Why Your Brain is Not Always on Your Side When it Comes to Creating Happiness

In this video, a psychologist discusses the importance of taking positive action rather than relying on positive thinking alone to create happiness and well-being. She explains that our brains have a negativity bias, which prioritizes negative information over positive information. This bias, rooted in our evolutionary past, affects how we perceive our lives, relationships, and ourselves. The speaker emphasizes the significance of cultivating healthy habits, particularly in relationships, as research shows that strong connections contribute more to happiness than wealth or success. She concludes by urging the audience to turn knowledge into action and to lead by example in order to create positive change in their lives and the lives of others.

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Key Insights:

  • Happiness is a skill that can be trained and worked on through positive action, not just positive thinking.
  • Our minds tend to wander about 46.9% of the time we are awake, making it difficult to control our thoughts.
  • Our brains have evolved cognitive biases that prioritize negative information, affecting how we perceive life and situations.
  • We tend to focus more on negative feedback or setbacks than positive feedback or successes.
  • Our brains have a negativity bias that draws attention to unpleasant or threatening information, which was useful for survival in the past.
  • Happiness is not something external; it’s a skill that can be cultivated within ourselves.
  • Building and maintaining healthy relationships is as important for happiness as physical health.
  • Dedicating time and effort to relationships, being vulnerable, listening, and sharing can have a significant impact on happiness.
  • Positive action and behavior can inspire and influence others to follow suit, creating a ripple effect.


Hello everyone. I would like us to begin with a short exercise. So can everybody place their hands like this, reach out your hands. Thank you. And I will count to three, and when I say three, I want you to clap your hands. Okay, one, two, three.

So I did this to show you that we don’t always do as other people tell us to do. We rather do as other people do. And this is important when it comes to creating well-being in ourselves and in others.

I’m a psychologist, and I train organizations, teams, and individuals in creating happiness and well-being. And a couple of years back, I co-authored a book on the science of happiness. But when the book was published, I was actually in the middle of a life crisis. I’d just broken up with the person who I thought I’d spend my life with. I had no place to live and no job.

And I think this is a very common human experience. We all face problems, we end up in crisis sometimes, and we struggle. But at the same time, I think most of us, we long for that other kind of life that entails meaning and connection and happiness. But it’s kind of difficult to live this life, to always be there in this happy place.

And today, I want to show you why your brain is not always on your side when it comes to creating happiness, but also what we can do to counter this. And it’s not going to be by just positive thinking. This takes positive action because happiness is a skill we all can train and work on.

I want this to start here, how it’s not just about positive thinking. So let’s begin with this. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you’re really worried about something, and you kept worrying even though you knew that worrying won’t change the situation or help the situation in any way? And nevertheless, you just kept on worrying. Hands up, right? We’re all doing this. And if we could have total mind power and just switched over to these happy thoughts, we just have done that and get on with our lives. But that doesn’t really happen, does it?

And did you know that about half of the time that you’ve been listening to this speech, your mind has probably been wandering off, thinking about other things? According to a study, by Daniel Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth, our minds wander 46.9% of the time we’re awake. So our thoughts are automatic; they have a life of their own. And to create happiness by just controlled positive thinking, I think it’s hard. It’s not even possible. Impossible. And I think it’s time that we start talking more about this, how can we take positive action, actually making the change in our lives? Because if I would ask you to keep your focus on your breath, don’t think about anything else for five minutes, I doubt that anyone in this room would be able to do that. But if I would ask you to please raise your hand like this for five minutes, I think we all would be better able to achieve this. So it’s really difficult to control our thoughts, and we have a better chance at controlling our actions, our behavior. Therefore, well-being is better built by positive action and not positive thinking.

Also, we tend to look at ourselves as if we’re these objects, rational beings, and that we perceive situations in this objective manner, and we process information almost like a computer. We just take information in. But in reality, we’re very far from objective. And that’s actually a good thing, because if we would truly be able to process and perceive reality in all its nuanced complexity, we would be rather lost. It would be an overwhelming experience. So, therefore, our brain has evolved several cognitive biases that help us categorize and prioritize and sort information, making it more easy for us to navigate.

But these cognitive biases, this sorting and prioritizing, is really affecting how we perceive life, how we perceive different situations. And I’d like us to explore this further in a little thought experiment. So I invite you all to think back at the last time that you had an evaluated conversation with your boss or manager. And I’m quite sure that you got to hear a lot of good things, things like how you contribute to the workplace. But I’m also quite sure that you got to hear something that you can improve with yourself, with your performance. And once you leave this conversation, what do you think that your brain thinks is the most prioritized information? All the things that you do really good or the one thing that you should be improving?

Well, if you’re somewhat like me, it would definitely be the latter. And this doesn’t really have anything to do with how my brain works. This is actually a pattern that’s been shown among people. For example, Teresa Amabile is a professor at Harvard Business School. She did a diary study where she got to read people’s diaries to explore how they experience everyday life. And she saw a pattern that the negative effect of a setback was more than twice as strong as the positive effects of a success. And the same thing goes with money, that we feel way worse about losing an amount of money than we feel happy about gaining the same amount. And if you would receive a compliment from a co-worker and then a complaint from another co-worker, these two comments don’t neutralize each other. The complaint would definitely leave a stronger emotional mark.

So now we need to ask ourselves why. Why do we carry this emotional asymmetry? Why do we have this preparedness to experience unpleasant and negative emotions? And to understand that, we need to understand the context, the environment where our brain has been evolving for so many years. Today, several studies say that we have evolved a negativity bias, which helps our attention to be drawn to unpleasant or possibly threatening information. And this was really good back then and there when we were at the Savannah, fighting for survival every day. But today, here and now, this definitely affects how we perceive our life, how we perceive our relationships, our workplace, our own performance, and ourselves.

So to simplify this a bit, one could almost say that your brain is concerned that you survive throughout this day. It’s less concerned that you’re a happy survivor. So, by now, we can understand that it’s not strange that all of us sometimes feel anxious or tense or worried. In one sense, we were built for this. But most of us, we long for this other kind of life, with the meaning and the connection and the happiness. And I’m not sure that we can have one thing without the other. But there are definitely things and ways how we can cultivate happiness and build well-being. But this comes with good news and bad. The good news is that happiness is not something you find outside of yourself, and it’s not something you have or don’t have. It’s a skill that we all can work on. But the problem is that we just don’t do it. And this definitely applies to myself. This is the worst part of having written a book on happiness because whenever I’m having a bad day, there’s always someone who can do like, „Having to read your own book, Katerina. You should know better.“ So I’ve learned that not even experts on happiness know how to turn knowledge into action.

And this is one of the reasons why me and a friend have started a psychological gym where organizations and teams and individuals could come and train these skills in order to create more happiness and well-being. Because we want to make psychological training as common as physical training. Because today, we know so many things about how to eat properly and how to exercise to sustain physical health. But what would be the psychological version of a green smoothie or doing 50 situps? Is there really such a thing? And I would say yes, definitely. There are a lot of different exercises and things we can do, building healthy habits for ourselves. And I would like to present an example of this.

So once you finish listening to this pitch, when you’re leaving this room later tonight, I’d like you to bring out your smartphone and send a kind, appreciative, gratitude text to someone that you care for. And maybe you can just notice how that feels. And this is a good example of an exercise that I often do with leaders and teams. And just a couple of weeks back, I did this at a two-day leader conference. And later, I found out that one of the participants had texted his wife, writing, „I love you very, very, very much.“ Which made the wife think, „What are you doing at that Leadership Conference?“ And it just texting one person at one time, it won’t change the world in any way. But turning this into a healthy habit over time can have a large impact. And to dedicate this habit to caring for your relationships might be one of the most powerful actions that you can take when it comes to happiness. So this might be the green smoothie that you’ve all been waiting for.

According to several studies, having functioning relationships is as important, if not even more important, as exercising well and having a good diet. And this can even help us live longer. In a study from Harvard University, which began already back in 1938, researchers followed over 700 people to understand what it is that makes us flourish as people. So they followed these participants for decades. And in 2012, the results came. The researchers found that happiness doesn’t come from wealth. It doesn’t come from fame or working hard. It comes from relationships. And it’s not about the number of friends that you have or whether or not you’re in a committed relationship with a partner. They found that it’s the quality of the relationship that counts, being able to be vulnerable, listening, and sharing what’s close to your heart. That’s what matters.

And by now, we know that forming good, healthy habits when it comes to physical training or having a good diet, it takes dedication. It takes commitment. And I think we should approach psychological habits in the same way. And especially when it comes to relationships.

So, by now, we know that the brain has this tendency to highlight the negative. And that this is really tricky to revoke just by positive thinking. It takes positive action. But some actions are more powerful than others when it comes to happiness. And investing your time and heart into the relationships around you, no matter if it’s at work or with neighbors or with family or friends, this might be one of the most powerful things that you can do for yourself.

And I’d like us to do this one more time. So, can everyone reach out their hands? And I’m gonna count to three. And when I say three, I want you to clap your hands. Okay, one, two, three. Yay! Great!

So, we learn by watching others‘ behavior. You’ve just seen me do this two times. And already, so many people changed their behavior. So, the more you can turn this talk into action by being more understanding and caring, not just towards others but also towards yourself, I think that others will follow your example and do as you do. And the people outside of this building, they won’t know what just happened. They won’t know what changed. But we know that it was here in this talk that everything started. Thank you.