The Key To Happiness Is Listening To Your Brain - Science Proves It
Adrian Quinton 5/9/2016
Everyone wants to be happy, and why not? Feeling great and positive about your life is what many people consider a key factor in being “successful.” But what is happiness, really? We ask the expert.
Lots of people can offer opinions and theories about what it takes to be happy or why people feel that way, but for our article we wanted the facts. So, we decided to go to the expert who knows happiness better than anyone—your brain, of course! In fact, UCLA neuroscience researcher Alex Korb has come up with amazing insights into how our brain works with all aspects of our lives to affect our moods, brain chemistry, and yes, our happiness. Here are 5 pretty surprising facts about happiness and how our brains handle this universal--yet complex--emotion.
Happiness Activates The Reward Center Of The Brain. But So Does Shame, Anger, Guilt...
It seems natural to think that as opposites, a positive emotion like happiness and a negative one like anger wouldn’t exactly cross paths in your brain. But according to Korb’s research, that’s precisely what happens. In his book, “The Upward Spiral,” Korb explains:
“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.”
"Rewarding" or not, what do we do if certain emotions become overwhelming? One simple way to get a grip on your feelings is to simply identify them (“I feel anxious/jealous/stressed, etc.”). The simple act of labeling them gives you a way to "see" the feeling objectively can actually decrease a feeling's impact on you. Don’t trust us, trust your brain--it’s science!
Worrying Actually IS Productive.
You may not want to decrease the effects of all emotions, though. Most people feel worried about something on a regular basis, and while many consider it to be a "negative" emotion, it may not be all bad. Research shows that although the act of worrying won’t do much to actually solve the problems that are bothering you, it will make your brain feel a little better.
In his book, Korb also weighs in on worry: “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 just goes to show that if you’re feeling anxiety, doing something about it — even worrying — is better than doing nothing.In fact, 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 just goes to show that if you’re feeling anxiety, doing something about it — even worrying — is better than doing nothing.”
...But Being Grateful Is Even More Productive Than Worrying.
We’ve all heard that being grateful and focusing on things that make us happy and that taking time to appreciate the good things in our lives is a great way to feel better. But now, we know that it’s not just the “warm and fuzzies” we’re feeling; our brain actually sends out dopamine and serotonin, some of the most powerful neurotransmitters for pleasure. The brain releases these same chemicals when we exercise, when we hear songs we love, and pretty much whenever we’re doing something enjoyable.
In fact, the anti-depressant drugs Wellbutrin, Prozac, and many others work by boosting those two transmitters, and so does gratitude. So if you ever need a quick pick-me-up, take a minute or two to think about or write down a list of all the things you feel grateful for in your life. Plus, once you get in the habit of thinking gratefully, the neurons in your brain actually improve! Korb explains:
“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.”
Hugs Actually Make You Happier-Science Says So!
Remember those feel-good neurotransmitters we mentioned earlier? Well their close friend, oxytocin, is another member of the feel-good family of brain chemicals. Though most forms of physical contact release this hormone in your brain, long, tight hugs, hand-holding and massage are some of the best ways to reap the benefits.
In one study, it was found that as few as 5 hugs a day for 4 weeks lead to significantly improved levels of happiness. It has also been found that your brain treats the feelings associated with being socially isolated or neglected the same as if you were experiencing physical pain. So go ahead--give out a few more hugs today and make sure you reach out to someone who looks lonely; it’s good for your health and your mind!
Be Mindful Of Your Feelings
At the end of the day, happiness is affected by several factors, but your brain is at the center of it all. So how do you get happier? An easy start is to allow yourself to worry--but not forever. Take the time to identify what you’re feeling, put a name to it, and practice gratitude. Plus, a little extra touching never hurts, either.
It's All Connected = Truth
As Korb states in his book: “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.” We couldn't have said it better ourselves!