HSPs: Here’s How to ‘Rewire’ Yourself for Happiness

A highly sensitive woman in an orange knit dress smiling and dancing happily in front of a blue background

Are highly sensitive people actually “better” at becoming happy? A recent study says yes — here’s how. 

Can highly sensitive people (HSPs) be happy, as in truly happy?

Depending on your experience as an HSP, this question may seem overly simplistic — or even insulting. 

As a sensitive person myself, sometimes I find myself thinking that happiness is something only non-sensitive people get to have. Sometimes, I can feel like I’m disqualified from being happy because I get so “stuck” in my deeply processing nervous system. 

This is because HSPs are characterized by our depth of processing, which means we experience life more intensely than others. It helps me to think of it as a sinking feeling — we sink into life’s sorrows, maybe a little more so than less-sensitive people. 

But, just as the lows can affect us more, so do life’s best moments. We may sink into the lows, but we feel joy strongly and easily, even over the small things in life. 

In fact, scientists are finding that sensitive people may actually be “better” at becoming happy — and that we may be fundamentally wired for happiness.

Are Highly Sensitive People Happier Than Other People?

Fascinating recent research led by Francesca Lionetti, a developmental psychologist at Queen Mary University of London, suggests that highly sensitive people can actually become happy more easily than others. 

To find this out, Lionetti and her coauthors had 230 volunteers perform a “mood induction task” — essentially, exposing them to positive and negative moods and measuring the results. To do this, researchers showed study participants a heartwarming video clip — possibly the cutest study ever — as well as a sad on, in random order. What they found was that the people who scored highest for sensitivity as a personality trait actually entered a positive mood more easily than the others. (The least sensitive people — those “tough as nails” types who seem impervious to pain — had the hardest time entering a positive mood. Apparently, they are impervious to joy, too.) 

In other words, the things that might make anyone feel happy are much more likely to do so for highly sensitive people. (No wonder my favorite animated Disney movies have the same effect on me as my four-year-old!)

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Lionetti isn’t the only one to find this. In fact, this connection between happiness and sensitivity is consistent across a number of studies. One, for example, made similar findings in sensitive children; another found that sensitive people can enter happier moods more readily and fully, and maybe even stay happier longer, than non-HSPs.

This is because we sensitive people are more responsive to all experiences, including positive experiences. In other words, we are sensitive to happiness (thankfully!). 

Of course, this means HSPs are more responsive to negative experiences, too. Sensitive people can probably also enter negative moods more easily — and sensitive folks can be more prone to anxiety and depression. But this study indicates that we are also built with a way out. HSPs might actually be more responsive to interventions, like therapy or the support of a good friend, due to our heightened sensitivity to positive exposures. In fact, based on Lionetti’s findings, even keeping very small sources of happiness around you in your environment can have a powerful effect on your mood as an HSP. 

Simply put, caring for yourself — and your mental health — will likely have rewarding outcomes, because your sensitive nature will naturally experience them positively. 

If this sounds too good to be true, consider this: Do you tend to be more affected than others by movies, songs, or even commercials that tug at the heartstrings? If you’re an animal lover, as many HSPs are, can an otter cuddle video or cute panda montage sometimes be all you need to get out of a bad mood?

If so, your sensitivity is doing its job to help you be happier. 

But you can make that even more effective if you lean into your HSP wiring — and start to see happiness a little differently. 

Sensitive people don’t deny life’s hardships. But we also can’t help but sink into its goodness. And in that bittersweetness lies a wisdom I believe the less sensitive world needs and would benefit from.

Happiness the ‘HSP Way’

First of all, happiness can be a four-letter word for some. It’s been twisted and convoluted in our society to be the only feeling worth feeling. Some think that being happy means avoiding negative feelings, which is a surefire way to never be happy at all, especially for HSPs. 

HSPs know happiness doesn’t mean being happy all the time. If it did, let’s be real: highly sensitive people would be doomed. But we feel something deep in our bones that others seem to miss — that sorrow and happiness can coexist together.

Author Susan Cain calls this “bittersweetness.” In her new book, Bittersweet, she writes, “[Bittersweetness is] a way of being… as dramatically overlooked as it is brimming with human potential. It’s an authentic and elevating response to the problem of being alive in a deeply flawed yet stubbornly beautiful world. Most of all, bittersweetness shows us how to respond to pain: by acknowledging it, and attempting to turn it into art… or healing, or innovation, or anything else that nourishes the soul.”

I believe this is what happy HSPs offer the world. We don’t deny life’s hardships. But we also can’t help but sink into its goodness. And in that bittersweetness lies a wisdom I believe the less sensitive world needs and would benefit from. 

But if we’re struggling with being happy, how can we cultivate more happiness in our lives? In short, through “rewiring” ourselves and our mindset.

5 Ways to ‘Rewire’ Yourself for Happiness as an HSP

Yale professor and happiness expert Dr. Laurie Santos coined the term “rewirements” to refer to habits that are shown to help us be happier. It turns out that some of the simplest practices can have the biggest impact on our happiness. (Santos’ wildly popular Yale course on happiness is available for free online.)

As HSPs, we have to pursue happiness in our own way. If we can put a little effort into happifying our experiences through requirements, the benefits can be exponential. So give these a try.

1. Rest — sleep more, but also schedule more downtime and moments to do nothing.

I’ve come to understand that rest is my first step to happiness, and I’m not alone: Highly sensitive people need more sleep than others. Plus, I can’t attain any other rewirements until I’m well-rested. So I have begun prioritizing rest in my life. 

No, I haven’t quit my job or told my young kids to fend for themselves so I can sleep. What I mean is rest in all senses of the word. For me, it includes sleep, as well as downtime and “doing nothing.” 

For me, rest is no longer an afterthought. It’s not something to enjoy only if I check off all my to-dos. Now, rest is one of my to-dos. I don’t claim to have this down, but I am noticing a difference. 

I’m growing more convinced that rest is one of the most important acts HSPs can do to counter our non-sensitive culture, which enshrines productivity over all else. HSPs tend to burn out quickly — I think it’s in part due to our empathic, people-pleasing nature

Maybe HSPs can remind non-sensitives to prioritize rest… and that they are more than what they produce. Rest is revolutionizing my life — and it can do the same for you.

2. Play — do things that make you happy and where you focus on the journey, not the destination.

(Have you rested yet? If not, save the rest of this article for later and rest first!)

Dr. Santos suggests play as an antidote to always having an end goal for an activity. She says we are happier when we find contentment in the journey rather than the destination. Doing whatever helps you find your ”flow state” — where you get completely enamored in the doing (or reading or observing or daydreaming or, or, or…) is where happiness lives. We all have those activities, hobbies, and pastimes that we lose ourselves in. Do them! 

HSPs often have the strongest positive connection to being creative, and to the arts, compared to other stimuli. This means artistic expression (whether our own or appreciating others’, like music, a painting, or a movie) can strongly affect our mood for the better. Whatever your creative outlet or preferred artistic indulgence, prioritize it and let it work its magic on your mood. 

Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System? 

HSPs often live with high levels of anxiety, sensory overload and stress — and negative emotions can overwhelm us. But what if you could finally feel calm instead?

That’s what you’ll find in this powerful online course by Julie Bjelland, one of the top HSP therapists in the world. You’ll learn to turn off the racing thoughts, end emotional flooding, eliminate sensory overload, and finally make space for your sensitive gifts to shine.

Stop feeling held back and start to feel confident you can handle anything. Check out this “HSP Toolbox” and start making a change today. Click here to learn more.

3. Be present — practice mindfulness through meditation or another grounding activity.

Some may benefit from long hours spent in deep meditation. If that’s your jam, more power to you — meditation can seriously lift your mood! HSP expert Alane Freund says HSPs can struggle with meditation due to our overactive brains, but we can utilize our sensitivity to meditate in our own way

I’m convinced HSPs are naturally inclined to simply be present in our daily lives, especially in the right conditions. When we’re not rushed, pressured, or stressed — many HSPs suffer from time anxiety — our sensitivity to our surroundings can help usher us into a mindful awareness of the present moment. 

These moments never last long for me (I’m a novice for sure!), but I do notice their effect on my happiness. More and more often, I find I’m craving the peace and contentment that being present offers. It has even helped me lose interest in mindlessly scrolling my phone as often, which has always negatively affected my mood. Instead, I’ve taken to looking out the window with my morning coffee, or just watching my kids play after dinner.

4. Move — it helps you get out of your mind and into your body.

Move — not to achieve a daily step count, not for a class instructor, and not for a fitness plan… I mean, okay, move for all those reasons. Being healthier or pursuing a fitness goal is all fine and good. But sensitive people benefit from reconnecting our busy minds with our bodies through movement. 

Try intuitive movement, whether it’s a free-flow yoga session, dancing around your living room, or wandering along a nature trail with no destination in mind. (After all, nature is an amazing release valve for overstimulated HSPs — which probably means all of us!) 

You might even want to combine movement with play and forget about an end goal every now and again. However you decide to move, the happiness you feel will be worth it, trust me.

5. Connect — whether it’s with others, nature, animals, you name it.

Dr. Santos talks specifically about connecting with people as a way to rewire ourselves for happiness. I think HSPs can add connecting with animals, the earth, and the arts to our list. We are known to have stronger connections with our environment — and we can, and should, indulge that connection to our hearts’ content.

We tend to waste a lot of effort trying to live this life the non-sensitive way. We do well to let go of that expectation and embrace a sensitive approach instead. When it comes to connection, follow your intuition of whom, or what, you need connection with. For example, I never resist the urge to dip my toes in a flowing stream. It does something for me that nothing else can. It grounds me, gives me peace, and nourishes me. What does so for you? You may even want to brainstorm and make a list.

HSPs, Your Sensitivity Can Be Your Key to Happiness

Happiness may seem harder to find these days, but don’t lose hope. For HSPs, the science is on our side. Our sensitivity wires us to sink into happy experiences. Think of it as a gift of our trait, a silver lining to our intense experience of the world. 

Pursue happiness for your own contentment and well-being, because remember: You are worth the effort. I have a feeling that if you do, you’ll start to see your happiness radiate out to those around you. HSPs make up nearly 30 percent of the population — and science tells us we are sensitive to happiness. If we can rewire ourselves to be happier, and protect that happiness in the process, who knows the effect it could have on our “deeply flawed yet stubbornly beautiful” world?

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