How to be Happier - Insights from Neuroscience
What follows is a summary of key points from three popular books (listed at the end) on what neuroscience can teach us about how to be happy.
Negativity – the Default Mode
In order to survive and pass on their genes, our ancestors needed to be aware of dangers and conflicts. This means that the human brain has evolved a ‘negativity bias’; it is constantly on the lookout for bad news and, when it finds it, it reacts intensely and stores the experience in its neural structure (Hanson 31). Anxiety and depression might be ‘catching’ because we are social animals and our brain (more specifically, the amygdala) notices and reacts to others’ emotions; so, if we see someone looking afraid, our brain assumes that there must be something to be afraid of (Fox 71). Negative experiences sensitize the brain to the negative, making it more likely that we will have further negative experiences: ‘The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones’ (Hanson 31). Fear is a key feature of this negativity bias. This makes us overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities and resources. The negativity bias may improve our chances of survival in harsh conditions, but it’s not good for ‘quality of life, fulfilling relationships, personal growth, and long-term health’ (Hanson 31).
People who have thin fibres connecting the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex are more likely to experience high anxiety, whereas low anxiety is associated with strong connecting fibres. While it’s possible that some people are born with stronger connecting fibres, it’s probable that experience and learning can strengthen the connections between the emotional and control centres of the brain. Just as we exercise our physical muscles in the gym, so we can practice techniques which strengthen connections in the brain (Fox 175-176). Thereby, we might be able to ‘rewire’ our brains so that we create an underlying strength and well-being which is less dependent on external factors (Hanson 56). So neither our genetic makeup or our life experiences mean that the course of our life is set in stone (Fox 180).
Changing the Default Mode
The brain’s left hemisphere interprets experiences. Interpreting or labelling helps us to make sense of our experiences. You are the narrator of your life. If you can narrate your life in a positive way, you help your brain to rewire with a positive bias. Every time you remember something, you modify it in your brain. If you can use your left hemisphere to put a positive spin on your memories, you can change the memories (Arden 55-56).
The power of belief
Studies suggest that the placebo effect often works; for example, in 45 studies of patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a placebo worked in 40% of cases. If what you believe can have a powerful effect on what you experience physically, since the placebo effect is psychological, it is even more likely to be effective for psychological conditions (Arden 57-8).
Wiring positive thinking
There is a two-way pathway between moods and thoughts, which is why Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) works – it changes dysfunctional thoughts, and this changes how you feel.
Common beliefs which promote negative moods are:
- Polarized thinking (everything is either
completely good or completely bad)
- Overgeneralization (assuming that one bad
experience has implications for your whole life)
- Personalization (interpreting every look or
comment as reflecting negatively on you)
- Mind reading (assuming you know that other
people are thinking bad things about you)
- Shoulds/should nots (making rules which aren’t
flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances)
- Catastrophizing (seeing every event as a major
catastrophe, or as a sign of an impending catastrophe)
- Emotional reasoning (basing your opinions on
- Pessimism (assuming that every situation will
have a negative outcome)
To rewire your brain so that you can think about your life in a more positive way, try to focus on possibilities rather than limitations on a regular basis. This makes new connections between your neurons instead of using the existing connections which reinforce negative thinking.
- Thinking in shades of grey (considering all the
possibilities between the two extremes, enabling you to adjust to a reality
between the extremes)
- Context checking (adjusting your opinions and
perceptions to a situation’s context, not just accepting an existing opinion)
- Detaching (disconnecting yourself from
repetitive negative beliefs)
- Externalizing problems (considering a bad
experience to be a problem, not a reflection on your self-worth) (Arden 58-59)
Methods which can help you to think in this way include:
The FEED method:
- Focus (pay attention to the situation, new
behaviour, or memory that you want to repeat or remember; you only remember
what you direct your attention to)
- Effort (when you make an effort to do
something, PET scans show that parts of your brain are activated – i.e. you
begin to make new synaptic connections)
- Effortlessness (once you have established a new
behaviour, less effort is needed to maintain it because you have rewired your brain;
connections have been made, and the brain doesn’t need to work so hard)
- Determination (to stay in practice – otherwise
you lose the connections) (Arden 17-20).
‘Taking in the good’:
‘Taking in the good’ is ‘the deliberate internalization of positive experiences in implicit memory’ (Hanson, 60). Strengths such as happiness and resilience come from positive experiences, but if we let these flow through our brains like water through a sieve they are just momentary pleasures and don’t make positive changes to the brain. (Hanson 31)
There are four steps (HEAL):
- Have a positive experience. (Notice something
positive that’s happening now, or create one (by thinking about things for
which you’re grateful, a friend, or a completed task). Hanson recommends doing
this about six times a day (74). Fox suggests that, to overcome each negative
emotion, we need to have two, or preferably three, positive experiences (197). Even if you can’t have ‘the whole pie’, take
in as much as you can (170). Note that your brain has different systems for
liking and wanting, so it’s possible to like something without wanting it. To
do this, allow yourself to have a positive experience without trying to hold on
to it. This will enable you to enjoy it without experiencing drivenness and the
pressure of wanting (90)).
- Enrich it. (Think about if for at least 5-10
seconds. Consider how it makes you feel in your body, and let it occupy your
mind. Enjoy it and try to make it more intense. Look for something which is new
about it. Acknowledge how it’s relevant to you – how it could make a difference
to your life. This makes the neurons fire together so that they will wire
- Absorb it. (Think of the experience as sinking
into you while you sink into it. You could visualize it ‘sifting down into you
like golden dust, or feel it easing you like soothing balm. Or place it like a
jewel in the treasure chest of your heart’ (62). The experience becomes part of
you, a resource which will always go with you.)
- Link positive and negative material. (This step
is optional. While having a positive experience in the foreground of your
awareness, be aware of something negative in the background. As an example,
‘when you feel included and liked these days, you could sense this experience
making contact with feelings of loneliness from your past’ (63). Then let go of
the negative experience and focus only on the positive. To continue to uproot
the negative, during the next hour (the time when the brain is reconsolidating
memories for storage) be aware of positive material while thinking about
neutral things (people, situations, ideas) which have become associated with
the negative material (63). This might disrupt the reconsolidation process and
erase the association between the neutral trigger and the negative memory
(145). This step aims to compensate for or overwrite the negative.)
Arden suggests that ‘Behavioural activation … is one of the principal therapies for depression’ (51). Increasing your level of activity activates parts of the brain which are associated with positive emotions because there are links between the areas of the brain which control movement, emotion and thinking. In particular, ‘putting on a happy face’ can help you to feel happy because there are neural pathways which link the facial muscles with the cranial nerves and relevant parts of the brain. Information flows from the brain to the face, but the reverse is also true. This means that forcing a smile sends messages to parts of the brain linked with positive emotions. Contracting the muscles on the right side of your face activates the left hemisphere of the brain which is associated with positive emotions, while contracting the muscles on the left of the face activates the right hemisphere which is associated with negative emotions. Similarly, the right field of vision links with the left hemisphere of the brain, while the left field of vision links with the right hemisphere. So, looking to the right activates the left hemisphere and looking to the left activates the right hemisphere. [This, it seems to me, might be the mechanism by which the therapy variously called ‘Thought Field Therapy’ (TFT), ‘Emotional Freedom Technique’ (EFT) or ‘Tapping’ works – i.e. perhaps it is not the ‘tapping’ part of the therapy which is effective, but the eye movements which are associated with some forms of it. Eye movements also feature in ‘Eye Movement Techniques’ (EMT) (see, for example, Friedberg 2001).]
Arden notes that the left hemisphere of the brain is also associated with action. So taking action helps people to feel less depressed; inaction creates sadness. Depression can therefore be countered by doing something constructive.
Arden also suggests that our mood can be changed through humour because humour promotes neuroplasticity – i.e. changes in the brain. Humour detaches us from negative thoughts and emotions (particularly if the humour doesn’t degrade its subject/s). It lowers the stress hormone cortisol and increases immunoglobulin (the antibodies which help the immune system to fight infections), natural killer (NK) cells (which seek and destroy abnormal cells), and plasma cytokine gamma interferon levels (which improves the functioning of the immune system) (53).
Natural light changes the brain’s biochemistry. The brain picks up from the retina whether it is dark or light and, if is dark, secretes melatonin, which is sedating. Melatonin is similar to serotonin (low levels of which are associated with depression), which means that when there is a lot of melatonin it competes with serotonin and the serotonin decreases. So it may help to maximise the amount of natural light you get during the day – and it needs to be natural light because only natural light is full spectrum light. Sunlight is also a source of vitamin D which is needed for proper functioning of the immune system (Arden 53-54).
The benefits of exercise include:
- Improved oxygenation of the blood which is
transported to the brain, which promotes both alertness and calm (Arden 54).
- Better blood flow to the muscles, which
energises them. The same effect can be achieved by means of stretching.
Stretching the muscles forces used deoxygenated blood back to the lungs, which
is replaced in the muscles with reoxygenated blood (Arden 54-55).
- Stretching the muscles also releases tension
(Arden 55). When you are stressed, a great deal of energy is wasted on
maintaining muscle tension, which makes you feel tired. Chronic stress in the
muscles causes the tendons to thicken and shorten as a consequence of
overdevelopment of the connective tissue. Stress also causes the sympathetic
nervous system to be overactive, which contributes further to the tension.
Stretching gets rid of the built-up tension and activates the parasympathetic
nervous system (Arden 196). [The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems
are both part of the autonomic nervous system which regulates various bodily
functions – heart rate, breathing, digestion, and so on. The sympathetic
nervous system provides the immediate response to threats (‘fight or flight’),
while the parasympathetic nervous system calms the body down (‘rest and digest’).
accessed 5 October 2014).]
- Lowering of the acidity level of the body,
which increases energy.
- Increased norepinephrine output, which
increases the heart rate and, in the brain, is associated with improved mood.
- Promotes neuroplasticity and neurogenesis –
i.e. it helps you change how you think (Arden 55).
Human beings are social creatures, and our moods can be lifted by support from others. When your connection with others is positive, the natural opiates in your brain activate that part of your brain which makes you feel better (Arden 59-60). Supportive relationships lead you to feel comforted, and the brain becomes wired in such a way that you can then comfort yourself (Arden 146). Experiments on rats and their pups show that those who are nurtured care better for others (Arden 151). Cultivating empathy and compassion for others is also to have compassion for yourself: ‘Insensitivity and selfishness are essentially bad for your brain and your mental health. Even witnessing altruism can boost your immune system. Compassion and loving relationships are therefore good for your brain and your mental health’ (Arden 160).
Mindfulness meditation is derived from Buddhism and helps you to focus on what is happening in the present. This enables your brain to experience ‘the vibrancy and rich multidimensionality of the now’ (Arden 199), and helps you to rid yourself of anxieties about future events which may not happen. Constant worrying makes the body unnecessarily stressed – which may be something to worry about (Arden 188). Even if the present is painful or unpleasant, mindfulness teaches us to focus on our experience and accept it, because this can alter the way in which our brain functions in such a way that we experience less pain. In order to do this, you notice each passing emotion and find a word with which to ‘label’ it. This activates the left pre-frontal cortex, which, in turn, calms down the amygdala, which reduces anxiety (Arden 200, Fox 175). By labelling feelings you create detachment, which allows you to regulate your emotions better (Fox 181). Much distress and worry comes not from events themselves but from our interpretations of those events. So letting a thought float away as just a thought is ‘a potent antidote to the disruptive effect of anger’ (Fox 182). The way in which we focus our attention is important for the way in which we deal with stress: ‘Scattered attention impairs your ability to let go of stress, because even though your attention is scattered, it is narrowly focused, for you are able to fixate only on the stressful parts of your experience’ (Arden 194). Those who practice mindfulness regularly ‘have strong coping skills and are resilient in the face of adversity’ (Arden 201).
John B. Arden Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, 2010).
Fred Friedberg Eye Movement Technique for Emotional Healing (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2001).
Rick Hanson Hardwiring Happiness: The Practical science of reshaping your brain – and your life (London: Rider, 2013).
Elaine Fox Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: The New Science of Optimism and Pessimism (London: Heinemann, 2012).
5 October 2014