We speculate all kinds of ways to stay happy, but what better way is there to discover happiness than trusting a neuroscientist? Recent research by a neuroscientist, Alex Korb, has found four ways to make ourselves happy and stay that way. Here’s what his research has to offer:
1. We should learn what’s happening to us when we feel at our worst, and why
Alex Korb’s research – detailed in The Upward Spiral – can tell us how we tackle human’s most important enemy; our brains. It often feels like our brain is against us, especially when we’re feeling tired, depressed or unmotivated. To understand why we have to know a little about our minds. Shame, pride, and guilt are all emotions that produce activity in the same areas. Mostly, satisfaction is the strongest emotion in these regions, but when activating the nucleus accumbens, shame and guilt override our pride.
This area of the brain is also known as a reward center; it means that when we allow bad feelings to take over, it feels strangely good. It’s the same principle with feeling nervous. Anxiety is a short-term solution, and it targets parts of the brain that calm us down. It also makes us feel proactive in dealing with our issues.
Despite this making us feel a little better for a while, in the long-term it makes everything worse. So what does Korb suggest we do to calm us down? Ask ourselves what we’re grateful for.
In times of anxiety, it’s ubiquitous for us to resort to antidepressants and other drugs. But is there a way to create the ease of these medicines ourselves? It is when we ask ourselves what we’re grateful for. Gratitude helps release dopamine and serotonin in the brain – both of which improve our mood, and both of which are boosted by drugs such as Prozac. In other words, we can achieve the highs given to us by drugs just by searching our minds for what we’re grateful for.
2. We should identify the feelings that bring us down
There are a lot of strands to feel ‘bad.’ We could be feeling jealous, or angry, or bitter, and even though those three feelings are often grouped, they have different meanings. Korb found that labeling a feeling made the emotion’s impact softer. Participants in a study were told to look at images of people’s faces, where they were each expressing a different emotion.
The participant took on the emotion simply by looking at the image, which increased activity in the amygdala. However, after each of the participants labeled what emotion was being shown, activity in the amygdala decreased again. Why? Because understanding the exact emotion reduced the emotion’s ability to take over. In other words, recognizing the way you’re feeling helps conquer the wrong emotions.
So how do we best incorporate this knowledge to attack bad feelings and pave our way to stay happy? Practising mindfulness is one of the oldest tricks in the book. It involves putting a label on your feelings to help reduce their negative impact.
3. We should become more active in making decisions
Humans often report feeling better after making a decision and sticking to it. There’s a good reason behind it. Making a decision positively activates the prefrontal cortex, which can reduce our anxiety, and steers you away from any negative impulses. Making a decision is also a form of puzzle solving – concluding what to do is a way to solve the problem, which reduces the strain on our brain’s limbic system and paves our way to stay happy.
However, part of the stress of making a decision is deciding if we’ve reached the right one. We put too much pressure on perfection, and Korb’s research suggests that merely making a proper decision can be better than striving for a perfect solution. This kind of behavior activates the dorsolateral prefrontal areas, which are associated with being in control, consequently lessening the strain of the situation.
Korb’s research found that actively choosing to do something that has a good outcome is even better than something happening just by chance. For example, wanting to go to the gym rather than being forced to go gives us a much more prominent pleasure boost. Feeling inclined to go doesn’t make us feel positive about the experience, and means we don’t get the same releases of dopamine while we’re exercising. Going on the treadmill with a more positive attitude is an active choice, and makes us feel the benefits even more afterward and we stay happy doing it.
4. Finally, we should make a habit of making physical human contact
Emotional rejection is one of the most painful things a human can experience. Feeling loved and affection is a booster of our mood to stay happy, but refusal gives us the opposite effect. During a study where participants tossed a virtual ball to a partner, they began to feel rejection when the virtual partner stopped sharing the ball. Studies of the participant’s brains showed they felt this rejection in the same way you’d feel a broken arm – physically, in the insula and anterior cingulate.
So if social rejection hurts this much, what happens when we experience acceptance? Physical contact, even as simple as a handshake, releases oxytocin in the brain and immediately gives us a boost to stay happy. That’s why we feel so good when we’re snuggled up with our partner, or when our friends hug us in greeting. Touching can also help us when we’re in pain.
During a study where married women were told they were about to receive a small electrical shock, they had a weaker reaction when they were allowed to hold their husband’s hand. Other research shows that regular hugs for four weeks can increase your happiness and make you stay more happy. This can also explain why people like massages so much. The human connection felt during it can boost positive neurotransmitters by 30% in your brain.
The next time you’re feeling down, now you know there’s no reason to let it consume you. Now that you have some understanding of how the brain works and why you can use it to control your emotions. Following these four rituals regularly will increase your happiness and leave you more at ease. So what are you waiting for? Pave your path to stay happy.