Sue delivered an engaging keynote titled “The Neuroscience of Creating Lasting Positive Habits” at the 2019 Happiness & it’s Causes Conference in Sydney, Australia. Watch or read the full presentation below.

(Sue Langley)

(Applause) Thank you. Now I have to admit I’m feeling a little intimidated because I haven’t just come back from any war-torn area, and certainly the difference that I hear people making in the previous presentations are very emotional and very important. My story, on the other hand, starts in Venice, personally where I think all good stories should start! (laughter)

I thought I’d share with you a few interesting thoughts. Some of you I have met many times before, and I am very grateful that you keep coming back because this is such a wonderful event.

You may or may not have known, yet last year I literally arrived the day before Happiness and its Causes, from Venice. I was on the ground (in Sydney) for 72 hours and then I flew back to Budapest because I didn’t want to miss out on the event.

I wanted to share with you some learnings from Venice, that will link to happiness and link to the brain. I was very lucky last year to spend three weeks studying at the Neuroscience School for Advanced Studies in Venice, on a beautiful little island that is an academic island, (and) that used to be an old insane asylum (laughter). The joke was not lost on my husband (laughter) and I spent three weeks basically enclosed in this little island, learning from some of the leading neuroscientists of the world.

The first week was spent with Microbiota and the Brain, so all the gut stuff you were hearing from Michael (Mosley). The second week was called Circuit Dynamics and Cognition (winces)… Not recommending that one… (laughter), and the third week was called Social Decision Making. It was a very interesting insight into … how neuroscientists think about things and some of the leading state of the art research.

There are two things I thought I would play with during this session with you. And (they) link to … embedding of new habits, because a couple of times during the three weeks I was there, there was a comment that came up, and (in one of the instances) the comment turned into a big, full-blown discussion. (The comment was about the question..) “Is there such a thing as free will?” And most of the neuroscientists were telling me “no – there is no such thing”. Basically because of how your brain is wired and how your gut bacteria play out, in particular.

Now I personally found that a little depressing (laughter) so I was challenging a few of them on it, and I thought I’d share with you some of the insights.

So the first thing is, we know from a brain perspective, there are roughly 86 billion neurons in your brain, and they all have a really cool part to play. There is a myth that we only use 10% (of your brain). So your brain is wired… according to different pathways if you like. Some of which are very worn and well-travelled, and you go zooming down them. Your brain just processes really quickly. And others are a little hard to navigate. You haven’t gone down them that often. It’s a little tricky and you have to clamber over things and stuff, and it’s kind of hard to get through.

For instance, when it comes to changing habits, it’s hard for your brain because apparently it likes to just zoom down the superhighways and if it’s a bit tricky it gives up on the other ones. So when it comes to putting in, or embedding new habits to help your long term wellbeing, according to these neuroscientists, basically your brain is programmed and there’s not much you can do about it. Your brain is just going to keep going down those old pathways So that was one argument.

The other argument actually came from the first week with the microbiota and the brain, where the learning (and I’ve kept it very simple on my slide here) is that roughly 99% of you is bacterial. And you have ‘good stuff’ called commensals (good bacteria), you have ‘bad ‘bacteria’ called pathogens, and you have ‘kind of neutral’ bacteria. And the neutral bacteria is actually really good because some of the bacteria inside you doesn’t help you at all, yet it helps the good bacteria.

So… imagine there is bacteria all over you, inside you, etc. (it was very weird and strange learning about all of this stuff), yet the argument was that all of this bacteria that you have inside of you..because it is a living being, it demands to be fed. Does that make sense to you? Living creatures want to live. So they have to ask for food. And the way they do that is to send messages up through your vagus nerve to your brain, basically going ‘feed me, feed me, feed me, feed me! (chanting). Now the important thing to note on that is some of those, and I have put the good bacteria in my slide, the commensals, they might be the good stuff that want feeding, yet what if you have lots of pathogens in there that want feeding? What if you’ve got some bacteria that thrive on sugar? And they are demanding to be fed. According to these neuroscientists, you then have no choice in the matter. You will have to go out and get what that bacteria is demanding.

Now again I found this a little hard to believe because I don’t want to believe that I haven’t got any free will. I want to believe that I can go out and make my choices. Yet their response was “no you can’t. …they said basically “you will go and have gelati tonight if your gut bacteria have decided, and your neural pathways have decided you want gelati, you will go across to the mainland and you will get gelati.” And I’m like “well, there are a few things that might get in the way of that! What about if I can’t find a gelati place? What about if I don’t really like gelati that much and I’m only having it because I’m in Venice, and therefore I get bored if I don’t find one straight away?” So this was an interesting conversation.

The results basically indicate that your gut bacteria is in control of an awful lot; your moods, how you feel day to day, the choices you make and, as this slide here says, if your gut bacteria controls your brain, it pretty much controls everything.

So now you’ve got that depressing thought, apparently, there’s no point us looking for long term strategies for our happiness because nothing we do is going to make a difference. Yet let’s hold that thought a moment because there’s some interesting research from a whole bunch of different people on how what we think, influences what happens.

Can I get a show of hands if you think change is hard and people don’t change? Ok, a few people… Yes people don’t change. You know how sometimes, like I’ll end up going back to the UK and I’ll see people that I haven’t seen for a long time and I’ll go “oh, they’re exactly the same”. Sometimes we feel we can’t change. It’s too hard.

Show of hands if you actually believe that we can change? Yes, see, I’m in that bucket too. Which is why these neuroscientists really annoyed me! (laughing). Because I want to believe that I’ve got free will. Yet here’s the really cool thing. If you believe you have free will, you will end up with better outcomes. Whether you actually have (free will) or not, is irrelevant.

I’ll give you an example. There’s a wonderful study by a lady called Alia Crum (and others) who looked at people’s view of aging. And they basically asked people “do you have a positive view of aging? Do you have a negative view of aging? Do you believe that aging has its benefits? Do you believe that it’s all downsides?”.  And they basically then followed those people for a number of years.

One of the interesting findings from that study was, if you had a negative view of aging, you would age faster, you would have a higher mortality rate, (and) you would have more illnesses linked to aging. If you believed in the positive view of aging, you would have less health-related issues and a lower mortality rate. So they found simply, your belief in that particular scenario, changes the outcomes.

I’d like you to think WHY it changes the outcomes. Because this is what they explored. The view that you have will change the behaviours that you engage in. So guess what? If I have a positive view of aging, I am more likely to keep myself fitter and healthier. I’m likely to eat a better diet. I’m likely to engage in exercise. I am likely to do things that prolong my health. If I have a negative view of aging, I am more likely to go “oh well there’s no point because I’m aging anyway”. I think that’s really important when it comes to engaging in positive long-term strategies for your wellbeing.

We know that people want to change habits. There are so many books, there are so many courses you can do that will encourage you; ‘How to create habits in 21 days’, ‘How to get happier’. All sorts of different things that you can learn. My guess is that the reason you are here is because of some of those sorts of things that you’re trying to learn.

So I thought I’d share with you a few key things that can help us embed new habits. Whatever they might be for you. If you decide you want to take up mindfulness as our previous presenters have spoken about. (You might have) fallen off your cushion now and again and you want to get back on. So that might be it. It might be a healthier diet. It might be exercise. It could be many, many things.

There are a few key things that are useful to bear in mind when it comes to creating new habits that are useful for your longterm wellbeing. The first is that you have to decide. Decide that you are going to do something. And what’s really interesting for me is I’m so proud of my husband (because) a couple of years ago, after biting his nails for over 40 years, he decided one day, to stop. And did. And hasn’t bitten them since. I was absolutely amazed! I’ve tried things over and over again, and fallen off my cushion so many times it has got a bit uncomfortable! Yet he just stopped. And the thing I love about ‘decide’ is it means to cut off from. So the first thing we need to do is to decide.

We need to also consider learning and curiosity. So, I’m going to share with you, for instance, when I was in Venice, one of the things I learned in the first week was how important butyrate is, for the body. And I realised that I ate nothing in my diet that produced butyrate. So I immediately went out and bought some olives. I’ve never liked olives. Yet I went out and bought olives. I’m like “I don’t care. Olives are going in because I need butyrate”, and I’ve eaten olives ever since. And funnily enough I actually really like them now!

What was really interesting for me is I was learning from the top neuroscientists in the world in this field, and there was a particular gentleman, who was the lead faculty member, and he is a similar height to me, and he is a little rounder than me, (and I’m not meaning that in any judgemental way, yet just to give you an idea) and I asked him, being the most eminent neuroscientist in this field, I said to him, “in deep respect, you know more than anybody else about this bacteria and how it links to our health and wellbeing and diet, etc. What have you changed from knowing this?” And he went (thinking face) “Hmmmm, well I guess I’m more aware…” (laughing).

And I felt like the energy had just drained from me thinking the thing that I love most in the world is sharing knowledge with people like you. Sharing knowledge. Learning the science and sharing it with people. And then watching what people do with it. And I thought to myself, “on Day One you told me butyrate was really important and I am now shoving olives in my face. You have been in this space for over 10 years and you have changed nothing.”

So the first thing we have got to do is learn and be curious. Yet then we have to do something with it. I have a saying: “You know it, do you do it?”

Also, consider the environment that you’re in and the people that you connect with. If you want to embed new habits, you may find changing your environment sometimes is very useful to you. Sometimes our environment helps us continue with the same habits we’ve always had. I have to admit, I loved my three weeks in Venice last year, (because) anybody who knows me will know that my life is very unhabitual. There are not many rituals in my life unless I choose to put them in there because, literally, I can be getting up one morning at 4 am to fly from Melbourne to Newcastle to do a keynote in the Hunter Valley, to drive home for 7:30 at night, to then go and get on a plane to Paris which I’m doing for 72 hours in a couple of weeks’ time. Or I can be in the office one day, yet there is no rhythm to my life.

And I love it, I love my life, yet I notice for those three weeks I was in Venice, how amazing that ritual was. And how healthy I was. …I would get up at 5:30 in the morning, I would connect with my team who were already awake, for a couple of hours over breakfast. I ate the same breakfast for three weeks (a very healthy breakfast). I went to school (so cool going to school!) from 9am – 1pm, then I had my lunch. A similar healthy lunch every day. I sat outside, had a siesta every afternoon before going back to school at 3:30pm. And then finishing at 6:30pm. Going out, having dinner, having an early night.

That was my ritual for three weeks and I realised that sometimes our environments can be useful for our habits, or they can be detrimental. The people that you surround yourself with. Are they helping you embed long term habits? Or are they hindering it?

So I wanted to end with a story where I actually took some of the positive psychology research and turned it into reality for me.

For 40 odd years of my life, I had a saying: “I don’t do running”. That was my saying. “I don’t do running”. Some of you may have heard this before, I would do whatever I could to get out of running. At school when we did cross country running we would have to climb over a gate to get to the fields. I would occassionally ‘trip’ as I went over the gate and go “Oh my ankle!” and be sent back to the changing rooms. If I couldn’t get away with that for the 3rd or 4th week running, because where I lived was a paved road and then you’d go across the fields and it was in the country, so there were ditches on either side of the paved roads. Sometimes when we’d run along the straight road, I’d hang to the back, while nobody was looking, I’d hide in the ditch, wait  until they’d all gone, amuse myself for half an hour until they came back again, hide in the ditch again, and then pop out and pretend I’d been with them.

So this was my thing. “I don’t do running”. I even tried a couple of times in my 20’s and 30’s because everyone told me it was a really good thing to do, really good for weight loss, and health and fitness and all this sort of stuff. And I tried and of course, I would do 50 steps and be out of breath. Of course, because I had never run before, yet hey! This was my excuse of “see! I can’t run!”. I even had a gentleman, a colleague, once say to me “you’re not built for running”. Now I don’t mean to point out the obvious yet my boobs are not that big! Yet I used that as an excuse for another ten years! “See, I can’t run! They’re too big!”

In my 40’s I decided to take what I’d learned from positive psychology and see if I could embed running as a strategy. All the neuroscience research told me that running is really useful for growing new neurons. So, what did I do?

I looked at where I was at my happiest. Down the beach. So that is where I was going to run. I put on some really good 1980’s/90’s hair metal. What I think of as hair metal, you know? Because that’s my music from when I was younger. So I put on my favorite music that makes me happy. And I thought “I’m just going to have a laugh with it. I’m going to put a big grin on my face. And I’m going to run.”

People often say when it comes to exercise, “you have to find something you like”. My suggestion is “like something you find”. Otherwise, you could be waiting forever.

I have to admit, I now love running. (On) my best day ever, I’m running along the beach with all these fit and healthy swim-run-swim people, you know, going through in their budgie smugglers. If you’re one of them you swim all the way along Coogee beach and then you run back and it’s like “I’m never going to do that!”  One day I’m running along, and I overtook someone! Never overtaken anyone in my life! (Laughter). It was such a great day.

So think about. When it comes to these long term strategies, how can you embed things in your world? How can you start to place pieces of the puzzle in? Don’t just wait until you find something you like. Start doing it and see what happens. Because long-term happiness doesn’t come from you finding it. It comes from you putting little pieces of the puzzle in place every day, and all of a sudden the picture starts to come to fruition.

I always have a saying that positive psychology is wonderful on the good days. Yet it’s essential on the bad days.

Thank you very much, everybody.


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