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Neuroscientists Find 4 Ways to Boost Happiness (Even When You Feel Down)

Neuroscientists Find 4 Ways to Boost Happiness (Even When You Feel Down)

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Featured photo credit: Lifestyle. Young happy hipster woman eating sweetened cotton candy, amazing view of the river and the city from the bridge. via shutterstock.com

More by this author

Robert Locke

Author of Ziger the Tiger Stories, a health enthusiast specializing in relationships, life improvement and mental health.

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Last Updated on January 15, 2021

7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

The popular idiomatic saying that “actions speak louder than words” has been around for centuries, but even to this day, most people struggle with at least one area of nonverbal communication. Consequently, many of us aspire to have more confident body language but don’t have the knowledge and tools necessary to change what are largely unconscious behaviors.

Given that others’ perceptions of our competence and confidence are predominantly influenced by what we do with our faces and bodies, it’s important to develop greater self-awareness and consciously practice better posture, stance, eye contact, facial expressions, hand movements, and other aspects of body language.

Posture

First things first: how is your posture? Let’s start with a quick self-assessment of your body.

  • Are your shoulders slumped over or rolled back in an upright posture?
  • When you stand up, do you evenly distribute your weight or lean excessively to one side?
  • Does your natural stance place your feet relatively shoulder-width apart or are your feet and legs close together in a closed-off position?
  • When you sit, does your lower back protrude out in a slumped position or maintain a straight, spine-friendly posture in your seat?

All of these are important considerations to make when evaluating and improving your posture and stance, which will lead to more confident body language over time. If you routinely struggle with maintaining good posture, consider buying a posture trainer/corrector, consulting a chiropractor or physical therapist, stretching daily, and strengthening both your core and back muscles.

Facial Expressions

Are you prone to any of the following in personal or professional settings?

  • Bruxism (tight, clenched jaw or grinding teeth)
  • Frowning and/or furrowing brows
  • Avoiding direct eye contact and/or staring at the ground

If you answered “yes” to any of these, then let’s start by examining various ways in which you can project confident body language through your facial expressions.

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1. Understand How Others Perceive Your Facial Expressions

A December 2020 study by UC Berkeley and Google researchers utilized a deep neural network to analyze facial expressions in six million YouTube clips representing people from over 140 countries. The study found that, despite socio-cultural differences, people around the world tended to use about 70% of the same facial expressions in response to different emotional stimuli and situations.[1]

The study’s researchers also published a fascinating interactive map to demonstrate how their machine learning technology assessed various facial expressions and determined subtle differences in emotional responses.

This study highlights the social importance of facial expressions because whether or not we’re consciously aware of them—by gazing into a mirror or your screen on a video conferencing platform—how we present our faces to others can have tremendous impacts on their perceptions of us, our confidence, and our emotional states. This awareness is the essential first step towards

2. Relax Your Face

New research on bruxism and facial tension found the stresses and anxieties of Covid-19 lockdowns led to considerable increases in orofacial pain, jaw-clenching, and teeth grinding, particularly among women.[2]

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research estimates that more than 10 million Americans alone have temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ syndrome), and facial tension can lead to other complications such as insomnia, wrinkles, dry skin, and dark, puffy bags under your eyes.[3])

To avoid these unpleasant outcomes, start practicing progressive muscle relaxation techniques and taking breaks more frequently throughout the day to moderate facial tension.[4] You should also try out some biofeedback techniques to enhance your awareness of involuntary bodily processes like facial tension and achieve more confident body language as a result.[5]

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3. Improve Your Eye Contact

Did you know there’s an entire subfield of kinesic communication research dedicated to eye movements and behaviors called oculesics?[6] It refers to various communication behaviors including direct eye contact, averting one’s gaze, pupil dilation/constriction, and even frequency of blinking. All of these qualities can shape how other people perceive you, which means that eye contact is yet another area of nonverbal body language that we should be more mindful of in social interactions.

The ideal type (direct/indirect) and duration of eye contact depends on a variety of factors, such as cultural setting, differences in power/authority/age between the parties involved, and communication context. Research has shown that differences in the effects of eye contact are particularly prominent when comparing East Asian and Western European/North American cultures.[7]

To improve your eye contact with others, strive to maintain consistent contact for at least 3 to 4 seconds at a time, consciously consider where you’re looking while listening to someone else, and practice eye contact as much as possible (as strange as this may seem in the beginning, it’s the best way to improve).

3. Smile More

There are many benefits to smiling and laughing, and when it comes to working on more confident body language, this is an area that should be fun, low-stakes, and relatively stress-free.

Smiling is associated with the “happiness chemical” dopamine and the mood-stabilizing hormone, serotonin. Many empirical studies have shown that smiling generally leads to positive outcomes for the person smiling, and further research has shown that smiling can influence listeners’ perceptions of our confidence and trustworthiness as well.

4. Hand Gestures

Similar to facial expressions and posture, what you do with your hands while speaking or listening in a conversation can significantly influence others’ perceptions of you in positive or negative ways.

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It’s undoubtedly challenging to consciously account for all of your nonverbal signals while simultaneously trying to stay engaged with the verbal part of the discussion, but putting in the effort to develop more bodily awareness now will make it much easier to unconsciously project more confident body language later on.

5. Enhance Your Handshake

In the article, “An Anthropology of the Handshake,” University of Copenhagen social anthropology professor Bjarke Oxlund assessed the future of handshaking in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic:[8]

“Handshakes not only vary in function and meaning but do so according to social context, situation and scale. . . a public discussion should ensue on the advantages and disadvantages of holding on to the tradition of shaking hands as the conventional gesture of greeting and leave-taking in a variety of circumstances.”

It’s too early to determine some of the ways in which Covid-19 has permanently changed our social norms and professional etiquette standards, but it’s reasonable to assume that handshaking may retain its importance in American society even after this pandemic. To practice more confident body language in the meantime, the video on the science of the perfect handshake below explains what you need to know.

6. Complement Your Verbals With Hand Gestures

As you know by now, confident communication involves so much more than simply smiling more or sounding like you know what you’re talking about. What you do with your hands can be particularly influential in how others perceive you, whether you’re fidgeting with an object, clenching your fists, hiding your hands in your pockets, or calmly gesturing to emphasize important points you’re discussing.

Social psychology researchers have found that “iconic gestures”—hand movements that appear to be meaningfully related to the speaker’s verbal content—can have profound impacts on listeners’ information retention. In other words, people are more likely to engage with you and remember more of what you said when you speak with complementary hand gestures instead of just your voice.[9]

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Further research on hand gestures has shown that even your choice of the left or right hand for gesturing can influence your ability to clearly convey information to listeners, which supports the notion that more confident body language is readily achievable through greater self-awareness and deliberate nonverbal actions.[10]

Final Takeaways

Developing better posture, enhancing your facial expressiveness, and practicing hand gestures can vastly improve your communication with other people. At first, it will be challenging to consciously practice nonverbal behaviors that many of us are accustomed to performing daily without thinking about them.

If you ever feel discouraged, however, remember that there’s no downside to consistently putting in just a little more time and effort to increase your bodily awareness. With the tips and strategies above, you’ll be well on your way to embracing more confident body language and amplifying others’ perceptions of you in no time.

More Tips on How to Develop a Confident Body Language

Featured photo credit: Maria Lupan via unsplash.com

Reference

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