When you feel down, what can you do? After all, those feelings of guilt, fear, worry, and shame are all invading your brain and there does not seem to be an easy solution. Guess what? Your reward center in the brain is actually getting a short term boost from those negative thoughts. Much in the same way alcohol gives you a quick fix, but to become an alcoholic is a tragedy. These are obviously not long term solutions.
Here are 4 things you must do to boost happiness, according to the neuroscientists.
1. Ask yourself what you can be grateful for
Why is this so important? Alex Korb (UCLA neuroscientist) in his book, The Upward Spiral explains what parts of the brain get activated when you start to feel grateful and appreciate what you have in life. He mentions the National Institutes of Health (HIH) research which shows that the hypothalamus region in the brain gets a boost when you start being grateful and that impacts our sleep, stress levels and general well-being. In addition, the dopamine neurotransmitter, also known as our “reward button”, gets an added dose. It feels good and we want more of this, making it a risk free addiction!
Next time you are down, just thank your lucky stars for what you have and share it in an email with a loved one or some close friends so that they too are kept in the happiness and gratitude loop.
2. Put a label on those emotions
You feel angry, sad, frustrated or disappointed. You are in a really bad mood because of one or more of those emotions. Let’s not forget that the brain has fast track connections with the rest of the body. If there is fear or anger, the neuroscientists tell us that there is a risk of an “amygdala hijack” when an emotional memory takes over and we lose control. This is the classic “fight or flight” response for emergency situations. There is no time for logic or reason.
Experts recommend that when we can actually label the emotions, the amygdala is less likely to overreact and we are more in control. We can use a few words to describe the emotion or acknowledge how we feel. Telling yourself that you are angry — and defining why — helps enormously. It raises self awareness of our emotions. The great bonus is that we can then figure out how to deal with them.
It is no accident that labelling emotions is a cornerstone of mindfulness and is a great way to boost happiness. It is also fascinating to learn how hostage negotiators use this technique. They always actively listen to the barricaded criminals and label their emotions before even attempting any influencing. This works just as well for an argument with your partner.
“Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you.”- Roger Ebert
3. Make that decision
What happens in your brain when you make a decision and stop hesitating? The prefrontal cortex in the parietal lobe becomes more activated and also reduces anxiety and worry. It is a very complex and poorly understood process as outlined in this article.
One thing is clear though. When we make decisions, we reduce striatum activity, which has a tendency to drag us down to anxiety and fretting. You are also more in control and can start planning steps, methods and goals. There is great pleasure and satisfaction when you do make that decision. Nothing is more satisfying than achieving your goals as a result of a wise decision.
“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.”- Ralph Waldo Emerson
4. Touch people
The power of touch. There are hundreds of research studies which show that real, physical human contact is an astonishingly effective way to boost happiness. Everybody is doing it. You can see Presidents who pat each other’s backs at world conferences, or people who hug complete strangers in the street. They know instinctively that they can be more influential, empathic, friendly and persuasive.
Touch is the first sense we learn from birth. Touch can communicate very powerful positive emotions such as love, joy, gratitude, and empathy. A mother’s touch can reduce her baby’s pain. Touch is vital to our well-being. Research shows that servers can get bigger tips if they have touched the customers — appropriately and discreetly, of course!
What happens when we touch another person? The hormone called oxytocin, which is also a neurotransmitter, is released. That sets in motion a host of positive feelings from bonding, reducing stress, a greater sense of trust and security, increased sense of calm and also a strengthened immune system.
“Non-verbal communication can be a very powerful way to say to your partner, ‘I get you.’ Cuddling is a way of saying, ‘I know how you feel.’ It allows us to feel known by your partner in ways that words can’t convey.” – David Klow, marriage and family therapist
If you are lucky enough to get five hugs a day for four weeks, your happiness will increase by leaps and bounds. Failing that, a massage just might do the trick — albeit less effectively.