In the past few decades, we’ve made substantial progress in understanding the science of happiness. Positive psychology has a pretty good understanding of how happy happens in your brain.
We now know that your brain changes based on what you do in your life every day. This ability, called neuroplasticity, means that your brain alters both its physical form and function depending on your behaviors, emotions, and thoughts. You can either intentionally guide your brain to become more positive, resilient, and motivated or let it get more stressed out, anxious, and depressed.
Unfortunately, there isn’t one single thing that makes your brain calm and happy. Mental strength and having a happy and healthy brain are traits you can encourage and support in many ways including your lifestyle habits: diet, exercise, sleep, stress coping practices, social interaction, and mental stimulation.
Just like all the negative seems to pile up in your life, you can intentionally focus on and build upon the positive. It’s always there too. When you look for the good, you find it. Your brain is a feedback loop. Often, all it takes is a small adjustment periodically to keep it from spiraling down and to keep it feeling happier.
While what works for one person may not be of benefit for another, there are many different things you can try to give your brain a more positive slant to see what works for you. Here are six methods, backed by science, that you can use to help keep your brain happier:
1. Open Your Mind and Say “Om”
Open your mind, come into the present moment, and practice meditation as a way to ease stress, addiction, and anxiety and depression. You don’t have to chant “om” if you don’t want to — a few slow breathing exercises will work, too.
We’ve all heard that happiness comes from within, but where exactly is it located in your body? Science may have figured it out and found that meditation grows it. Researchers at Kyoto University surveyed 51 volunteers — asking them to rate their personal happiness levels — and then conducted brain scans to note how the brains corresponded with their answers.
They discovered an area of the brain, called the precuneus, was bigger in happier participants, with a difference of 15 percent between the largest and smallest. Other research revealed that regular meditation increases gray matter in the precuneus. The combined findings of these studies suggest happiness functions like a muscle, and meditation is the exercise that helps you flex it.
2. Spend Time in Nature
Staring at four walls gets old and it’s bad for your brain. The human brain needs stimulation and the great outdoors provides that. It may just be one of the keys to unlocking happiness.
Your brain needs vitamin N (nature). Research is showing what many have known all along, that communing with nature can improve your memory, focus, and attention. You don’t need much of the green stuff either.
Recent studies found that walking 50 minutes in a city park boosted people’s moods as well as their working memories and attention. A 90-minute walk produced changes that helped their brains protect against depression. Another study suggested that being in the park, as opposed to a city street, reduced blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with negative thought patterns.
In other research, people conducted activities in nature for 30 days, such as planting beneficial flowers for bees. They reported their wellness as “excellent” and boosted by 30 percent. Participants’ reports of happiness linked to time in nature continued even after the 30-day challenge ended.
3. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
Many of us run on autopilot throughout our days for most of our lives — staying in the known in our comfort zones. Living this way doesn’t ask much of your brain or make it very happy. When you go through life operating on automatic, not learning or actively thinking, it contributes to a dull, dreary brain.
Psychologists tell us that comfort kills productivity, creativity, and motivation. Your brain needs novelty to grow and stay sharp. Your habits may even be contributing to your brain’s decline. While doing crossword puzzles and Sudoku are good, they’re not good enough because these activities ask you to recall things you already know. Your brain stays healthy by doing novel things and being challenged. It’s important to kick your brain out of its comfort zone and into the enhancement zone by doing something that’s unfamiliar and mentally challenging regularly.
The article, Why you must leave your comfort zone to find happiness, says:
You want to push your brain beyond the known by learning new skills, hobbies, or sports, continuing to educate your mind, putting yourself in new social situations, and traveling to new locations, for instance.
4. Emphasize and Internalize the Positive
There is always going to be both good and bad in your life. You have to make extra effort to find and acknowledge the good that’s there because your brain is naturally programmed to notice and hold onto the negative — for your safety.
Your brain perceives negative stimuli more rapidly and easily than positive and even stores them differently. We recognize angry faces more quickly. We overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities and over-learn from bad experiences while under-learning from good ones. In your brain, bad beats good every time. Over time, these negative experiences make your brain even more sensitive to the negative and more easily alarmed and reactive.
While this trait helped our ancestors survive, it can leave us depressed, stressed, worried, and worn out today. In the book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, Rick Hanson writes:
Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”
You can counteract your brain’s negativity bias by making it a point to notice, savor, and remember positive experiences to make them stick in your mind and heart longer. You do this by mindfully staying in the moment. Being present mindfully helps deepen your enjoyment and understanding of each experience as you live through it.
In positive psychology, stopping to smell the roses and appreciating the moment is the key to happiness. Research reveals the people who take the time to appreciate positive moments were 12 percent likelier to report satisfaction with their lives.
5. Sweat It Out
People who work out often link the rush of exercise with increased levels of satisfaction in their daily lives. You probably already know that exercise improves your brain and mental health and makes you happy. But did you know that working out can positively affect mood and emotions quickly and in the long run?
Research found that a mere 20-minute workout can produce mood benefits that last as long as 12 hours. A study from Penn State University found people who worked out that day were more productive and happier.
An 11-year-long 2016 Harvard study showed that participants with greater levels of psychological well-being sustained higher physical activity levels over the course of the study. Previous studies noted that those with greater positive states of mind were likelier to work out. Research linked positive emotions to healthy behaviors, such as exercise. It’s a win/win.
6. Just Dance
Like music, dance defines many cultures as an intrinsic language of communication and an active form of expression for the self. You can dance by yourself or with others to form inner and outer connections with the world. Research shows that getting your groove on has brain benefits — improving social skills, lifting your spirits, even reversing depression.
In one study at the University of Derby, depressed patients given salsa dancing lessons improved their moods significantly by the end of the nine-week course. Researchers credit the endorphin boost of the exercise, plus the social interaction and extreme concentration, a kind of “mindfulness”, that dancing requires. Dancing also increased self-confidence from learning a new skill.
Another study from the University of London indicated participants who suffered from anxiety felt happiest when taking a modern dance class more than any other kind of class, such as music, math, or exercise. Dancing works effectively to boost happiness by stimulating different areas of the brain simultaneously, engaging the musical, kinesthetic, rational, and emotional parts in unison.
Don’t go looking for happiness — make and experience it every day. Savor the positive moments, and refocus your attention on what is going to make you happy. Take a moment to breathe mindfully — whether you chant or not. Spend time in nature, and get your body moving by exercising and dancing.
It won’t do much good to stress yourself out and try to squeeze all of these in one day. However, do try to fit something in each day that is going to help your brain tilt towards happiness. In no time, you’ll have trained your brain to be happier and learned more about yourself in the process.
Happiness is just a moment away.
Kayla Matthews writes about wellness, productivity and stress in the modern world for websites like MakeUseOf, BioMed Central, and The Huffington Post. To read more posts from Kayla, subscribe to her blog, Productivity Theory.