You want to be happy. Unfortunately, your brain is not always in a cooperating kind of mood. What gives?
Honestly, happiness is not a helpful goal. Yeah, you heard me. It’s too vague and abstract. Ask people to define happiness and you’ll either get unhelpful, cliche answers or it will quickly devolve into a 2AM-dorm-room-philosophy-discussion. And plenty of research shows we’re not always very good at predicting what makes us happy.
But our brain tries. Hard. It’s a natural pattern-recognition machine, looking for what works and what doesn’t, generalizing experience, making predictions and registering feedback.
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But sometimes it makes a wrong turn, we develop bad habits and we don’t even know what street happy is on anymore. We get into a downward spiral that’s no fun and the world needs that about as much as it needs another true crime podcast.
The good news is we actually have a lot of control over our happiness — if we can get past that vague word and think about the concrete actions to take to get there. Studies show 40% of our happiness is within our control. (If that doesn’t sound like a lot, think back to school — 40% is the difference between an A and an F.)
So by doing the right things we can form better habits and create an upward happiness spiral. This is backed by a very serious pinky swear from yours truly. But don’t trust me. Let’s get the specifics from an expert…
Alex Korb is a neuroscientist at UCLA in the department of psychiatry and author of The Upward Spiral Workbook. We’re gonna break down some of what Alex recommends and learn what your grey matter really needs in order to maximally increase smile production.
Let’s get to it…
Challenge Unhelpful Thoughts
That sounds a little weird but the wording is quite deliberate. When we’re feeling sad we get a little too focused on what is “true” and not what is “helpful.”
Plenty of stuff is true. Cancer is true. “You’re gonna die one day” is true. Is an excessive amount of time thinking about it helpful if happiness is your goal?
We think happiness is about money or love or success but the truth is your happiness is most determined by the thoughts in your head because that’s what has your attention the vast majority of the time. Now you can’t control what thoughts pop up but you can decide what is helpful and choose not to give the unhelpful thoughts any more attention than they deserve.
And the other big problem we have with thoughts is just taking them way too seriously. They’re suggestions. Possibilities. But they’re not gospel. Thoughts are often your lower brain talking. You need to get your prefrontal cortex on the case to examine them rigorously before you start acting on silly fears and anxieties.
So listen to your thoughts — but don’t necessarily believe them. Don’t run with them until your brain’s Quality Control Department has signed off.
But your thoughts are just thoughts—the whisperings of your limbic system and your striatum. Thoughts are something you have, but they are not who you are. You are not your limbic system. You are not your striatum. Identifying, acknowledging, and reframing unhelpful thoughts will be something we’ll revisit throughout this book. Taking these small steps helps the prefrontal cortex get a runaway limbic system back under control (Ochsner et al., 2004)
All that is fine and dandy but how do we identify thoughts that are unhelpful? Luckily, Alex rounded up the usual suspects:
1) Black and White Thinking:
100% good and 100% evil only exist in superhero movies. Frankly, sometimes it would be nice if life was this clear, but it ain’t. And when it comes to your mood, you’ll be a lot happier if you realize there are heaping piles of nuance to most things.
2) Unrealistic Expectations:
Did I say this blog post will make you happy immediately and forever? No. But if you’re assuming that, guess who is gonna be disappointed? You. (And me, honestly.) Cynicism is bad but a little skepticism is essential. Consistently unrealistic expectations are a great way to make sure that everything in life sucks.
3) Selective Attention:
If your brain is always looking for the negative, trust me, you’re gonna find it. Most of happiness is perspective. You could read this post and say, “Oh my god, this is too much to do!” Or you can say, “Wow, there are so many ways for me to increase my happiness!” Same facts, different perspective. And they produce very different feelings.
4) Disqualifying the Positive:
Sometimes we go into problem-solving mode and focus only on what is broken. But if you stay in this frame all the time it’s a one way trip to the world of Zoloft. Plenty of good things happen and you need to appreciate them. Nobody has ever said “taking things for granted is a good idea.” Life could always be worse — but it’s not. So give that it’s due.
5) Predicting the Future:
“This will never work” or “They’re going to think I’m stupid.” You don’t know the future. So don’t act like you do. (But if you really do, please email me tomorrow’s lottery numbers. Thanks.)
7) “Should” thoughts:
This is a big one. I suggest banning the word “should” from your vocabulary. “But she should…” It’s usually just an insistence that the world bends to your will and is a great way to amplify frustration. (For more on the inherent evils of “should” click here.)
Make a list of your most common unhelpful thought patterns. (Having a friend assist you can be good — and humbling.) Labeling these thoughts is powerful. Give them silly names.
And next time they hijack your brain, challenge them. Don’t beat yourself up. Just play a game of catching yourself in the act, label the thought, and then consider more helpful ways to look at the problem. This is an absurdly powerful habit to get into.
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Okay, let’s get outta your head. Too much going on in there already. A big part of life actually takes place outside of it, believe it or not. And if you want to increase happiness, your brain can’t treat life like a spectator sport. You’re gonna need to…
Do More Stuff
Dealing with unhelpful thought patterns is the hallmark of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and it’s the single most proven method for boosting mood and reversing depression. But another very powerful scientific technique is “Behavioral Activation Therapy.”
And, frankly, that’s a really fancy psychology term for “do more stuff.”
Your actions, whether intentional or unintentional, have consequences for the activity and chemistry of key neural circuits. A fact that you can take advantage of to create an upward spiral. This idea is exploited by one of the most effective treatments for depression: behavioral activation therapy. Behavioral activation focuses on changing unhelpful behaviors that contribute to depression and incorporating more helpful ones. This type of approach has been shown to alter the activity in the emotion regulation, motivation, and habit circuits in the brain—the medial prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, and dorsal striatum, respectively (Dichter et al., 2009).
We associate depression with lethargy and happiness with energy — accurately. But it’s a two-way street. A feedback loop. If you’re active and doing things, you’re less likely to be bogged down ruminating. And if you’re idle, it can be easy to dwell on the negative.
So you need to get out there and accomplish some big, long-term audacious goals to be happy, right?
Wrong. This is a common mistake we make. Big goals are great, but the research confirms the cliche: it’s the little things. Lots of little positives are better for happiness that occasionally bagging an elephant.
Arrange your life so that you have lot of little positives coming your way, and that you take the time to appreciate them. And the best way to make sure that happens is to do more stuff.
You want good karma? Well, for the non-Sanskrit speakers among us, karma literally translates as “action.” You have to do good things to have good stuff come back your way.
So what kinda stuff should you be doing more of? Alex has a list of stuff your brain likes:
- Enjoyable stuff: News flash — doing fun things can lead to fun.
- Achievement stuff: Defeat your goals in single combat and feel like a conquering hero.
- Meaningful stuff: When was the last time you did volunteer work? Or just helped someone?
- Physical stuff: Exercise. Not only keeps you alive, but it’s like miracle grow for your brain.
- Social stuff: We use solitary confinement to punish people, don’t we?
Be specific. Tailor your do-more-of-this-list to you, personally. What do you enjoy but don’t do as often as you like? What makes you feel competent, accomplished, and successful?
Now put those things on your calendar. Not metaphorically. Schedule them for the coming week. Right now. C’mon. Chop, chop. Get a friend involved to hold you accountable and you can make two brains happier.
(To learn the 4-step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Excuse me for repeating myself but one of the above five stuffs-to-do deserves special attention — because it is the single greatest contributor to happiness…
What happens when you study the happiest people around and analyze what they have in common? Researchers did just that.
There was a clear answer to what differentiated these people from everyone else. And it wasn’t money, smarts, age, gender or race.
If you want to keep your brain happy, be clear on who your support network is. Know who matters and nurture those relationships. So who is your inner circle?
Aaaaaaand this is where your mind goes blank, so Alex has some questions to help you:
“Who appreciates you or thinks highly of you, whether or not you agree with them?”
“Who is there to help you out if needed?”
“Who can you call, text or visit for emotional support?”
“Who is good with giving you advice or helping you make decisions?”
“Who do you like spending time with?”
“Who can you do activities with?”
Write the names down. Yeah, now. This is critical Defcon-1 type stuff right here, bubba. Make a list. (If you want to use colored markers and put glitter on the list and title it “MY BESTEST FRIENDS IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD” I won’t stop you.)
“Relationship” may be a noun but for you and me it’s a verb. You want to check in with those people. Regularly. What kinda check-ins does your brain like? Science has answers.
The best thing to do is talk with the person in real life or meet up for an activity (Sherman, Michikyan, & Greenfield, 2013). The next best thing is talking on the phone, which is better than texts or emails. Seeing someone and hearing their voice activates your mirror neuron system in ways that texting can’t match.
Now go down your list and start sending some texts. Schedule activities or hang-outs if possible. And when you see people, touch them. Don’t go all Kevin Spacey on people but research shows physical contact is much more important than you think.
Want to make this logistically easier and even more powerful? Be part of a group that meets regularly.
Groups can not only help you feel better but also make you feel like you’re more in control of your life (Greenaway et al., 2015). Joining a group helps reduce symptoms of depression and can even prevent it in the first place (Cruwys et al., 2013). And it unfortunately works the other way too: if you leave a supportive group, you can increase your risk for depression (Seymour-Smith, Cruwys, Haslam, & Brodribb, 2017).
And I wanna keep it real, so let’s cover the less-happy-cheery side of things too: not all social time is good time. Some people are jerks. Another way to boost your happiness is to break social ties with toxic folks.
Research shows that sometimes it can be beneficial to break social ties (Dingle, Stark, Cruwys, & Best, 2015). Other people reinforce our habits, including our social and emotional habits. So if you don’t like those habits or the feelings those people trigger, change the people you surround yourself with.
Think of your social life like a bonsai tree. You need to water it and fertilize it — but you also need to trim it to keep it healthy.
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
Now some things are not an easy change. You’ve probably been trying to improve some areas of your life for years and have shown as much progress as a blind man in an art appreciation class. So how can we work with our brains to break bad habits?
Slay Unhelpful Habits — Gently
I’ve already posted a lot about the science of breaking bad habits and creating good ones. But what are the neuroscience-y bits here that often get neglected when we try to improve habits?
Often, discussion of habit-making and breaking is mechanical. And your brain isn’t very mechanical. When you’re trying to quit bad habits you often get critical with yourself which leads to bad feelings that make you cave and go back to your old ways.
Now self-criticism does activate the “mistake region” of the brain to help us regulate our behavior. But it can also easily lead to bad moods. So let’s activate a different network…
Instead of self-criticism, try self-reassurance.
Self-criticism is one means of activating the prefrontal cortex to try to regulate the limbic system, and it’s linked to activation of the anterior cingulate—the mistake region of the brain (Longe et al., 2010). But this pattern of thinking can get in the way of making positive change, particularly if you’re feeling down and demotivated. By contrast, self-reassurance uses the parts of the PFC that more directly regulate the emotional limbic system. It also activates the insula, the part of the brain that feels things and is linked to empathy. Self-reassurance therefore helps with making positive changes. So you can either feel your emotions empathically and start to make a change or, through old coping habits, avoid feeling them and stay on the same course. The choice is up to you.
How do we do that? Ironically, think less about your mistakes and more about the qualities of yourself you like best. Feeling good about yourself gives you the energy and confidence to keep improving.
Research has shown that habits can be easier to change if you focus not on your worst qualities but on your best ones (Epton, Harris, Kane, van Koningsbruggen, & Sheeran, 2015). Think about what you like most about yourself: what qualities of yours would you not want to change? This type of focus is rewarding and activates the nucleus accumbens (Dutcher et al., 2016).
Beating yourself up won’t make you better. Liking yourself will.
(To learn how to have a long awesome life, click here.)
Okay, now is the part where you thank me for all I’ve done for you.
Huh? Me? Selfish? Jeez, Louise. No, this will benefit you, not me…
Remember when I said the bulk of happiness is perspective? A lot of people question that one. (For the record, I am right and they are wrong.)
Gratitude is the best example. It feels good. Really good. But we forget that. We take things for granted. Think about what matters most to you in life. Loved ones, home, career, health. Now imagine losing them all. Go full-Biblical-Job-story.
Now don’t just think it, feel it for a second. Losing all those things that mean so much…
Okay, that’s enough. Back to reality: you haven’t lost anything. But other people are in that situation. You aren’t one of them. Feel lucky? You should.
Did you just gain anything? Not really. Did you have to accomplish anything? Nope. Nothing really changed — except your perspective. You looked around and realized how good you have it. That’s all it takes. You didn’t need to buy anything, do anything or accomplish anything. You just had to appreciate what you have and be thankful for it to get a boost.
Gratitude can decrease depression symptoms as well as stress in general, and leads to increased perception of social support (Wood, Maltby, Gillett, Linley, & Joseph, 2008). It improves self-esteem and psychological well-being (Lin, 2015). It can even improve your physical health and the quality of your sleep (Hill, Allemand, & Roberts, 2013; Wood, Joseph, Lloyd, & Atkins, 2009). Gratitude has so many benefits because it affects a wide variety of brain regions and chemicals. Importantly, gratitude has the power to activate the dopamine system, specifically the brain stem region where dopamine is produced (Zahn et al., 2009).
Oh, and that gratitude thing is even nicer if you express it to other people. (Contemplating doomsday scenarios alone in your head is great but telling others “thank you” is less likely to make you cry and wet yourself.)
Gratitude increases our sense of connection with others. Studies of gratitude have shown that it activates the same medial prefrontal regions that we utilize to understand the perspective of other people and to act compassionately (Fox, Kaplan, Damasio, & Damasio, 2015). Part of the reason gratitude can help you feel more connected to others is that in recognizing what you are grateful for, you must acknowledge what you need. And in acknowledging what you need, you become aware of the needs of others too. In addition, many of the benefits of gratitude for others are mediated by the oxytocin system (vanOyen Witviliet, et al., 2018). This is an upward spiral, as gratitude facilitates connection with others and connection with others facilitates gratitude.
So write a thank you letter. (Or email. Or text.) You don’t even have to send it if you feel awkward. It will make you feel good. In fact, this actually showed effects on the brain for months.
One study asked participants to write gratitude letters and found that it changed gratitude-related activity in their anterior cingulate cortex even several months later (Kini et al., 2016). The anterior cingulate region generally responds to self-relevant stimuli. Thus, as you practice being grateful, positive aspects of your life suddenly become more relevant to you. You won’t have to look for them so hard, because your brain will be automatically looking for you.
But it’s better if you do send that letter. It’ll improve your relationship. It’ll make two people happy. Heck, it’ll make me happy as well, so that’s three for the price of one.
(To learn how to deal with passive-aggressive people, click here.)
Okay, we’ve learned a lot. Now is the part where we round everything up and I typically mention one more enticing thing so that you actually read to the bottom.
Yes, there will be an enticing thing.
So you should read to the bottom.
Here’s how neuroscience can make you happy:
- Challenge Unhelpful Thoughts: Anytime you’re lost in negative thought, don’t ask yourself if it’s true, ask if it is helpful.
- Do More Stuff: More little good things beat few big great things when it comes to happiness. So do more things to get more results. Karma = action.
- Be Social: No man is an island. (At the very least, you are an archipelago.)
- Slay Unhelpful Habits: Thinking about what you like about you is the first step to building a better you.
- More Gratty-tood: You don’t need to buy anything or do anything to feel happier. You just need to appreciate what you already have.
Ever have something terrible happen and you just laugh? As if for a second, it’s not your life; it’s a comedy you’re watching and the worst thing imaginable just happened to the poor protagonist?
This is a great habit to develop. Because years later when we remember those terrible moments what do we do? Often, we laugh. They’re the funny, embarrassing stories we tell.
So laugh now. Your brain loves humor and it eases pain. We need to take life seriously when making decisions, but when we can’t affect outcomes it’s healthier to take a big picture view. Think of how good a story this will be down the line.
Humor is rewarding and enjoyable, and thus activates the dopamine-rich nucleus accumbens along with the brain stem region that produces dopamine (Mobbs, Greicius, Abdel-Azim, Menon, & Reiss, 2003). In addition, humor activates motivational parts of the prefrontal cortex, as well as the amygdala (Bartolo, Benuzzi, Nocetti, Baraldi, & Nichelli, 2006). This helps to maintain the important balance between the prefrontal cortex and limbic system that is so essential to long-term well-being.
Does this all seem like a lot to do? Gotcha — that’s the wrong perspective, remember? Instead, try, “Look at how many ways there are to be happier!” Now that’s more like it.
You don’t have to do it all. And you don’t have to do it right now.
But you’re on your way to a happier life.
As Arthur Ashe said, “To achieve greatness, start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”
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