Nothing is more of a downer than pressure to be happy, especially at the holidays. No one wants to be the season’s Grinch. But holidays—and even everyday events—can stir up a multitude of feelings, from sorrow for past seasons to unrealistic expectations of joyous childhood repeats.
The happiness answer lies in becoming the master of your brain, explain Dr. Deepak Chopra and Dr. Rudolph Tanzi in their new book Super Brain. “Your brain is not a noun, it’s a verb—it responds to the activity in your mind,” says Chopra, a world-renowned mind-body healing pioneer and the founder of the Chopra Center for Wellbeing in Carlsbad, Calif. “So you are able to rewire your networks by the way you think, feel, reflect, speak and act.”
Since the brain is constantly evolving, you can take control by systematically changing your thoughts and reactions and adopting new habits—and the hectic and emotionally charged holidays offer a perfect opportunity to practice. To keep your season bright now and lay the groundwork for a truly happy new year, Chopra and Tanzi offer these strategies.
Make one small change every day. “If you don’t use your brain in unpredictable ways, it gets lazy,” Chopra says, locking you into unhappy patterns—reacting angrily to a passive-aggressive comment, for instance. As an exercise, Chopra suggests changing your routine slightly every day, taking a different route to work or switching up your breakfast. “The more novelty there is for the brain, the healthier it is,” he says. At the holidays, you can also use this tactic to untangle yourself from traditions that bring more stress than joy. Try baking one fewer type of Christmas cookie, or skipping an annual gathering you’re not looking forward to in favor of something new.
Go with the flow. Chopra calls this concept “infinite adaptability,” and says it’s key to lifelong happiness. “The more you adapt, the more you have the willingness to let go of things you cannot control,” he says. Arguing with your sister about what to serve at a family dinner? View the idea of compromising with her as a positive, rather than as a defeat. (It doesn’t hurt to ask yourself, as Chopra and Tanzi suggest, “Would I rather be right or be happy?”) The holidays can be a crash course in adaptability, but try to carry that mindset into the rest of the year. Eventually, your brain learns—and remembers—that you’re happier when you’re flexible, and it becomes more automatic.
Take time for daily reflection. “Ask yourself who you are, what your purpose is, what you want, and what makes life joyful for you,” Chopra says. “People who are happy find meaning and purpose in their existence.” Over time, such reflection helps you become more aware of perceptions and preconceived notions, allowing you to catch yourself when you have a knee-jerk reaction to a situation, and remind yourself that you have the power to change your thoughts.
Shift your brain’s conversation. Instead of thinking, “I should buy gifts for all the kids’ teachers,” reframe it to something like, “The teachers would likely appreciate an acknowledgment of all their hard work.” If you repeatedly associate one task with negative emotions, your brain begins to treat it as a fact rather than your opinion, and make those links automatically. Change the words, and you send your mind a message that there’s more than one way to view the situation.
Focus on the present. Holidays, weddings, funerals—even the change of seasons—trigger both bad and good memories, and can set you up for either sadness or longing.
“Any time your emotional centers are triggered, they bring associations with all the thoughts and feelings you’ve had your whole life,” says Tanzi. But the emotions you focus on are your choice—not your brain’s. “Clear your mind by taking deep breaths and asking yourself, ‘What is most meaningful to me right now?’” says Tanzi. “Put your focus there, not on the negative or positive memories.”
Concentrate on others. Making others happy is nourishment for the brain—and offers a distraction from ruminating about our own dissatisfaction with life, Tanzi says. “Instead of asking how you can get through this dreadful Christmas dinner, ask ‘How can I help others enjoy it?’” Tanzi says. The season of giving offers plenty of opportunities to lift others’ spirits, but don’t stop there. Add volunteer activities to your New Year’s resolutions to keep the positive feelings flowing beyond the holidays.