In a recent article published by Time magazine 4 things were listed and credited for increasing happiness. What set this article apart from other happiness tips and advice was that it was based on evidence compiled by Neuroscientists from the outcomes of multiple studies on brain activity. UCLA Neuroscience researcher Alex Korb provided details of their findings to Time Magazine, I’ve compiled a summary of his findings below:
What is the important question?
There’s an important question to ask when you are feeling down. Sometimes your brain doesn’t seem to want you to be happy, preferring instead to default to feelings of guilt or shame. Why is that? Well perhaps it’s because shame and guilt activate the brain’s reward centre!
Yes that’s right – you get a kick out of feeling ashamed and guilty!
According to research findings pride, shame, and guilt all activate similar neural circuits. Pride is the most powerful of these emotions at triggering brain activity, except in the nucleus accumbens, where guilt and shame outperform it. This explains why it can be so appealing to heap guilt and shame on ourselves, they’re activating our brains reward centre.
It was also noted that worrying can help calm the limbic system by increasing activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and decreasing activity in the amygdala. That might seem counterintuitive, but it demonstrates that if you’re feeling anxious, doing something about it, even if it’s worrying, feels better than doing nothing. However! Guilt, shame and worry are very poor long term solutions. So what’s a better alternative according to Neuroscientist’s? What’s that important question we alluded to earlier? It’s …….
What am I grateful for?
Why is this question so important? It’s because it affects your brain biologically. Feeling grateful activates the brain stem region which in turn produces dopamine. Science has tried to replicate this effect with drugs like Wellbutrin, which was designed to boost the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Gratitude also triggers social dopamine circuits, making socialising feel natural.
The drug Prozac is another pharmaceutical attempt to emulate the effect that can be produced naturally by practicing gratitude by boosting the neurotransmitter serotonin. Gratitude triggers this production by forcing you to focus on positive aspects of your life. This simple act increases serotonin production.
Even at the worst of times, the act of searching for (not necessarily finding) something to be grateful for will trigger positive processes in the brain. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. It’s putting you in a resourceful state. One study quoted, found the act of searching for something to be grateful for affected neuron density, this density suggests that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. The more emotionally intelligent you become the easier it is to be grateful.
The resulting increase in personal happiness leads to improvement in relationships and an expression of gratitude to the people you care about will multiply the dividends.
Reducing Negative Feelings is easier than you may think...
So what about those times when you can’t seem to shake negative feelings? Scientists recommend that if you feel bad that you should label the feeling. Give the awfulness a name e.g. Sad, Anxious, Angry, Disappointed, Frustrated.
It may seem too simple to be effective, but simple solutions are often the most effective aren’t they.
MRI’ studies of people shown pictures of faces expressing different emotions indicated that their response was significantly reduced after they were asked to name the emotions displayed, there was reduced emotional amygdala reactivity, in other words consciously recognising the emotions reduced the impact.
Suppressing emotions is an exercise in futility and will cause damage. Researchers found that people who tried to suppress negative emotional experiences failed to do so, because while outwardly they may have carried it off, inwardly their limbic system was just as aroused as if they had let the emotions run, and in some cases it was even more aroused. These findings were confirmed using MRI studies. Trying not to feel feelings doesn’t work and in some cases magnifies their affect.
When a label is applied to the emotion the impact of the emotion lessens significantly. All it takes to reduce the emotional turbulence is to use a few simple words to describe what’s being felt. By so doing you activate your prefrontal cortex and thereby reduce the arousal in the limbic system. In short, describe an emotion in a couple of words and it reduces the emotion in the process. This is a cornerstone of Mindfulness and helps to explain why practicing mindfulness is so effective a tool to use to sooth and relax us.
The process of labelling affects the brain to the extent that it works on other people too. The FBI use the emotion labelling technique in hostage negotiations.
Decide to make Decisions!
Have you noticed how you feel a sense of relief once you make a decision? There’s a physical reason for that. By making decisions you reduce worry and anxiety and improve your problem solving.
Making decisions is multi-faceted and includes creating intentions and setting goals. These processes are all in the same neural circuitry and all engage the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, thereby reducing worry and anxiety. Decisiveness helps overcome striatum brain activity, which usually pulls you toward negative impulses and routines e.g. mindless eating, nail biting, smoking. Making decisions also changes how you perceive the world by calming your limbic system, which leads to greater feelings of security.
It’s true that sometimes making a decision may be difficult, however according to Neuroscience a “good enough” decision without becoming caught up in finding the perfect solution is all that’s required to achieve the positive benefits. Striving for perfection can have the opposite result as it overwhelms the brain leading to a sense of loss of control. Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz says “Good enough is almost always good enough”
When you decide on something the brain feels in control, feelings of control reduce stress and boosts pleasure by increasing dopamine activity.
This is why deciding to go to the gym results in a more consistently positive outcome than telling yourself that you ‘have to go’ to the gym. Your brain gets more pleasure from a voluntary decision, if it feels obliged there’s no dopamine pay off. So make more decisions! Neuroscientist Alex Korb pointed out that “We don’t just choose the things we like; we also like the things we choose”
Reach out and touch!
Touching and being touched by other human beings (in a consensual and appropriate way of course!) interacting and connecting, enables us to feel love and acceptance. Being denied this is literally painful. Neuroscience has demonstrated via studies that being excluded from social groups generates a physical pain response. The response elicited by relationships is important to the brain, and to take it up a notch combine it with physical touch and the brain will release oxytocin. Even something as simple as a handshake or a pat on the back can release a little oxytocin. If you have people in your life that you’re close to, why not take more opportunity to hug each other. Human touch is more powerful than we may have previously given it credit for, apparently it makes you more persuasive, improves team work, social interaction and believe it or not even makes you better at maths! Touching a loved one reduces physical pain, studies done on married couples showed that the stronger the marriage the more significant the reduction in pain. Holding hands can comfort someone through a pain episode.
Long hugs release neurotransmitters and oxytocin and reduce the reactivity of the amygdala.
So, to sum up, if you make a decision to set yourself a goal of having 3 hugs a day for 4 weeks and are grateful for each hug, your happiness will increase – Science says so!
*If you'd like some help getting back on the path to happiness we can help. Call us on 0435 923 817 or contact us using this form. Skype bookings are available. Clinical Hypnotherapy is an effective and efficient modality for opening the mind to new possibilities and a more positive perspective. We're located in Mentone which is South East of Melbourne, however if distance is an issue we can arrange sessions via Skype.
* Results may vary
Georgina Mitchell was born in Ireland, moving to Australia in 1989. Georgina spent many years working in senior management in the Corporate world, before leaving to pursue her passion to become a Therapist.
Melbourne Hypnotherapy Blog
Please note as with all therapies, Results for Therapies delivered by Hypfocus may vary from person to person