I am now going to give you three statements. They are results of psychological experiments. I am then going to explain how the underlying principle can be used to unlock a happier life.
If a young handsome man asks a girl for her phone number in front of a flower shop, he is twice as likely to get the number than if he asks in front of a clothing boutique or a pastry shop.
People exposed to French background music prior to shopping for wine, will be more likely to choose a French wine.
We have all seen the cheesy motivational posters saying "ACHIEVEMENT" or "DETERMINATION" with accompanying pictures of sportsmen or teams. Or at least we have seen parodies of these posters. The surprise is that they actually do work: People exposed to an image of a runner winning a race will become more achievement oriented. Scientists tried putting such a photo in the flowchart that telemarketers would use in their job: their sales increased by 60%, compared to telemarketers with no photo in their flowchart.
The other day I listened to an interview with the social psychologist Robert Cialdini, who once wrote the legendary book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. His latest book is called Pre-suasion, and it deals with the psychological phenomenon of priming. We are susceptible to being thrown into a certain mindset by an emotional trigger such as a song or a picture, and when we are in a certain mindset, the selection of thoughts and emotions that we are able to feel quickly gets narrowed down.
When we activate a certain context in our mind, and the surrounding cloud of possible thoughts, we tend to stay in it unless an external, powerful, stimuli breaks the pattern. Once we enter into a certain mode of thinking, whether it be romance (as in the example with the flower shop) or depression, we tend to continue thinking thoughts and feeling emotions that are in harmony with that mode of thinking. This is why the girl felt like going on a date when outside the flower shop, but it is also why depression can be so hard to break out of.
When we stay in certain thought loops for a while, mental wheeltracks start to form, and they quickly deepen until we have a hard time steering out of them. Sometimes we need a towing vehicle to pull us out of our mental rut.
However, we can leverage our tendency to get stuck in mental ruts by setting ourselves up to get fixed in positive mental ruts. If we form a habit that makes us feel positive emotions on a daily basis, we quickly start forming mental ruts in the happy areas of the brain. In my experience, the best way to increase your day-to-day mood and happiness is to steer your emotions into happy territory on a daily basis.
A great way to start forming these positive mental ruts, is to spend your first five minutes every day, writing a gratitude journal. I suggest using the tactic of having a quick-link in your browser to your writing prompt – this will make the habit easy, and thereby, sticky. Feeling grateful is a great habit, because it makes you more prone to feel other positive emotions as well.
In a broader perspective, try to be mindful of what other mental ruts you are in. What kind of narrative are your thoughts drawn towards on a daily basis? Is that a narrative that makes you happier or not?