Tag: neuroscience happiness gratitude

4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy, According to Neuroscience

Brain research that examines what – and why certain actions – will make you happy.
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.”
Hugs, hugs, hugs. Don’t text — touch.

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.”
Hugs, hugs, hugs. Don’t text — touch.

Here’s a great blog by Eric Barker ( Barking Up the Wrong Treeabout brain research that examines what – and why certain actions – will make you happy. He writes “You get all kinds of happiness advice on the Internet from people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Don’t trust them. Actually, don’t trust me either. Trust neuroscientists. They study that gray blob in your head all day and have learned a lot about what truly will make you happy.”

UCLA neuroscience researcher by Alex Korb PhD, (The Upward Spiral) has some insights that can create an upward spiral of happiness in your life. Here’s what you and I can learn from the people who really have answers:

1) The Most Important Question To Ask When You Feel Down

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like your brain wants you to be happy. You may feel guilty or shameful. Why?

Believe it or not, guilt and shame activate the brain’s reward center.
The Upward Spiral: “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 — they’re activating the brain’s reward center.”

And you worry a lot too. Why? In the short term, worrying makes your brain feel a little better — at least you’re doing something about your problems.

But what happens when bad feelings completely overtake you? When you’re really in the dumps and don’t even know how to deal with it? There’s an easy answer…

2) Label Negative Feelings

You feel awful. Okay, give that awfulness a name. Sad? Anxious? Angry?Boom. It’s that simple. Sound stupid? Your noggin disagrees.

The Upward Spiral: “…in one fMRI study, appropriately titled “Putting Feelings into Words” participants viewed pictures of people with emotional facial expressions. Predictably, each participant’s amygdala activated to the emotions in the picture. But when they were asked to name the emotion, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activated and reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity. In other words, consciously recognizing the emotions reduced their impact.”

Suppressing emotions doesn’t work and can backfire on you.

David Rock Your Brain at Work found that people who tried to suppress a negative emotional experience failed to do so. While they thought they looked fine outwardly, inwardly their limbic system was just as aroused as without suppression, and in some cases, even more aroused. Kevin Ochsner, at Columbia, repeated these findings using an fMRI. Trying not to feel something doesn’t work, and in some cases even backfires.

But labeling, on the other hand, makes a big difference.

Your Brain at Work: “To reduce arousal, 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.”

Ancient methods were way ahead of us on this one. Meditation has employed this for centuries. Labeling is a fundamental tool of mindfulness.

In fact, labeling affects the brain so powerfully it works with other people too. Labeling emotions is one of the primary tools used by FBI hostage negotiators

Okay, hopefully you’re not reading this and labeling your current emotional state as “Bored.” Maybe you’re not feeling awful but you probably have things going on in your life that are causing you some stress. Here’s a simple way to beat them…

3) Make That Decision

Ever make a decision and then your brain finally feels at rest? That’s no random occurrence. Brain science shows that making decisions reduces worry and anxiety — as well as helping you solve problems.

The Upward Spiral: “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 also helps overcome striatum activity, which usually pulls you toward negative impulses and routines. Finally, making decisions changes your perception of the world — finding solutions to your problems and calming the limbic system.”

But deciding can be hard. I agree. So what kind of decisions should you make? Neuroscience has an answer…  Make a “good enough” decision. Don’t sweat making the absolute 100% best decision. We all know being a perfectionist can be stressful. And brain studies back this up. Trying to be perfect overwhelms your brain with emotions and makes you feel out of control.

The Upward Spiral: “Trying for the best, instead of good enough, brings too much emotional ventromedial prefrontal activity into the decision-making process. In contrast, recognizing that good enough is good enough activates more dorsolateral prefrontal areas, which helps you feel more in control…”

As Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz said in my interview with him: “Good enough is almost always good enough.”

So when you make a decision, your brain feels you have control. And, as I’ve talked about before, a feeling of control reduces stress. But here’s what’s really fascinating: Deciding also boosts pleasure.

 The Upward Spiral: “Actively choosing caused changes in attention circuits and in how the participants felt about the action, and it increased rewarding dopamine activity.”

Want proof? No problem. Let’s talk about cocaine.

You give 2 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… whoops, wrong lesson. Point is, when you make a decision 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.

The Upward Spiral: “Interestingly, if they are forced to exercise, they don’t get the same benefits, because without choice, the exercise itself is a source of stress.

So make more decisions. Neuroscience researcher Alex Korb sums it up nicely: “We don’t just choose the things we like; we also like the things we choose.”

(To learn what neuroscientists say is the best way to use caffeine, click here.)

Okay, you’re being grateful, labeling negative emotions and making more decisions. Great. But this is feeling kinda lonely for a happiness prescription. Let’s get some other people in here.

What’s something you can do with others that neuroscience says is a path to mucho happiness? And something that’s stupidly simple so you don’t get lazy and skip it? Brain docs have an answer for you…

4) Touch People

No, not indiscriminately; 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 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.

In fact, as demonstrated in an fMRI experiment, social exclusion activates the same circuitry as physical pain… at one point 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 very important to your brain’s feeling of happiness. Want to take that to the next level? Touch people.

The Upward Spiral: “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 is incredibly powerful. We just don’t give it enough credit. It makes you more persuasive, increases team performance, improves your flirting… heck, it even boosts math skills.

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.

The Upward Spiral: “In addition, holding hands with someone can help comfort you and your brain through painful situations. One fMRI 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. No, no, no. Tell them your neuroscientist recommended long hugs.

The Upward Spiral: “A hug, especially a long one, releases a neurotransmitter and hormone oxytocin, which reduces the reactivity of the amygdala.”

Research shows getting five hugs a day for four weeks increases happiness big time. Don’t have anyone to hug right now? No? (I’m sorry to hear that. I would give you a hug right now if I could.) But there’s an answer: neuroscience says you should go get a massage.

The Upward Spiral: “The results are fairly clear that 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.”

So spend time with other people and give some hugs. Sorry, texting is not enough.

When you put people in a stressful situation and then let them visit loved ones or talk to them on the phone, they felt better. What about when they just texted? Their bodies responded the same as if they had no support at all.

The Upward Spiral: “…the text-message group had cortisol and oxytocin levels similar to the no-contact group.”

Says Alex Korb: “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.”

 

 

How To Intentionally Design A Happier Life

This blog published on my birthday by by Elizabeth Seagram, is a great read about an interesting scholar: Paul Dolan, a leading happiness scholar, who here offers strategies for identifying what really makes you happy and doing more of those things.

“Most people assume that they know whether they are happy or not, but in reality, judging our own happiness can be very difficult. There is often a disconnect between what our brains are telling us and what we actually feel. “We tell stories about the things we think should make us happy, but sometimes, when we look a bit closer, we’re not really that happy at all,” says Paul Dolan, a professor at the London School of Economics, a government policy advisor and one of the world’s leading happiness scholars.

This blog published on my birthday by Elizabeth Seagram, is a great read about an interesting scholar: Paul Dolan, a leading happiness scholar, who here offers strategies for identifying what really makes you happy and doing more of those things.

“Most people assume that they know whether they are happy or not, but in reality, judging our own happiness can be very difficult. There is often a disconnect between what our brains are telling us and what we actually feel. “We tell stories about the things we think should make us happy, but sometimes, when we look a bit closer, we’re not really that happy at all,” says Paul Dolan, a professor at the London School of Economics, a government policy advisor and one of the world’s leading happiness scholars.

Perhaps you think you’re happy because you’ve landed your dream job, but in practice, you’re tired from the commute, your coworkers are unfriendly and you’re spending less time with your kids. Or maybe you’ve just gotten engaged and in the flurry of congratulations, it may not register to you that you’re anxious about moving in with your partner. Dolan has concluded that thoughtful, driven people spend so long reflecting about what makes a meaningful life, they sometimes lose sight of what actually feels good to them on a daily basis. “I think we should be paying attention to how we feel day-to-day and moment-to-moment,” he tells Fast Company.

After decades of studying happiness, Dolan has developed a happiness formula. He says that happy people pay attention to the everyday experiences that give them pleasure and purpose, then organise their lives so that they are doing more of those things. It sounds obvious, right? Sure, but the problem is that we spend so much of our lives on autopilot instead of consciously focusing on doing things that make us happy.

“We are creatures of habit and we automate processes very quickly,” Dolan says. “We do a lot of what we do because we’ve always done it, not because it is good for us or because we enjoy it.” The good news, however, is that Dolan offers two tangible ways for us create more happy moments in our lives. The first is creating a mental habit of paying attention to what makes us happy and the second is designing our lives so it is easier to do those things.

DO A HAPPINESS AUDIT

It takes a lot of energy to be constantly thinking about whether or not you are happy. This is why most of us adopt a philosophy about what goes into meaningful life—such as finding satisfying work, getting married, having kids—then we stop wondering whether we are happy. Dolan does not recommend fixating on your daily happiness levels, but rather taking one day a week or month to observe yourself.

“It’s about tuning in to what you are doing, who you are doing it with and how it makes you feel,” Dolan says. “How much worry, stress, anger, joy or contentment do you experience on a given day?” In doing one of these audits himself, Dolan noticed that he got more pleasure out of listening to music on his commute than hearing a podcast, checking his email, or reading. This was not obvious to him until he paid attention to it, but now, he sets off to work with a playlist loaded on his phone.

This was a relatively small fix, but some changes are bigger in scale. In fact, it can be hard to be honest about what truly makes us happy because the answer might involve altering important parts of your life. For instance, if you scrutinize your relationship and realize that you are unhappy, it might seem overwhelming to think about leaving your partner. Or if you determine that your job is making you miserable, you might not relish the idea of looking for a new career.

Dolan says that it is worth confronting these realities because escaping unhappy situations can have an enormously positive impact on your mood and your health in the long term, even though the short term transition might be painful. The key is to be gentle with yourself and not rush into major life changes.

DESIGN YOUR LIFE FOR HAPPINESS

One of the most interesting questions to Dolan is why we fail to do things that make us happy. Sometimes, it comes down to not perceiving what really makes us happy, which is why a happiness audit is so valuable. But often, even when we know that certain activities make us happy, our ingrained habits sabotage our efforts to do them. We might realize that taking an afternoon walk lifts our mood, but because we’re so used to working at our desk all day, it takes effort to pull ourselves away. We might feel better when we sleep earlier, but it might be hard to break the habit of watching TV late into the night.

THERE’S THIS BELIEF THAT ANYTHING WORTH HAVING HAS TO BE EFFORTFUL, BUT REALLY THE OPPOSITE IT TRUE. JUST MAKE HAPPINESS AS EASY AS POSSIBLE.

The solution, according to Dolan, is to deliberately make it very easy to do the things that make us happy. If an action seems difficult or hard, our brains will be inclined to avoid it. But if it seems easy, it takes less willpower to do them. If you love spending time with a certain friend, you could set up a standing weekly or monthly date with that person, so it isn’t a hassle to keep scheduling time to meet. If you want to take that daily afternoon walk, put it on your calendar for all to see. If you fill your kitchen with healthier foods, eating better will take less mental energy. If you enjoy going to the gym, find the closest gym to your house and make friends with the people that hang out there, so you cannot make up excuses not to go.

Dolan believes we can structure our time and design our surroundings in such a way that we can quickly make a habit out of doing things that make us happy. These changes are small and incremental, but this is precisely why he thinks they work so well. “People think that we need big solutions to do the issue of happiness justice,” he says. “There’s this belief that anything worth having has to be effortful, but really the opposite it true. Just make happiness as easy as possible.”

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her work has been published in The Atlantic, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs and The Nation.

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