two girls whispering behind another girl's back
“Right this minute, people may be respecting you behind your back.”

This is one of my favorite sentences from a useful book I recently read, Habits of a Happy Brain, by Loretta Graziano Breuning. How true, how true! Yes, people may be saying good things about you, and you may not even realize it!

Breuning writes about what’s known as the brain’s negativity bias: the mammalian brain is always scanning for threats. That’s how mammalian species have stuck around for millions of years. But this constant scanning for threats can produce unhappiness.

The solution? Counter your brain’s negativity bias by scanning for good things in your life.

Sometimes those good things are obvious, if you pause for a second to remember them. Other times, they are subtle and require careful parsing. But seeking them out is one way to increase happy chemicals in your brain.

What’s obvious? What’s not?

For example, think about someone who you know loves and respects you. It could be a person, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be a pet. It could be a higher power. When you think about this person, animal, or spiritual being who adores you, this gives you a glowing feeling. This is why the modern-day “happiness industry” harps on and on about how everyone should do a daily gratitude practice. It truly does help one’s mood to remember that one is loved and respected.

But here’s where you can get creative. In the photo above, two girls are whispering behind a third girl’s back. What are they saying? It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that they are talking trash about her. That’s the brain’s negativity bias.

But maybe the first girl is telling the second girl that the third girl won an award. Maybe both girls admire the third girl because of this. They may be jealous, sure, . . . but jealousy is a form of admiration. Jealousy means that they wish they were her; in other words, they respect her. What jealous people are lacking is respect for themselves, not respect for the other.

Or maybe they really are talking trash. Maybe the first girl is telling the second girl that the third girl is doing something outside the norm—or simply outside the box they had previously put her into. Maybe she’s dating the “wrong” sort of boy, or experiencing a mental or physical health issue, or hanging out with the “wrong” crowd. In this case, the two girls (or at least the first girl) are reacting to something about the third girl that sets her apart.

If the third girl embraces this difference as an asset, or as being okay, even if far from ideal (perhaps it’s a challenge to be overcome, but still a part of her), she can recognize that the first and second girls are showing a form of respect, as follows: The third girl can think to herself, “They are reacting to me being different. I am proud of who I am, even if I’m not perfect, and even if I have challenges. Any scorn they feel is a form of admiration. They think I’m worthy of being spoken about. So keep on talking, girls, because I am who I am. Plus, at the same time as I’m respecting myself, I’m going to try to respect them back, because they are people, too.”

So, if the third girl counteracts her brain’s negativity bias by thinking about the positive aspects of the situation—including thinking about how the two girls’ scorn might be a form of respect—she can keep her mood up during what could be a difficult time in her life. Also, ironically, she can earn their respect by respecting herself, including her individuality and difference from the norm, while also seeking out ways to respect them back.

But why should we care about what other people think?

The following tidbit of information from Habits of a Happy Brain blew my mind. Are you ready for this? This honestly made me rethink my life. Okay, sit down, take a breath, and take this in:

The modern-day “positivity movement” frequently advises us that we shouldn’t care about what other people think. This advice is troublesome, because it’s impossible. Unless you are a cyborg or an alien, your brain is hardwired to seek other people’s approval. You cannot do anything about this! Here’s how Graziano Breuning puts it:

“Getting respect feels good because it triggers serotonin. The good feeling motivates you to seek more respect, and that promotes survival. . . . In mammals, serotonin is the good feeling of having secure access to food or other resources. The stronger mammals in a herd or pack or troop typically dominate food and mating opportunities.”

Wait a minute . . . serotonin? The same chemical that my antidepressant enhances?

Yes, serotonin. In Graziano Breuning’s words,

“Serotonin produces the feeling of being respected by others—pride.”

Everyone who has taken an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor)—which is, according to the Mayo Clinic, the most commonly prescribed type of antidepressant—knows that increasing serotonin in the brain has a positive effect on mood.

I know from personal experience that being on an SSRI reduces and prevents anxiety and depression. I also know that it reduces and prevents ambition and striving. And now I know why these two seemingly different effects are related.

I knew that serotonin was a happy chemical. Graziano Breuning didn’t have to tell me that. But I didn’t know, until reading her book, why. In a nutshell, our ancestors, who by definition survived to reproduce, were generally those who were in more dominant positions in their social group. Our brains give us happy chemicals when we feel respect from others because it helped our ancestors survive.

So we can’t refrain from caring about what other people think. We need that happy chemical, serotonin. Without it—without getting that feeling of respect and pride—we get depressed and anxious. Want to get off your antidepressant, or lower your dose? Find ways to give your brain that feeling of respect and pride.

Mind is blown. Let’s get our serotonin fix. There are ways to do this without drugs.

Drugs are awesome. They helped me through some traumatic times. But then they stopped working; and increasing the dose too much is hazardous to one’s health. Plus, artificially getting serotonin prevents you from actively working to get it through natural ways: it reduces your will to work hard to earn respect, because your brain feels as if you already have it.

That’s why I love Habits of a Happy Brain so much. Graziano Breuning gives concrete, actionable tips on how to increase your happy chemicals without recourse to drugs. (Read my post Want to Be Happy? Rewire Your Mammalian Neurochemistry for info on how to increase another happy chemical, oxytocin.)

So what are some of those tips? One is, watch out for people respecting you behind your back. There are people in your life who are respecting you from a distance. They may be silently cheering you on. They are there. Know this. And watch for the subtle signs of this, and revel in those subtle signs.

Another of her tips is, take pride in your accomplishments—and also talk about them. You don’t have to be snobbish about it. Just share with someone, in a polite and respectful way, something you did that you’re proud of. And remember that sometimes you will get a positive response, and sometimes not. Revel in the positive responses. And remember that a nonresponse, or negative response, could be respect in disguise.

But whatever you do, don’t try not to care about what other people think! You do care. You know you do. Embrace that part of yourself. And also show respect to other people. That will help spread more serotonin around the world. Plus, when you show respect to others, they tend to give it back. Ahh, beautiful, beautiful, circles of love!

What accomplishments are you proud of? Whom can you share them with?

Who loves and respects you? How can you remember and appreciate their existence?

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