To ensure survival, your ancestors’ brains developed a prickly awareness: always on the lookout for danger, zooming in on any potential threat, being super sensitive to painful experiences and burning them into memory, and reacting quickly physically without thinking first.
Having this kind of reactive brain did a very good job helping humans evolve. However, these hair-trigger instincts are still present in you and don’t help you very much in the world you live in today. In fact, they may be part of the reason why so many people are anxious and depressed. These biological tendencies are then further amplified by life factors, such as personality traits and traumatic experiences or circumstances.
A Reactive vs A Responsive Brain
Your brain has essentially two settings: reactive and responsive. The reactive brain kept your ancestors alive and helped them avoid threat, loss, or danger. Their neural systems were always tuned to look for a sense of something being wrong when any of their core needs – safety, satisfaction, and connection – weren’t being met.
As long as your core needs are being met, your brain should default to a responsive mode, in which it’s safe, relaxed, calm and peaceful. In responsive mode, you can experience gratitude, joy, contentment, or connectedness and are capable of intimacy, kindness, compassion, and love.
All too often during a day, our brains are jolted out of responsive mode by the happenings of normal, everyday life. A criticism from your partner, a car pulling out right in front of you, or not getting an invite to go to lunch with a group at the office can send your amygdala into high gear causing the release of stress hormones.
In reactive mode, your brain isn’t concerned with the long-term health of your body or your happiness. It’s concerned with your survival right then. When our primate ancestors lived shorter lives in constant danger, having a reactive brain made sense. Today, in safer conditions with people living longer, the costs of a stressed-out, reactive brain outweigh the benefits.
In Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, Rick Hanson explains:
In effect, one of the brain’s major design features for passing on genes is now a design flaw, a ‘bug,’ in the twenty-first century.
How To Have A Happier Brain
While you were born with a reactive brain negatively inclined for your safety, research shows that over half of your happiness is actually under your conscious control. You can purposefully choose lifestyle habits that calm your wired-to-worry brain and turn down its alarm system.
Doing so allows your brain to spend more time in a baseline state of calm and peace, which over time through neuroplasticity, can actually physically change your brain to be happier, healthier, and less anxious. Some ways science says you can do this are:
Pursue Meaning Rather Than Happiness
Research shows that the stresses of having a high paying job and maintaining a materialistic lifestyle can be detrimental to your health and happiness. Less stress, a stronger immune system, and higher life satisfaction have been associated with having more meaning in life rather than happiness. The pursuit of happiness, it turns out, can negatively affect your well-being and prove to be unhealthy.
Smile And Laugh More Often
Science has discovered that when you smile your brain releases mood-boosting dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. Dopamine works on the reward-pleasure circuits in the brain. Serotonin produces an anti-anxiety effect and helps relieve stress and improve mood. Endorphins relieve pain and elevate mood. Even a fake smile can trick your brain into thinking it’s happy. A good laugh causes a similar chemical reaction in your brain that can instantly raise your spirits, reduce pain and stress, and strengthen your immune system.
Stop Comparing Yourself To Others
When you see vacation pictures of Facebook friends in tropical locations with big smiles and fruity drinks in hand or a LinkedIn post by a connection that has gotten hundreds of likes and shares (when yours gets single digits), it’s hard not to wonder what you’re doing wrong as you sit at home in your bathrobe scrolling through the feeds. Social media has definitely increased what’s technically called “negative social comparison.”
Research has found that comparing yourself to others can cause a person to experience greater stress, anxiety, depression, and make self-defeating choices. Try to humanize, rather than idealize others, and unplug from social media occasionally. One study determined that simply logging off Facebook for a week boosted happiness levels, reduced stress, and improved the ability to feel present in the moment.
Lower Your Expectations
Life rarely goes the way we plan or think it should. The gap in between our expectations and reality is filled with pain and struggle. When we let go of what we think “should be,” let life unfold, and work with whatever presents itself for our best outcome, life gets easier. When you lower your expectations, it’s more likely that you will be pleasantly surprised with an outcome. One study on happiness found that having money and success didn’t increase happiness as much as lowering expectations did.
Still Your Wandering Mind
Research discovered that almost half of our thoughts are not related to what we’re doing at that time. Surprisingly, findings showed that our minds were elsewhere even for activities that were enjoyable. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Just like many ancient philosophies teach, we’re happiest when thought and action are aligned – even if it’s just to wash dishes. “Mental presence,” the matching of thought to action is a prescription for happiness. You can teach your mind to wander less by coming into the present and practicing mindfulness and meditation.
Recall Positive Memories
Seriously. Even if it does sound a lot like “just think happy thoughts,” science shows it works. Recalling a positive memory allows you to re-experience the good feelings associated with it. Having more hope, happiness, and other positive feelings support resilience and mental health while decreasing negative feelings and anxiety. When remembering good times or practicing visualization, neurons fire in your brain and happy neurochemicals are released.
Something as simple as being thankful changes your brain and body in many beneficial ways. Being thankful on-the-spot floods your brain with rewarding neurochemicals for an instant boost. Practicing gratitude regularly strengthens your immune system, may lessen symptoms of anxiety and depression, helps your hypothalamus work better (it regulates all kinds of bodily functions), makes you more resistant to stress, and gives your brain a more positive slant overall. You can cultivate gratitude by keeping a gratitude journal, counting your blessings daily, and making a habit of looking for and savoring the good. Get more ideas here.Share this article!
I definitely have an reactive brain, but I’m doing my best to move to a responsive one. I really appreciate the skillful steps you’ve shared here. I’m especially for a meaningful life. I think I have that one covered. Happy New Year!
One of my ideals for this wonderful new year is to live consciously and not from habit Debbie…and I can attest personally to how being a ‘smiley’ person keeps my spirits lifted, even when I’m sick. Thankfully I don’t have to work at this…it seems I was born with a smile on my face…and honestly it really works to keep your brain geared towards happiness. So I totally recommend the practice.
I love all your ideas to help have a happier brain, Debbie. I come so often back to gratitude which just makes me appreciate what is going well. It can be the turnaround when things feels overwhelming. I do like the idea as well of smiling as often as possible. As you mentioned, it can brighten a person’s mood. Thanks!
Wonderful post, Debbie. All of your 7 suggestions are great. I believe pursuing meaning makes life interesting and well worth living. I will be posting this on my social media sites.
Thanks for your kind words and for sharing, Jean. 🙂