“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.”
– Dalai Lama
UCLA neuroscience researcher Alex Korb has spent a great deal of time studying the effects of different happiness strategies on the brain. His findings have a lot to teach us about what actually works when it comes to boosting happiness.
Korb’s research demonstrated that your thoughts—and the emotions you feel in response to those thoughts—have a profound impact on surprising areas of your brain.
Guilt and shame, for example, activate the brain’s reward center, which explains why we have such a strong tendency to heap guilt and shame upon ourselves. Likewise, worrying increases activity in the prefrontal cortex (the rational brain), which is why worrying can make you feel more in control than doing nothing at all.
Gratitude creates happiness. I’m not advocating worry, guilt, and shame as the path to happiness. The illustration shows why we tend to succumb to thoughts that fuel these emotions. The real neural antidepressant is gratitude. Gratitude boosts levels of serotonin and dopamine—the brain’s happy chemicals and the same chemicals targeted by antidepressant medications. The striking thing about gratitude is that it can work even when things aren’t going well for you. That’s because you don’t actually have to feel spontaneous gratitude in order to produce chemical changes in your brain; you just have to force yourself to think about something in your life that you appreciate. This train of thought activates your brain to make you feel happier.
Labeling negative feelings dilutes their power. There is an amazing amount of power in simply labeling your negative emotions. In one study, participants underwent fMRI scans of their brains while they labeled negative emotions. When they named these emotions, the brain’s prefrontal cortex took over and the amygdala (where emotions are generated) calmed down. This effect doesn’t just work with your own emotions; labeling the emotions of other people calms them down too, which is why FBI hostage negotiators frequently rely on this technique.
Making decisions feels good. Similar to naming emotions, making decisions engages the prefrontal cortex, which calms the amygdala and the rest of the limbic system. The key is to make a “good enough” decision. Trying to make the perfect decision causes stress. We’ve always known that, but now there’s scientific research that explains why. Making a “good enough” decision activates the dorsolateral prefrontal areas of the brain, calming emotions down and helping you feel more in control. Trying to make a perfect decision, on the other hand, ramps up ventromedial frontal activity—which basically means your emotions get overly involved in the decision-making process.
It helps you to lend a hand. Taking the time to help your colleagues not only makes them happy but also makes you happy. Helping other people gives you a surge of oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine, all of which create good feelings. In a Harvard study, employees who helped others were 10 times more likely to be focused at work and 40% more likely to get a promotion. The same study showed that people who consistently provided social support to others were the most likely to be happy during times of high stress. As long as you make certain that you aren’t overcommitting yourself, helping others is sure to have a positive influence on your happiness.
Our brains are wired for touch. Humans are social animals, to the point that our brains react to social exclusion in the same way that they react to physical pain, with activity in the anterior cingulate and insula. Similarly, our brains are hardwired to interpret touch as social acceptance. Touch is one of the primary stimuli for releasing oxytocin, which calms the amygdala and, in turn, calms emotions. There are even studies that show that holding hands with a loved one actually reduces the brain’s response to pain. You might think that’s bad news for people who are socially isolated, but studies show that a massage increases serotonin by as much as 30%. Touch reduces stress hormones, decreases the perception of pain, improves sleep, and reduces fatigue.
Kolb’s research highlights just how amazing the brain is, and he summarized his findings succinctly when he said, “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 makes it more likely you’ll exercise and be social, which, in turn, makes you happier.”