A lot of people think that happiness is ‘elusive’ – a fleeting feeling that comes from what’s happening around us, in our lives. And that’s true. But like everything else we perceive and experience, happiness is processed in the brain. By learning to use your brain to re-boot happiness when you’re feeling ‘low’ you can make a big difference to your contentedness.
The important thing to remember is that the brain is like a muscle – it’s adaptive and responsive to training, like any other muscle in our body. Its chemical makeup is important to its optimal function too. By understanding these seven basic brain functions and how to activate and re-charge them, you can re-wire your brain for greater happiness and success!
1) Dose up the Dopamine
Dopamine allows us to feel bliss, pleasure, euphoria and motivation.
Dopamine is a chemical (neurotransmitter) that is used by the nerves to send messages. Basically, when dopamine levels are depleted in our brain, our message can’t be transmitted properly. This, in turn, can have an impact on our behaviour, mood, cognition, attention, learning, movement and sleep. When we procrastinate, have feelings of self-doubt or we lack enthusiasm, these are strong clues from the brain that we are low on dopamine.
It’s super easy to increase dopamine levels: Aim for 8 hours sleep per day and regular exercise to keep dopamine balanced. Plus – the brain releases a little bit of dopamine when you achieve or succeed. One way to get a ‘hit’ of dopamine regularly is set yourself small, achievable goals. As you achieve them, you’ll feel good about making progress.
Of course, you should always celebrate all those ‘little’ wins. They’re helping you, step by step, to achieve the bigger goal. Any accomplishments, no matter how small they may seem, are definitely worth recognition.
2) Exercise for Endorphins
Endorphins are released into your bloodstream once you have exercised, leaving you feeling more energised and in a better mood for the rest of your day. Endorphins are the counter balance to stress, so the more endorphins you release, the less stress and anxiety you will experience.
Along with regular exercise, laughter is one of the easiest ways to induce endorphin release. Feeling low? Watch some comedy, or catch up with a friend who makes you laugh.There are some studies that attest that dark chocolate and spicy foods can help to release endorphins. Keep a stash of dark chocolate and treat yourself to a curry every now and then for a quick endorphin boost.
3) Give someone a hug
Oxytocin – the love hormone – creates intimacy, trust and builds strong, healthy relationships.
Often referred to as the cuddle hormone, oxytocin is essential for creating powerful bonds and improving social interactions. As the name suggests, one very simple way to keep oxytocin flowing is to give someone a hug, not a handshake. There is research now to explain that a hug for up to 20 seconds a day releases oxytocin, which is a natural antidepressant and antianxiety agent.
Oxytocin is the hormone that allows us to feel love and connection. In fact, when we experience an increase of oxytocin, it makes us more intuitive to others’ needs. Even when someone receives a gift, his or her oxytocin levels can rise. You can strengthen work and personal relationships through a simple gift or a massive hug.
4) Be appreciative
Serotonin flows when you feel satisfied, accomplished and important. However, a lack of serotonin can make you feel lonely, bleak and unhappy. Unhealthy attention-seeking behaviour can also be a cry for serotonin.
Our brain can’t tell the difference between what’s real and imagined, so it produces serotonin in both cases. This is why ‘gratitude’ practices are popular; they remind us that we are valued and have much to value in life. If you need a serotonin boost during a stressful day, take a few moments to reflect on past achievements and victories. Alternatively, engage in a random act of kindness, or write a text or email telling one of your friends or partner how much you appreciate and value them. You can also spend a minute or two ‘reliving’ a moment in your head that you cherish.
These are simple mood boosters, just because they increase serotonin. We also know that vitamin D (from the sun) helps to expand our brain’s serotonin production.
5) Change ‘fear’ into ‘flow’
The amygdala, is one of the ‘primal’ functions of our brain, designed to keep us safe. This ‘fright, freeze and flight centre’, manages connections and is directly involved with emotional wellbeing.
The amygdala processes positive and negative feedback depending on how we perceive an outcome. As a result, it makes us feel strong emotional responses that often lead to impulsive reactions.
When the amygdala signals go backwards, it generates a fear response – we get defensive and this can lead to lashing out, arguing. But – it’s here in the amygdala where we store our old ‘programmes’ too – those tired old tales of lack and unworthiness… And, just as we put those ‘old stories’ in there, we can re-programme – update them – with new ones. This takes time, but the brain is highly adaptive and with daily commitment to a practice of positive programming, it will become your default setting instead, and the negative responses will be fewer and weaker.
6) Hippocampus: The Seahorse
The hippocampus is viewed as an associative memory system supporting the formation, storage, and retrieval of memories. So, when you are feeling low, think happy memories – in your head go back to a pleasant, exciting, loving moment in time and re-live the movie in your head! Create a ‘happiness’ album with your smartphone -friends, family, beautiful places – whatever makes you smile, and when you’re feeling low look through the pictures. and look through pictures until your mood starts to shift.
7) Will Power at the Prefrontal Cortex
Your pre-fontal cortex is that part of the brain that is right behind your forehead; its function is decision-making and regulating our behaviour, self-control and willpower. Looking after this section of our brain involves exercising will power.
And, the more we exercise our self-control, the stronger and more stable it becomes. If you want to lose weight, begin saving money, start exercising – it’s all actioned here in this part of the brain. But remember, if you choose your new action, you need to do it repeatedly for 21 days. If you miss a day, then you need to start again. Record your progress; you’ll see a remarkable difference from start to finish. And don’t forget that the more successful you are, day, by day, your dopamine levels will kick in with pride as you accomplish what you set out to achieve. There’s a win/win here for happiness.
Happiness is not a ‘mystery’
In an effort to pursue the great mystery of ‘happiness’ we simply need to understand these tools. We’re all prone to moods – and there can be many reasons why some moods stay with us longer than others, but these tools can help us to work with our minds, instead of against them, when we are stressed, anxious, sad or angry.
The brain needs stimulation – tired old routines can deliver the same tired old results in our lives, so stay curious. When you experience something ‘new’, it actually stimulates and transforms your brain. Explore, experiment and try something new to maximise how you use your brainpower.
Catherine Plano is the author of ” Getting to the Heart of the Matter” – a warm, engaging practical book for connecting the power of the mind, with the power of the heart for personal transformation.
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