How neuroscientists says you can hack your brain to create more happiness

rainbow brain
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As a neuroscientist, medical doctor, leadership coach and MIT lecturer, Dr Tara Swart helps people hack their brains to achieve mental resilience and peak brain performance, improve their ability to manage stress, regulate emotions and retain information.

When Swart left her medical practice, she put her knowledge of neuroscience and psychiatry to work to help coach people to become happier, healthier and more successful — all by using real, science-backed methods to take control of their lives and harness the massive power of their own brains.

Most recently, Swart compiled that knowledge in her newest book, “The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, The Science of the Brain,” in which she explains exactly how to rewire your brain to become more aware of your true goals in life (and how to tune your brain to select the information that will help you achieve them), unblock brain pathways for positive change, develop metacognition to maximize your potential to learn and change, align your intuition, emotion and rational thinking to work in harmony, and more.

the source tara swart
Photo credit: Harper Collins

We chatted with Swart to get her top tips for hacking your brain to take control of your life and achieve your goals.

Use gratitude

GRATEFUL: How would you say that gratitude ties into “The Source”, as you define it in your book?

TARA SWART: Well, if you think of “The Source” as your fully integrated brainpower, then having your brain primed to good things, to good outcomes, and to the world being a safe and helpful place totally changes how you make decisions and what sort of risks you’re likely to take. It also impacts how you feel about your own ability to deal with change, overcome adversity and just navigate complexity in the world.

With my practice of doing gratitude lists, I just started in the easiest way — a list of 10 things I’m grateful for in my journal. At first, it was very much about things like, you know, friends and the ability to travel and things that I have that I’m really grateful for. Over time, though, because you can’t just keep writing the very similar 10 things in your journal, I started to take it a bit deeper.

GRATEFUL: Do you have any examples of good ways to dig deeper when it comes to gratitude lists?

TS: I’d actually seen the gratitude list of a friend of mine. She had it pinned to her bedroom wall and she talked about her creativity. So I started thinking, “OK, let me think about key capabilities that I have that I’m grateful for.”

And I realized, if I hadn’t been so determined, I would never have managed my career change. If I hadn’t been so resilient, I would have suffered much more in my divorce. So I started writing things that were intrinsic capabilities of mine and that was a game changer for me because it brought to the front of my mind the things within myself that helped me in my life. And so when I encountered a difficulty, I had been repeating those things and in writing and seeing them, so I didn’t think, “Oh, my goodness, I can’t cope with this.” I thought, “Well, I know and I’m grateful for the fact that I’ve dealt with worse than this because I’m resilient and I’m determined and I’m strong and I’m surrounded by friends who I can turn to.”

brain drawing on easel
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Build new neural pathways

GRATEFUL: That’s actually a nice segue to another topic from “The Source” I wanted to discuss, which is the idea of building new neural pathways. In the book, you talk a lot about building more positive neural pathways to really change your mood. How does that work?

TS: Building a pathway in your brain to be more positive does not happen unless you put really hard, active work into changing it. The reason for that is that the default of our brain for survival since we lived in the cave is a negative gearing. So whenever you think, “If I do that, this terrible thing could happen,” that’s actually to keep you safe, which puts it into perspective and makes it make sense. That’s why we’re like this.

But in the modern world, it’s actually become quite unhelpful to think in that negative way. If you think negatively and you leave your house clutching onto your purse and thinking that somebody is going to snatch it from you, then your whole mindset and your posture and everything about you and how you think is negative.

So, moving on from gratitude practices, we have to do more. We have to not just replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts, but we have to actually believe in abundance in a much greater sense. Believe that there’s enough out there for everyone that we can be successful and that doesn’t negatively affect other people or that other people gaining something doesn’t mean that we can’t or that we get less.

GRATEFUL: The concept of building new neural pathways also reminded me a lot of some of the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy, which is sometimes used to help people with anxiety work to disrupt and change negative thought patterns. When it comes to the science of neural pathways, though, is catching the negative thoughts quickly and replacing them with more positive alternatives enough to weaken those negative pathways that have built up over the years?

TS: Great question. There are ancient Eastern philosophies like Buddhism that actually have always taught you to replace any negative thinking with a positive thought straightaway, but you are totally correct that if that negative thought even started, that is reinforcing a connection in the brain. So there’s still a little element there of negative thinking — but we do need some [negative thoughts] to keep ourselves safe.

For example, if you see a truck speeding down the road, then you don’t cross the road until it’s passed. So we need to keep that element. But what we’ve done, because it’s been wired into our brains for millennia and because of so many social constructs, is that we have this negative narrative in our heads that says that we can’t do things — that we shouldn’t ask for a promotion, that we shouldn’t try to start dating — and we do need to push ourselves into abundance to just take that first step. Otherwise nothing will change for us.

GRATEFUL: And how does approaching life from a more abundant mindset lead to tangible changes?

TS: What the neuroscience shows is the more you raise awareness of what it is that you want or need to bring into your life or to change, that’s half the battle — so knowing what is working and what isn’t working, what might be barriers that are holding you back, especially if they’re your own thought patterns or behaviors.

The second stage is focusing attention on opportunities to try a different way of being or thinking. The third stage is deliberately practicing new and different ways of being. So exactly like you said, trying to catch that negative thought and replace it with a positive thought until you get yourself to the point where positive thoughts are natural for you — unless there’s an obvious threat to your safety. And then the final part of the puzzle is being held accountable, because if we have this conversation and you go away and say, “I’m going to try to think more positively,” it will probably only take one thing to go wrong for you to go back to the way that you’ve been thinking before. But if you knew that we were going to speak again in a month and I was going to say, “How many times in the last month did you think negatively when actually that wasn’t helpful or you didn’t need to?” then you’re going to be much more conscious of trying to do things to avoid that scenario so that you can come back to me in a month and say, “I made that extra effort.”

And it doesn’t have to be a person who holds you accountable; it can be technology. So you can use an app or a tracking system to keep an eye on it yourself or you can go to therapy or be part of a group or a virtual group. However you do it, the accountability piece ensures more success.

GRATEFUL: That’s really interesting. Are there any apps that you personally recommend that you think are really helpful in providing that accountability?

TS: I love HabitShare. I like HabitShare because you can have an unlimited number of things on there that you’re working on. You can customize them really quite specifically. Let’s say you’ve got 10 habits you’re tracking, you can share any one to 10 of those with your mom, with a friend, with no one. Um, so, you know, you could pick the exercise habit and share that with your sister. You could pick the sleep habit and share that with your mom. You could pick a work-related habit and share that with five of your colleagues, and you can keep some of your habits private. So I like that adaptability of it.

MORE: I tried 6 happiness hacks backed by science — here’s what actually worked

Take a probiotic

GRATEFUL: Thanks for sharing that. In the book, you also talk about brain agility and the different kinds of thinking that we as humans have. Which of those types of thinking do you find that young women, in particular, struggle with the most?

TS: That’s a really, really good question. I’m going to answer the last bit fast by saying, you know, it’s different for different people.

One is trusting yourself, which is accessing your intuition and tuning into what we’ve learned from our life experiences. This information is stored in our nervous system, so it isn’t how we used to think of it as a kind of sixth sense that isn’t really explained by science. You can’t remember everything that you’ve experienced in your life, but it is coded into your neurons and that’s what informs your recognition. So when you have a nagging suspicion that your relationship is not really good enough for you or when you feel like it’s time to start your own business, that’s all in your intuition and you need to listen to it really carefully.

GRATEFUL: Are there any steps people can take to work on their being more in tune with their intuition?

TS: What we know now, though, is that the actual physical health of your gut and your gut bacteria can cloud or clarify your access to your intuition. We know from evidence that if you take a good-quality probiotic for one month, you have less negative thinking, less anxiety, even less depressive symptoms in people with depression, and the bonuses are good. A healthy gut with a good range of gut bacteria means that you can have better access to your intuition. So I would say if there’s one thing that your readers go away and do, it’s to invest in a good-quality probiotic and take it consistently for a month.

journal with blanket and candle
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Start journaling

GRATEFUL: You mention journaling quite a bit in the book as well. Can you talk a little about, your tips for someone who is trying to get started with journaling but has very limited time, say just five or 10 minutes a day. How should they focus those journaling efforts to get the most out of it?

TS: There’s a few things here and one of them is where we started off, which is a gratitude list. The easiest thing I find to write down in less than five or 10 minutes is 10 things I’m grateful for. If you feel that you cultivate gratitude quite well in your life, the next level is what I call an accomplishments list. A to-do list or focusing on setting goals sometimes means that we don’t stop to register what we’ve actually accomplished. We’re always moving onto the next thing. So sitting down and actually saying, “Okay, what have I done that I’m really proud of? What have I achieved that was a big goal for me and I haven’t actually really acknowledged that I’ve achieved it?”

It can be a really big goal, like an obvious work goal or getting married or having a baby, but it can also be something a bit less tangible. Like for me, I stepped into the role of becoming a stepmom and it wasn’t something that I really had certain expectations for. But there was just a point where I looked back and thought, “Wow, this is such a fulfilling relationship for me. This is something that this boy really wanted and has flourished under.” So acknowledging where I had gone from thinking I don’t really know how to be a stepmom and I don’t know what a good stepmom looks like or what it’s going to feel like, to looking back and thinking, “Okay, I feel like I’ve definitely made some progress.”

And then after that, I would say even if you do only write for five to 10 minutes, even if it’s just a short entry about what happened yesterday or because there was a big event or decision, the key is to focus on your emotions. If you write about what you felt emotionally about certain decisions and you do that fairly regularly and then in three to six months’ time you look back and read over that journey, that’s what helps you to access your intuition. And I think if somebody does five to 10 minutes for three to six months, that is probably enough to make us want to do more.

MORE: Why you need more color in your life, according to a psychologist

Create a vision board

GRATEFUL: And if you could pass on just one of the principles from “The Source,” which would be the most important?

TS: The answer is so easy. If there’s only one thing you do, make a vision board, which I actually call an action board because it’s not just about the creation of it, it’s about what you then do with it.

It’s a collage, made by hand that has metaphorical representation of everything that you want in your life. Basically, sit down and say to yourself, “Is everything in my life what I’ve always dreamed that it would be?” If the answer to that is no, then a vision board is the one thing that can change that. And it has done that for me and many of my friends and my coaching clients.

The more metaphorical and conceptual, the better. It helps to prime your subconscious to noticing and grasping opportunities that might otherwise have passed you by because you’re busy doing the day job, you’re busy trying to live your life, you’re busy trying to maintain balance, and all those bigger goals that you really dream of at the back of your mind, they don’t get space or priority. The vision board brings those to the front of your mind and it primes your brain through neurological processes called selective attention and filtering and value tagging to actually notice when there’s something right in front of you that you wouldn’t have noticed because you’re just too busy doing the day job.

GRATEFUL: And how is your approach — the action board — fundamentally different from traditional vision boards people may have already tried in the past?

TS: The key difference I would say between vision boards as they’ve been talked about before and this one, which is backed up by neuroscience, is that you have to visualize everything on it being true. You visualize yourself as if everything on that board is true. You do that on a regular basis and you do something every day — no matter how small — to move you towards the things on the board coming true. It’s not a case of making the board, putting it up on a shelf and then waiting for your life to magically change. It’s very, very proactive. But it’s massively assisted by the fact that you’re priming your brain to help you to make the board come true.

Which brain-hacking techniques work for you? Tag us on Instagram @makeitgrateful and #makeitgrateful!

Want to learn an activity that actually strengthens your brain and focus? Watch the video below!