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How to Push Your Hidden Buttons For Happiness

The teamwork of finding hidden happy switches in the brain.

Key points

  • The key to finding your hidden happy buttons is to use the "categorical perception power" of the brain.
  • Research shows that, depending on which category you place a particular picture or situation in, the feeling triggered will be different.
  • Sharing your problem with your partner and brainstorming together to switch your categorical perception will make you and your partner closer.

Pushing somebody’s buttons usually means to do specific things to anger them. But are there also buttons to push for happiness?

Yes, there are, and those happy buttons are sometimes hidden in the brain. If you involve your partner in your quest to find those hidden happy buttons, your relationship with your partner can deepen and you’ll get closer.

Here’s my own example:

As I was preparing to visit my then 93-year-old mother in France and stay with her for the required three weeks, I started getting more and more anxious, agitated, and depressed. My life was really in California with my wonderful husband in our delightful house doing the job and activities I loved. The thought of leaving my husband for three weeks was unbearably painful.

Yet, it was my duty to visit my mother twice a year. I was an only child and my father had died 20 years before from cancer. I had promised my dad to keep my mother happy, but the truth was that three weeks was too much for me. I was happy to visit for two or three days, but beyond three days with my mom in my childhood house, town, and country, visiting was extremely difficult and painful. Life in France wasn’t my life anymore. It was my mother’s life and she insisted that, to make her happy, I stay with her. Three weeks was the extreme minimum for her.

Two weeks before my planned departure for France, I started getting depressed and I could feel myself spiraling down even more than in previous years. I was dreading my trip.

My husband, sensing that I wasn’t my usual cheerful self, asked if I was okay.

My choices were to either tell my husband not to worry, that I had everything under control, or to confide in him and ask for his help. In the past, I would have chosen to tell him that I had everything under control, but this time I chose to take the risk of showing my vulnerability and asked for help.

I explained my spiraling down and asked: “I know there is a switch in my head I can flip to be my happy self again, but I don’t know how to find that switch. Can you help me find it?”

Together, we began brainstorming. The brainstorming felt wonderful and made us closer. It was exactly what I needed (short of canceling my trip). I wasn’t alone anymore. We brainstormed about how to transform a trip I dreaded into a trip I would look forward to. It involved finding the switch to change my point of view. That was a difficult task, but I intuitively knew it was possible.

My husband suggested that I could find a new activity, like learning a new language, singing or dancing, anything new that I would enjoy doing in France during my mother’s nap in the afternoon or in the evenings after she went to bed. Nothing really clicked in my head, so we continued brainstorming.

Suddenly, something clicked when we talked about taking a different point of view for my visit: Taking the point of view of projecting myself 20 years into the future when my mother would not be on this earth anymore and imagining having the opportunity to come back one last time to spend three weeks with her. That was the switch, and I could feel the connections in my brain getting excited about that idea.

And that’s what I did. I went to France that time and all the following times imagining I was coming back to France many years after my mother's death.

Because of that different point of view, I was able to fully appreciate the three weeks I spent with my mom. The last few times, I also used my husband’s other suggestion of doing a new pleasurable activity (I took dance classes) in the evenings after my mother went to bed.

What I used is called categorical perception.

What is categorical perception?

Categorical perception describes the fact that our brain puts things in different categories because our brain can only focus on one category at a time. Depending on the category our brain chooses to place a problem, our attitude towards the problem will be different.

An example is the well-known ambiguous picture of the wife and the mother-in-law, which first appeared on an 1888 German postcard.

W. E. Hill, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Source: W. E. Hill, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When you look at the above picture, you can either see the picture of a beautiful young woman (the oval circle in the middle being interpreted as her ear) or the picture of a not-so-beautiful older woman (the oval circle in the middle being interpreted as her eye). You can either see one or the other, but not both at the same time.

If your categorical perception tells you to see a beautiful young woman, you will feel a completely different feeling than if you see the not-so-beautiful older woman. What you see, what you feel, and what you do will depend upon how you categorize the picture.

We can do the same thing in most situations. The same situation can be seen from a negative angle, triggering anxiety or depression, or from a positive angle, triggering happy feelings. It will be a different emotional perception depending on which category you place the situation.

In their advanced review published in WIREs Cognitive Science, Gladstone and Hendrickson study the influence of categorical perception in both speech and visual entities and conclude that “people organize their world into categories that, in turn, alter the appearance of this perceived world.”

But our mood can also influence in which category we place the situation. Research done by Liu and Colleagues, published in Psychiatry Research shows that depressed people have a perceptual bias towards unpleasant facial expressions versus pleasant facial expressions compared to healthy controls.

So, the key to finding our happy buttons is to find reasons to look at things in a positive angle in what I call "pushing the positive switch," which is easier if done before spiraling far down and getting too depressed.


Asking for help and brainstorming with your partner early on to find a positive angle to the situation and to push your positive happy button can make you and your partner closer while making your partner feel actively engaged and useful. Those happy buttons can be deeply hidden, but once found can stop your spiraling down and start your spiraling back up.

The power of our brain is bigger than we think it is and can be even stronger when we are in a deep, secure, supportive relationship.

As for me, in the last few years of our marriage, I have taken to the habit of confiding in my husband whenever I feel depressed and asking for help in finding that switch in my brain that makes me happy again. That switch has been different for each situation, sometimes easy, sometimes very difficult to find, but we’ve always ended up finding it.

If you find yourself in a challenging situation, you can find your switch or happy button by yourself, with your partner or with the help of a therapist.

To find a therapist near you see the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

Copyright 2023 @Chris Gilbert, MD, PhD


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