What can we learn about happiness from neuropsychology and time-tested advice? Here’s the low down on how to be happy and fulfilled, in and out of a relationship.
Let’s explore what can we learn about happiness from neuropsychology, as well as from some tried and true, time-tested advice.
Take Care of Yourself First
We are all familiar with the adage, “How can you love someone else until you love yourself?” While it’s true, it’s often not as simple as deciding to love oneself. Beyond simply accepting ourselves, we should work toward self-actualization, since trying to feel fulfilled through someone else is a fool’s errand.
Although extenuating circumstances can affect the ease with which we’re able to think differently, it is possible to train our brains to think differently: this is due to neuroplasticity—“An umbrella term referring to the ability of your brain to reorganize itself, both physically and functionally, throughout your life due to your environment, behavior, thinking, and emotions.”
This kind of reorganization, however, is easier to realize with the help of a counselor with a background in neuropsychology who can help you adjust your behavior through the use of cognitive behavior therapy techniques such as “stop-thought” and the repetition of positive mantras and behaviors intended to replace negative behaviors and thoughts. Some therapists—known as neuro-counselors—even record brain-waves while conducting cognitive therapy in order to track their patients’ progress.
Neuro-counseling techniques differ from counseling approaches like talk therapy or psychoanalysis because they teach emotional and physiological self-regulation skills by utilizing biofeedback, neurofeedback, diaphragmatic breathing, heart rate variability, and skin temperature. Neurofeedback, for example, is used to effectively treat a number of conditions, including ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), depression, seizures, sleep disorders, and fibromyalgia. It may seem hard to believe that we have the ability to learn how to self-regulate our brainwaves, but that is how neurofeedback trains our brains: via the direct observation of our brain activity. In the process of self-monitoring, we learn how to better control how we mentally react to stimuli.
What does all this discussion of brain health have to do with relationship health? Well, remember that old adage about loving oneself in order to better love someone else? Sometimes we need to train ourselves—and, by extension, our brains—to have the capacity to feel differently about ourselves. Moreover, oftentimes depression doesn’t merely affect how we feel about ourselves; it can also dampen our ability to feel anything at all—including compassion and empathy for others.
Enter compassion meditation.
A study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found a correlation between brain activation changes and altruistic response. Apparently, compassion is a trainable skill! (If you’re curious, as I was, you can even download the compassion-through-meditation training here.)
In addition to helping people be more compassionate and empathetic, brain imaging scans have found increased grey matter density in the hippocampus—an area in the brain connected to learning and memory—after eight weeks of consistent meditation. Not surprisingly, people who regularly meditate have also been found to have reduced stress levels.
While you are investigating natural treatments for yourself, don’t rule out getting evaluated for common conditions such as depression—including situational depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD)—and bi-polar disorder. Mental illnesses often go untreated, inadvertently; you may find that a combination of cognitive therapy and medication is the best solution for your situation, and many people find that they are able to discontinue use of medication treatment soon after their chemistry gets back to normal—assuming their depression is temporary.
Get (& Stay) Close as a Couple
All this talk of self-reliance may have caused you to temporarily forget that this article was also about how to be happier as a couple. Although it is important to be emotionally self-reliant and to avoid neediness, it is also possible to be too self-sufficient—to the extent that you don’t feel connected to each other anymore. However, it’s crucial to stay connected to each other—emotionally, physically, etc. Do you ever allow yourself to rely on him or her?
Science Daily recently published the results of a study conducted at Cornell University in which older couples who had been married for at least 30 years were interviewed for pieces of advice for couples who intend to stay together. By far, the most common piece of advice they offered was to “learn to communicate”: “Most marital problems can be solved through open communication, and conversely, many whose marriages dissolved blamed lack of communication.”
In addition, the respondents recommended getting to know your partner well before committing to live together or get married, learning to work together as a team, and choosing a partner who is similar to you.
Ultimately, however, all relationships are unique because they are made up of individuals with distinct, unique needs that, Doron Gil argues, affect their reactions and behaviors in a relationship. For example, you may be someone who needs a lot of independence and alone time, while your partner may need more reassurance and attention—or vice versa. Related to this are your particular “fears that drive your reactions and behaviors.” Gil also advises to check your expectations to make sure they’re realistic, understand the messages that drive your interactions with your partner, and take responsibility for problems that may arise—which requires a fair amount of self-awareness.
You may have noticed that much of the relationship advice cited thus far requires that you know yourself—as well as your partner—brings us back around to the first section and the focus on the self as being central to your relationship success or difficulty. This is because self-actualization is key, here. Ultimately, you are the person responsible for your own happiness—and although your partner or your relationship can add to that happiness, it’s not up to them to make you happy. To claim as such would be unfair to your partner.
About the Author
Daphne Stanford writes poetry & nonfiction, and she believes in the power of art, education, and community radio to change the world. Since 2012, she’s been the host of “The Poetry Show!” Sundays at 5 p.m. on Radio Boise. Follow her on Twitter @daphne_stanford.