You get all kinds of happiness advice on the internet from people who don’t know what they’re talking about. How do you know who you can trust? Can you trust anyone?
Well, maybe trust neuroscientists. They study that gray blob in your head all day and have learned a lot about what truly will make you happy and know some tricks that can create an upward spiral of happiness in your life.
What’s the most important question to ask when you feel down?
Sometimes it doesn’t feel like your brain wants you to be happy. Sometimes it feels like your brain actually prefers to be unhappy, allowing you to feel guilty, or shameful. Why?
Well, believe it or not, neuroscientists have found that both guilt and shame activate the brain’s reward center.
Despite their differences, pride, shame, and guilt all activate similar neural circuits, including the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, insula, and the nucleus accumbens.
Interestingly, pride is the most powerful of these emotions at triggering activity in these regions….. except in the nucleus accumbens, where guilt and shame win out.
This explains why it can be so appealing to heap guilt and shame on ourselves….. Strangely, they’re activating the brain’s reward center.
And you worry a lot, too, right? Why? In the short term, worrying makes your brain feel a little better….. at least it means you’re doing something about your problems.
In fact, worrying can help calm the limbic system, the monkey mind, by increasing activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and decreasing activity in the amygdala. That might seem counterintuitive, but it just goes to show that if you’re feeling anxiety, doing something about it….. even worrying….. is better than doing nothing, better than ignoring it.
But guilt, shame and worry are horrible, long-term solutions for happiness. In fact there is strong evidence to suggest that long term these emotions encourage, or even cause, dis-ease in the body. So what do neuroscientists say you should do?
Well, maybe ask yourself this question:
What am I grateful for?
Gratitude is awesome.… but does it really affect your brain at the biological level? ……Yup.
You know what the antidepressant Wellbutrin does right, similar to lots of ‘feel good’ drugs? It boosts the neurotransmitter dopamine…. And so does gratitude.
The benefits of gratitude start with the dopamine system, because feeling grateful activates the brainstem region that produces dopamine. Additionally, gratitude toward others increases activity in social dopamine circuits, which makes social interactions more enjoyable …
Know what Prozac does, right? Boosts the neurotransmitter serotonin. So does gratitude.
Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex.
And sometimes life lands you a real bum deal and it feels like there’s nothing to be grateful for, doesn’t it? It doesn’t matter though. You don’t have to find anything. It’s the searching that counts. It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence.
One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.
And gratitude doesn’t just make your brain happy — it can also create a positive feedback loop in your relationships. So express that gratitude to the people you care about. Tell them how grateful you are for the little things they do.
But what happens when bad feelings completely overtake you? When you’re really down in the dumps and don’t know how to deal with it?
1. Point out the things that upset you.
2. Label negative feelings
You feel awful. OK, give that awfulness a name. Sad? Anxious? Angry?
Simply by recognising and naming the emotion you are feeling, putting your feelings into words, reduces their impact. It’s a well recognised technique in NLP for dealing with long term emotional pain, but it works for short term awfulness too.
Suppressing emotions doesn’t work and can backfire on you.
People who try to suppress a negative emotional experience usually fail to do so. While they may look fine outwardly, inwardly their limbic system (which reacts to negative emotions) is just as aroused as without suppression, and in some cases, even more aroused.
But labeling the emotion, on the other hand, makes a big difference. Try it, when you next feel that way.
To reduce the feeling, you need to use just a few words to describe an emotion, and ideally use symbolic language, which means using indirect metaphors, metrics, and simplifications of your experience. This requires you to activate your prefrontal cortex, which reduces the arousal in the limbic system. Here’s the bottom line: describe an emotion in just a word or two, and it helps reduce the emotion.
3. Make that decision, decide to do things that you enjoy.
Did you ever make a decision and then your brain finally feels at rest? That’s no random occurrence.
Making decisions reduces worry and anxiety, as well as helping you solve problems. Making decisions includes creating intentions and setting goals — all three are part of the same neural circuitry and engage the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, reducing worry and anxiety. Making decisions changes your perception of the world, finding solutions to your problems and calming the limbic system.
But deciding can sometimes be hard, right? So what kind of decisions should you make? Well simply, make a “good enough” decision. Don’t worry about making the absolute 100% best decision. We all know being a perfectionist can be stressful. Trying to be perfect overwhelms your brain with emotions and makes you feel out of control. Recognising that good enough is good enough activates more dorsolateral prefrontal areas, which helps you feel more in control … which reduces stress and anxiety.
But here’s what’s really fascinating: Deciding also boosts pleasure.
Actively choosing increases rewarding dopamine activity.
Want proof? No problem. Let’s talk about cocaine.
You give two rats injections of cocaine. Rat A had to pull a lever first. Rat B didn’t have to do anything. Any difference? Yup: Rat A gets a bigger boost of dopamine.
So they both got the same injections of cocaine at the same time, but rat A had to actively press the lever, and rat B didn’t have to do anything. And you guessed it — rat A released more dopamine in its nucleus accumbens.
So what’s the lesson here? Next time you buy cocaine …
Point is, when you make a decision, decide on a goal and then achieve it, you feel better than when good stuff just happens by chance.
And this answers the eternal mystery of why dragging your butt to the gym can be so hard.
If you go because you feel you have to or you should, well, it’s not really a voluntary decision. Your brain doesn’t get the pleasure boost. It just feels stress. And that’s no way to build a good exercise habit.
So make more decisions. Make good enough decisions, and feel good.
OK….. so you’re being grateful, you’re labeling your negative emotions and you’re making more decisions, right? Great, but this is feeling kinda lonely for a happiness prescription. Let’s get some other people involved….
What’s something you can do with others that neuroscience says is a path to mucho happiness-o? And something that’s stupidly simple so you don’t get lazy and skip it?
Have fun with friends.
4. Touch people
No, not indiscriminately, randomly; that can get you in a lot of trouble.
But we need to feel love and acceptance from others. When we don’t it’s painful. And I don’t mean “awkward” or “disappointing.” I mean it’s actually painful.
Neuroscientists did a study where people played a ball-tossing video game. The other players tossed the ball to you and you tossed it back to them. Actually, there were no other players; that was all done by the computer program.
But the subjects were told the characters were controlled by real people. So what happened when the “other players” stopped playing nice and didn’t share the ball?
Subjects’ brains responded the same way as if they experienced physical pain. Rejection doesn’t just hurt like a broken heart; your brain feels it like a broken leg.
Social exclusion activates the same circuitry as physical pain … at one point in the game, they stopped sharing, only throwing back and forth to each other, ignoring the participant. This small change was enough to elicit feelings of social exclusion, and it activated the anterior cingulate and insula, just like physical pain would.
Relationships are important to your brain’s feeling of happiness. So, you want to take that to the next level? Touch people.
One of the primary ways to release oxytocin is through touching. Obviously, it’s not always appropriate to touch most people, but small touches like handshakes and pats on the back are usually okay. For people you’re close with, make more of an effort to touch more often.
Touching someone you love actually reduces pain. In fact, when studies were done on married couples, the stronger the marriage, the more powerful the effect.
In addition, holding hands with someone can help comfort you and your brain through painful situations, like when we are in hospital or suffering from a loss. One MRI study scanned married women as they were warned that they were about to get a small electric shock. While anticipating the painful shocks, the brain showed a predictable pattern of response in pain and worrying circuits, with activation in the insula, anterior cingulate, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. During a separate scan, the women either held their husbands’ hands or the hand of the experimenter. When a subject held her husband’s hand, the threat of shock had a smaller effect. The brain showed reduced activation in both the anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — that is, less activity in the pain and worrying circuits. In addition, the stronger the marriage, the lower the discomfort-related insula activity.
So hug someone today. And do not accept little, quick hugs. Tell them your neuroscientist recommended long hugs.
A hug, especially a long one, releases a neurotransmitter and hormone oxytocin, which reduces the reactivity of the amygdala.
And if you haven’t got anyone to hug? Go get a massage!
Massage boosts your serotonin by as much as 30 percent. Massage also decreases stress hormones and raises dopamine levels, which helps you create new good habits … Massage reduces pain because the oxytocin system activates painkilling endorphins. Massage also improves sleep and reduces fatigue by increasing serotonin and dopamine and decreasing the stress hormone cortisol.
To sum up then:
- Ask “What am I grateful for?” No answers? Doesn’t matter. Just searching helps.
- Label those negative emotions. Give it a name and your brain isn’t so bothered by it.
- Decide. Go for “good enough” instead of ‘best decision ever made on Earth.”
Everything is interconnected. Gratitude improves sleep. Sleep reduces pain. Reduced pain improves your mood. Improved mood reduces anxiety, which improves focus and planning. Focus and planning help with decision making. Decision making further reduces anxiety and improves enjoyment. Enjoyment gives you more to be grateful for, which keeps that loop of the upward spiral going. Enjoyment also makes it more likely you’ll exercise and be social, which, in turn, will make you happier.