Last year, my daughters and I surprised my husband by gifting him with the cutest puppy you’ve ever seen. He was thrilled! The tiny fur ball was calm and snuggly and eager to please—for about a week. As she became more comfortable in the family, though, she began to test her boundaries. For those of you who have ever raised a puppy (or a child, for that matter), you will understand how shocking it can be when your perfect angel gets that first glint of mischief in his or her eye.
The morning that this happened to me, I was running late for work (of course), and my puppy was taking an epic morning stroll, looking for the perfect spot to do her business. The moment she finished, I swooped in impatiently to pick her up, and my cuddly lump of fur looked me square in the eye and did a side-lunge-juke to evade me! Not only that, but she squeezed through my fence and dashed into my neighbor’s muddy garden with the joyful bound of a gazelle. I chased after her; I scolded her; I used my high-pitch-fake-happy voice; I even tried to trick her into coming with a treat. But in that moment, I realized with chagrin that I had never bothered to teach my puppy the all-important recall command “come,” as in, “come here right now, darn it!” Assuming that she would always be a pliable lump of snuggly fur, I had underestimated my puppy’s developing mind and the need for attention training.
Our Puppy Brains
Likewise, our brains can behave like untrained puppies at times. Sometimes, we fail to train our brains to “come” when called, assuming that our minds operate on autopilot and always act in our best interest. Yet, as we all know from personal experience, when challenges arise, our bodies aren’t always well trained to respond on command. Sometimes our bodies take over, resorting to a “fight or flight” response. And instead of behaving in our best interest, our mind begins acting like a mischievous puppy on the run.
We haven’t taught our minds how to listen to us obediently because we either didn’t even know it was possible or had no idea how to do so. Fortunately, the last two decades of research in the field of positive psychology have revealed that training our brains is not only possible, but that doing so can actually change the shape and function of our brains by improving neural plasticity (you can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks); increase gray matter (the density of brain cells that drive how fast you can move, learn, and sense things around you); and strengthen neural networks (the pathways for our brain to talk to itself and the rest of the body).
A recent study of mindfulness in the workplace found that the ability to step back from automatic, habitual reactions (those fight-or-flight responses) is highly predictive of work engagement and well-being. For instance, if you often feel your blood starting to boil when you hear a colleague down the hall talking too loudly on the phone, metacognition and mindfulness give you the power to choose a different reaction—perhaps taking a deep breath, using the opportunity to go for a walk, or listening to your favorite music. Mindfulness also creates positive job-related benefits, higher levels of engagement and increased psychological capital (hope, optimism, resiliency and self-efficacy), all of which may lead to more success at work. Specifically, a positive and engaged brain is 31 percent more productive, three times more creative and ten times more engaged.
To reap these benefits, we need to actually train our brains for positivity. In the same way that you might go to the gym to exercise different muscle groups, so can you intentionally develop different skill sets that improve your overall sense of well-being and happiness.
One of my favorite brain-training programs is called Happify.com (it’s free!). Happify uses colorful, fun games that are grounded in research to teach core positive psychology principles. Here are a few of my favorite brain-training activities on the platform:
- Need help focusing on the positive? A game called “Uplift” teaches your brain to scan the environment for the positive, thereby improving your mood and reducing negative thinking. As hot-air balloons float by, click on words like “joy” or “radiant” while ignoring words like “criticize” or “angry.”
- Searching for a way to relax? Choose the “Serenity Scene” activity. Perfect for someone feeling overwhelmed with a long to-do list, these guided relaxation tracks can help people unwind, feel less anxious, and get a fresh charge of energy (grounded in brain-scan research).
- Want games for your children to try? “Negative Knockout” is an Angry Birds–like game where you use a slingshot to destroy words that describe your biggest challenges that day. Two months after regularly using the platform, 86 percent of users report feeling significantly happier. This impressive statistic highlights how technology can create positive change in our lives, enabling us to rise above our genes and environment to tap into our greater potential.
Happify is one of the best comprehensive resources for brain training that I have found; however, there are numerous apps, gadgets and devices for brain training that are worth exploring as well. To download a full list of my favorite brain-training apps, gadgets and devices, amyblankson.com/braintrain.
Training your brain is not just a hobby for overachievers; it’s a leadership strategy. Whether you are a CEO, summer intern, corporate employee, graduate student, athlete or parent, these training skill sets are the building blocks of positive habit change in your life.
It’s time to start training our minds now—and just like with puppies, the sooner we can start training ourselves, the better.