3 Ways to Change Channels in Your Brain

In the past, I have shared many studies that prove happy people are more productive. Not only does their brain chemistry promote creativity, they are better able to focus on their work. Worrying about a situation competes for the same mental resources as problem-solving and brainstorming. When you quit worrying, you free up your working memory to apply to the task at hand.

So how do you quit worrying in the midst of an economic crisis? Remembering what you are grateful for and sharing stories that make you laugh can help. Yet new studies offer some additional techniques for altering your mood without drugs.

Brain Tip #1: Think faster about more things. Researchers at Princeton and Harvard found that when people whipped through an easy crossword puzzle, participated in a fast-paced brainstorming session, read short articles quickly or watched clips of I Love Lucy in fast-forward they felt more elated, creative, energetic and powerful. To achieve this effect, the activities have to encourage fast and varied thinking. If the thinking is repetitive or focused on a specific, evaluated goal, fast thinking could trigger anxiety. Instead, fast free-form thinking causes a dopamine release, which relieves stress and making us feel good.

If you spend at least 20 minutes each day quickly coming up with new ideas, reading or watching short clips on topics, or doing activities that make you think about a number of different things on a regular basis, the effects add up. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky at UC California, Riverside said that if you regularly think fast to heighten your mood, your happiness and increased productivity will spiral upwards.

Brain Tip #2:  Free-form playing is even better than just thinking. Studies show that unstructured, imaginative play is critical for children to grow into happy adults. Marc Bekoff, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado, found that play is important for adults too. Free play increases happiness, renews energy and revives creativity—the break is well worth the time spent not working. This is different from the usual “team-building” games that are structured, have obvious learning objectives and clear goals. Possibilities include

  • Active movement that has no time pressures or expected outcomes, such as walking with friends or dancing by yourself with no one watching.
  • Using your hands to create something, such as coloring a picture or playing with clay or LEGO® blocks with no specific goal.
  • Talking about a favorite television show, teasing or bantering with people if it is playful and fun for both, creating a skit together based on a theme, not a goal.

What did you do when you were a kid that you lost all sense of time to your enjoyment? If you can’t remember, go play with some children. They may spark your memory. Whether you play alone or with others, the choice should be stress-free and make you smile. Besides decreasing stress, if you don’t exercise your creativity, imagination and curiosity, they will wither away like unused muscles. Psychologist David Elkind says we need to reframe play to be seen as a complement to work, not as an opposite.

Brain Tip #3: Write about your most deeply held values. Psychologists Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky found that in times of crisis and chaos, the brain seeks a way to feel some sense of control. It is one of the reasons we stay glued to the news channels, hoping to find a pattern we can hang on to that will provide some kind of predictability even though we know news programs lean on the negative side of crisis.

I remember vacationing at a beach house that ended up in the path of a tornado. Even though we had a few hours of glorious beach time before we had to buckle up, our eyes were glued to the weather channel at least until it was absolutely clear what we were supposed to do. This happens to employees who feel paralyzed when they feel a tornado is about to hit their company or department. Even bad news is better than none to push the restart button.

One way to break this pattern according to Whitson and Galinsky is to journal about your values—what is most important to you. This will increase your sense of security and quell feelings of helplessness. The reflection on what you most treasure also restores your faith in what is good. When you lift your head from the exercise, what you see will look different from moments before when your brain was in panic mode.

You can be the master of your brain. Change the channels to change your moods.

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