Wellness

Happy Not Perfect: Improving Your Mental Flexibility

By improving the way we deal with our changing feelings, we can begin to recognise how to really be happy


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By Poppy Jamie

6 March 2021

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W

hen we aren’t happy, we obsess about the absence of happiness. We think we have to solve all our problems to be this picture-perfect idea of “happy”. But doesn’t that sound exhausting? We block ourselves from achieving real happiness and don’t realise that it isn’t about fixing problems, but changing how our brain thinks.

There’s a brilliant quote in Gelong Thubten’s book, A Monk’s Guide to Happiness: Meditation in the 21st Century, that I think sums this issue up perfectly: “Our happiness and our problems both depend upon our state of mind. Yet most of us go through life with very little insight into the mind and its true potential.”

That’s because mental flexibility is one of the most underrated skills. Mental (or cognitive) flexibility is the ability to adapt to changing circumstances on the fly. At a basic level, it’s how capable we are of switching between two different tasks. But on a wider level, it’s how capable we are of adjusting how we approach life and overcoming the habitual responses that come so naturally to us, even to our detriment.

In the simplest terms, achieving happiness through mental flexibility is about being better able to manage our thoughts. It’s reaching a position of inner peace where we are less tormented by our problems. Happiness is not a lack of problems altogether. This is impossible – no matter how happy you are or how much you think you’ve got your life together.

We’re so busy chasing happiness that by the time we achieve something that makes us happy, we’re already looking for the next hit. The modern world is massively invasive and puts the focus on everything we’re missing. So we start panicking if we don’t feel happy.

If we’re not happy, something must be wrong, according to the media. We don’t have those shoes that’ll make us feel great. We’re not as thin as we’d like to be. We overlook all that’s good in the moment because we’re focusing so much on everything we’re missing.

Let’s change that.

We need to equip ourselves with the tools to improve our mental flexibility: the ways you can actively keep yourself in the moment and appreciate everything that’s happening right now, as opposed to focusing on anything you’re lacking. In a sense, we can choose to be with feelings of unhappiness in a more happy, content way.

I’m not saying a simple click of your fingers is all it takes to move from depressed or anxious into a state of happiness and positivity. If only things were that simple. But we do hold the power to be happier as people.

Image by Poppy Jamie

Meditation is a fantastic tool for this. It helps us be present and just relax. Research shows a positive link between meditation and mental flexibility. Often, we associate meditation with clearing the mind, and then consider ourselves a failure when our thoughts continue to race for the 20 minutes we’ve set aside for the practice. We should learn to stop being so harsh on ourselves and move those thoughts away gently.

Meditation is about making peace with your thoughts, not attempting to kill them off entirely. If you’re meditating and thoughts or worries surface, simply accept them and gently guide yourself back to your breathing. It’s about profound self-acceptance: for yourself, your thoughts, your problems, and your life situation.

It’s a process called ‘thought-stopping’. We can’t stop them from coming to our mind in the first place, but we have the power to say: “No, this isn’t the time for these thoughts”. You’re showing flexibility in how and when you think. If you can stop these thoughts in their tracks, you can do the same when your brain automatically tells you that you can’t be happy right now.

Meditation works because, over time, it builds new neural pathways. Keith R Holden talks about this in his book Power of the Mind in Health and Healing. He says meditation is a form of “self-directed neuroplasticity” – that we can help our brain physically change and adapt for the better. It’s a treatment used for stroke patients, and there’s no reason it can’t work for you. Through techniques like meditation and mindfulness, you’re training your brain in self-acceptance and compassion. Soon enough, it becomes your natural way of operating.

Other ways of improving your mental flexibility involve you going outside of your comfort zone. Experiencing new wonders. You can pursue new challenges that test you in ways you haven’t been tested before. It could be a new workout, such as boxing or martial arts, or you might seek new creative endeavours, such as painting or writing. By putting your brain through unfamiliar situations, you show it there are new ways of approaching life, loosening up the part of it that’s averse to change.

'By putting your brain through unfamiliar situations, you show it there are new ways of approaching life, building up the part of it that’s averse to change'

It’s the same principle behind this next trick: taking something you know how to do and doing it a different way. On your drive home from work, take a different route. Instead of exercising in the morning, work out in the evening.

We all know what happiness feels like. However, so few of us could actually explain what it is. Happiness isn’t about perfection; it’s about how we react to our lives. It’s about recognising what we have right now. But to appreciate that, we need to teach our brains how to appreciate it.

Lead Image by: Johnny Jordan

The Short Stack

Mental flexibility is a valuable skill that allows us to roll with the changes in our life and experience happiness in the moment rather than as an unachievable goal.

By Poppy Jamie

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