How to Find Your Happy

I could definitely go to school forever! I am continually thirsting for new knowledge to fill up the many portals of my head space, so I was thrilled that I got to go to a mental health conference this week and hear Dr. Amy Banks, who specializes in the neurobiology of relationships. In other words, she studies how we are hard-wired for connection, and how connection can lead to positive emotional and physical health.

According to Dr. Banks, relationships live inside of us. If we have been fortunate to have had positive connections, this will provide us with the fuel to restore a sense of balance when life is dragging us down. She had us think back to a ‘positive relational moment’ and then take notice of the changes in our body. For some people, the experience made them feel calm, warm, their breathing even slowed down. This was cool to observe.

But then I got to thinking about those who might find it hard to think of a positive relational moment. Even becoming aware that you are missing what everybody else seems to be able to think of so quickly, can backfire the experiment and leave the person feeling pretty empty. I am pretty sure that some people who were present were thinking: “What's wrong with me? I'm feeling nothing.”

But then, something went off in my brain. When we are thinking of a positive relational moment, the focus is often one way – that experience made me feel ____. And that answer can be positive or negative. But the true power of a positive relational moment comes from not only what I receive, but also what I give. It’s the idea that if I make you happy, then I’ll be happy too. So, can a simple momentary encounter between two people produce positive mental health?

Well I truly enjoy learning, but as a student I like to 'do' what I have learned. Dr. Banks told us that social connection stimulates a part of the brain called the smart vagus nerve, which in turn produces dopamine, a chemical in our brain that makes us feel good. She said that we can stimulate that nerve by simply using eye contact, smiling and greeting others. Now think about it? Those actions only take a moment. So I thought of a plan! And what better place to try this out than Toronto!

My first idea was to try those simple tactics of facial expression and salutation at the conference. Interestingly enough, when I tried this out, very few people reciprocated. I thought this was rather ironic, given the nature of the conference and what we had just talked listened to, but it's not the first time I have observed this phenomenon in the mental health profession. This experiment also further confirmed to me that positive relational moments take two, and when one is doing all the work, it feels pointless. Many of you can relate to this I'm sure from experiences that you have where relationships are one-sided. It makes you want to give up. But I did not give up!

I headed out to the subway- wow- what a world of disconnection. Hundreds of people on a mission to get from point A to point B and NO ONE makes eye contact. Well, except for one. She sat beside me, multiple parcels on her lap, and she looked weary. At the same time, a teenager sat on the other side of me, her iPhone blasting the latest Drake EP into her ear buds. I smiled at the woman beside me and she sighed. I made eye contact, said hello, and she immediately started commenting about the looming hearing impairment of the next generation and then promptly got up and walked through the open doors of the next subway stop. No one else bit into my attempts to create a positive relational moment. So I thought a little harder.

The elevator- yes that's the place to make my vagus nerve even smarter! It’s a perfectly confined space that you usually only spend a few moments in with complete strangers. I thought, what do I have to lose? I'll likely never see these people again. So for the next hour, yes hour, I rode the elevator. I met all kinds of interesting people! Many had pets which was an awesome way to open up a conversation. What was so cool was that every single person spoke to me! Even those who spoke very little English, spoke with me. I learned about the changing weather patterns from a man from Eastern Europe. I learned about the grooming challenges of shitzhu's from an Asian couple. I learned that a couple were waiting impatiently for their first baby to be born as the due date was long past. I learned that the cleaning staff was from South America. All of us felt happy – in that moment. Every single one of them wished me a good day as they left the elevator. And all I did was smile, make eye contact and say: “Hi. Looks like a great day outside.”

I got more adventurous and even tried it out at the gym in the building! Probably not a place anybody really wants to make eye contact, but there I was and well, a complete stranger came in, so why not? I greeted the person and made small conversation and they simply returned my greeting with a smile and a hello in response. Well, as fate would have it when I was riding the elevator later that day, the person got in! We shared some small talk and then as they exited the elevator they said, “I hope you have a really great day”. That was pretty fun. In Toronto. The city of relationship disconnection and WE made it happen.

Not only did my vagus nerve feel smarter, I felt happier, and calmer, and my mind was distracted from the pressures of life. I believe theirs was too - even if it was for a moment.

You see, the world wants to be on a permanent high. We want our dopamine storehouses to be full. The reality is, that our mental health fluctuates so much throughout any given day. We can go from feeling on top of the world, to plummeting so quickly when we are slighted, face rejection, disappointment or failure. And our happy is gone.

So build it back up! It's time to get relationally connected. Step out of your comfort zone. You may not have a lot of positive relational moments to draw from when you need them to boost your mood, so start building some moments today. It’s amazing how just one moment can make such a difference. So give it a try! You've got lots to gain. Make some eye contact, smile, and greet someone. You'll both be smarter for it!

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© 2020 Connect the Thoughts: Charlene Mahon