What Does Brain Science Say About Your Happiness?

brain science happiness

By: Tyler Fortman, PhD

We’ve come a long way in our understanding of the brain.  Really.  Consider that it wasn’t until 1970 that the Society for Neuroscience was established.  And, consider that the technology catalyzing the MRI wasn’t even available until 1938.  The study of neuroscience is moving quickly, but how have you allowed it to help your life?

With the neuroscientific advancements of the past few decades, the mystery of happiness doesn’t have to be a mystery.  In his book, The Upward Spiral, UCLA neuroscientist, Alex Korb reveals several ways you can leverage our understanding of the brain to promote your own happiness.

Here are the takeaways:

  1. Express Gratitude

As it turns out, Oprah wasn’t all that far off when she suggested that all of her viewers could benefit from keeping a gratitude journal.  This doesn’t have to consume your life, but the simple act of gratitude improves mood.

To understand why gratitude matters you don’t have to look any further than the brain chemicals (e.g., neurotransmitters) impacted by our most common antidepressant drugs (i.e., Wellbutrin, Prozac, etc.).  Gratitude actually activates the parts of the brain stem that stimulate the production and release of dopamine as well as the production of serotonin in the anterior cingulate cortex.  The flooding of the brain with these “happiness” chemicals is the key to “feeling” happy.

Guess what – expressing gratitude in social situations has a similar impact.  Social dopamine circuits are activated and your experience of the interaction is actually more positive.

But what about the times when you feel really depressed and you can’t think of anything to be grateful for?  It does matter.  The simple act of considering what you’re grateful for stimulates the brain’s release of serotonin, so you don’t have to actually come up with anything to feel happier.

Try journaling 3 things you are grateful for each day.  Or, consider expressing gratitude for something every time you get a phone notification.

  1. Label Your Feelings

Sometimes you don’t feel good.  What then?

For starters, an area of your brain known as the amygdala gets activated when you have an emotional response (regardless of if you are feeling something good or bad).  You feel the emotion and your amygdala gets activated, whether you name it or not.

It’s not uncommon, especially for men, to try to suppress negative emotions.  The catch is that suppressing emotions may change the outward appearance, but doesn’t change the experience of your brain.  Brain science research shows that your limbic system is at least as active, if not more active, when you attempt to suppress emotions.  So, what’s the solution.

As simple as it sounds, naming your negative emotions increases the activity in your brain’s ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and decreases the emotional activity in your amygdala.  Just by saying to yourself, “sadness” you leverage your brain’s normal processes to improve your mood.  If you’re wondering, labeling the emotions of others who are in distress has a similar impact.  So, help your loved ones by reflecting the emotion they seem to be feeling too.

Try meditating to practice labeling emotions without responding to them!

  1. Make Decisions

Did you know that the very act of making decisions reduces anxiety and worry?  That’s right – neuroscience shows us (see The Upward Spiral) that the act of creating goals and making decisions engages the prefrontal cortex in a positive way.  When you make decisions you avoid striatum activity, which often results in negative impulses and routines.  And let’s be real, when you make decisions you are “solving” the problem (e.g., the target of your decision) in your brain, which reduces activity in the limbic system; therefore, encouraging feelings of calm.

But what if you make the wrong decision?  Well, as it turns out, “good enough’ decisions are really “good enough.”  When you strive for the perfect decision, you activate your ventromedial prefrontal cortex.  Instead, making “good enough” decisions activate your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which helps you feel more in control.

Not only that, but when you make decisions instead of just waiting for things to happen from other influences (i.e., random chance, someone else’s decisions, etc.), your brain actually releases more dopamine.  You like things that you decided on more than things you didn’t!

  1. Build Touching Relationships

We all have a need to feel connected to people.  Some people’s need is greater than others, yes, but we all have it.  When we don’t have relationships we feel emotional pain.  You probably know from experience, this emotional pain feels as painful as physical pain.  That’s because it activates the same parts of the brain – the anterior cingulate and insula.  So, make sure that relationships are a priority in your life and work for them!

After you’ve built relationships, make sure you touch the people you’re close too!  That’s right – touch them.  Hug, cuddle, hold hands, shake hands…touch, but not indiscriminately! Touching reduces activity in the pain centers of your brain and slows the release of the stress hormone cortisol.  It also catalyzes the release of a neurotransmitter and hormone called oxytocin.  Oxytocin builds that sense of attachment in the relationship.  If that wasn’t enough, touch also promotes the release of serotonin and dopamine, so it just feels good.  Work for those relationships and then share in touch!

Who said you couldn’t understand your brain? Go use it to your advantage!