts of Kindness series. Her most recent book is This Year I Will…: How to Finally Change a Habit, Keep a Resolution, or Make a Dream Come True. She gives speeches and workshops throughout the country and acts as a thinking partner for CEOs and other entrepreneurs helping them achieve inspired results in their personal and professional lives. Ryan was kind enough to share her thoughts on being happier.
Do you believe the first 30 days of change are vital to living a happier life?
Absolutely, because you need to begin creating a new pathway in your brain to think differently. At any given moment, we have a choice about how we interpret reality. The brain is a meaning-making machine. It takes in data and interprets it, filters it and makes a story out of the information it allows in. That story has everything to do with whether we’re happy or not. It’s incredibly simple. Every single moment, we have the choice to take the raw material and tell ourselves a story that makes us miserable, or a story that makes us happy.
During the first 30 days being happier, should people focus on stopping negative thoughts or promoting positive thoughts?
It goes hand in hand, like driving a car—you have a brake and a gas pedal. Feelings follow thoughts, activating a chemical cascade in our minds. We think certain things and that creates a biochemical reaction in our brains that either releases stress hormones or feel-good hormones. So when you find yourself thinking negatively, stop and think of a positive explanation, interpretation or outcome. That way you build a pathway in your brain for thinking “up.” It’s about teaching your mind to think about what’s right and good.
Is happiness a habit, and thus, is unhappiness a habit?
Absolutely. The research shows that 50% of it is genetic, meaning we have a set point of biochemical happiness or unhappiness. But the other 50% is made up of habits that we created in our brain that we can change. It doesn’t matter what your set point is. It doesn’t matter how you got this way. Understanding why is the booby prize. The real question is: What do we do from here? That’s when we have freedom.
Is that how you rewire your brain from thinking negatively?
Yes—don’t feed it any more negativity. The more time you spend telling yourself your old sad story, such as “my mother was an alcoholic and she used to yell at me,” the more you drive that misery into your brain. But the more you say, “OK, that was that, now what am I going to choose to think about to change that?,” then you start to pay attention to what you can enjoy. Suddenly, you’re happier even though that history is still there. Don’t feed the monster anymore.
What is the relationship between happiness and the actions one performs?
The brain learns and changes from experiences. It doesn’t change from reading or listening—it changes by doing things. It has to be an action and you have to be able to measure it, so you can see that you’re doing it. People try without measuring, but if you tell your brain you’re going to do this for the rest of your life, it gets very confused and says, “Oh no, that’s too hard.” Lots of times people come to me and say they want to learn how to be happy and I say, “Well, what are you going to do?” If you don’t know, then you’re not going to get happier.
How many changes should people make during the first 30 days of being happier?
People try to do too much. That’s one of the key reasons they don’t succeed. Remember, you need to come up with a measurement. In 30 days, get one thing that you really nail in and the more that you practice that one thing, the more bang for your buck you’re going to get in terms of actual results you’ll be proud of.
How can people choose the correct changes that will make them happier?
This is about what you need to work on. There are two things that are highly correlated with happiness: One is contentment and the other is fulfillment. The path of contentment includes the practice of gratitude—which allows us to become aware of the goodness in our lives and helps us connect and be kind to others—and the art of savoring—which is about appreciating the goodness in the present moment, the bird singing outside your window, the wind blowing. The path of fulfillment is about our life’s purpose, about using our gifts on behalf of something that has meaning to us. For each of us, creating greater happiness is really a question of which of these two you need to work on. Some of us have to work on both.
How important is it to learn from your mistakes to be happier in the first 30 days and beyond?
Actually, I think it’s more about learning from your successes. Those are the things you want to focus on. The brain works better by paying attention to what’s right. Don’t turn goof ups into give ups. We’re extremely good at paying attention to all the ways in which we screwed up. This is why people don’t change. As soon as they don’t do it perfectly, they say, “I can’t do this.” Instead, pay attention to when you did it right, even if it was only once. I know that sitting with my feet up on the couch for 10 minutes at the end of the day to think about what I did well makes me happier and I only did it once this week. What made it possible for me to do it that one time? How can I do it even more?
What is the belief you personally go to during times of change?
My belief is that I can learn this even though I can’t do it perfectly.
“The best thing about change is...”
That it’s possible. That’s what’s so incredible about human beings. Every creature on the planet adapts to its environment, but we’re the only creature that can consciously adapt. We’re the only creatures that can say, “I think I’m going to do this” and actually make it happen. That’s the miracle of being a human being. Our capacity to change, I believe, is our greatest asset.
What’s the best change you have ever made?
Definitely becoming happier, and I did it by practicing. I said, “I better start doing kind things,” so I started being kinder to people and I was happier. Then I started becoming more grateful and, as a consequence, I became much, much happier in my life.
For more information about M.J. Ryan, visit www.mj-ryan.com.