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14 Free Ways to Help Your Brain Find Happiness Right Now - blue head sillhouette with bright yellow daisies for brain Happiness is not an unatainable goal — even if you’re not a good place right now.

Science has come a long way in understanding the science of happiness and has a pretty good idea of what helps keep your brain happy. Because of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change both physical form and function based on your behaviors, emotions, and thoughts, we know that what you do repeatedly in your life every day life rewires your brain.

You can either intentionally direct your brain to become more positive, resilient, and motivated or unintentionally reinforce it being stressed, anxious, and depressed.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic pill or one single thing that cures depression or makes your brain calm and happy. Mental strength and having a happy and healthy brain can be developed as you learn to support and guide your brain with your lifestyle and habits. These primarily include dietexercisesleepstress coping practicessocial interaction, and mental stimulation.

It can be overwhelming to look at your life and habits and see all the changes that need to made. My advice is not to stress yourself out and try to overhaul multiple habits at once. You can find happiness one small change at a time. By making slight adjustments in your daily habits, over time and with repetition, you can actually change your brain, health, life, and future.

While it can take months for neuroplastic changes to physically happen in your brain, you’ll be glad to know that there are many little things you can do today that can make an immediate positive difference and give your brain a happier slant.

This Is How You Can Make Happiness Happen in Your Brain

Your brain is a feedback loop, meaning what happens physically and functionally encourages more of the same. While happiness not as simple as “just think positive.” It is as simple as “frequently repeated negative states become neural traits.”

Often, all it takes is one small change to start your brain on an upward cycle. So whether you’re depressed, feeling down or anxious, or find yourself in a crisis, freak-out moment, there are simple steps you can take, backed by neuroscience, right now to help your brain be happier. Here’s how:

Move your body

Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your mental and physical health. Moving your increases blood flow to the brain which, in turn, elevates oxygen levels. Exercise promotes neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, the pro­duc­tion of new neurons, and the con­nec­tions between neu­rons, which has been proven to reduce depression and anxiety.

You can incorporate regular exercise into your life as an effective preventative and treatment for depression. One Harvard study showed that exercise is every bit as powerful as medication for treating the symptoms and root causes of depression.

14 Free Ways to Help Your Brain Find Happiness Right Now

Recall happy memories

Studies show that thinking about happy times immediately boosts serotonin levels in your brain. Serotonin is essential for the proper functioning of your prefrontal cortex, which governs self-reflection and the regulation of emotions, helping it to override old anxious and depressive patterns.

Try visualizing a joyful time in detail or writing it down.

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 that you had at the time of the memory.  When remembering good times or practicing visualization, neurons fire in your brain and happy neurochemicals are released.

Take some time to meditate

It has been proven that meditation has amazing benefits – both for physical and mental well-being. Studies show that people who meditate have fewer stress hormones and lower blood pressure compared to those that don’t. Brain tests via MRI scans showed that after performing mindfulness practices for just eight weeks, the brain’s fight or flight center, the amygdala, appeared to shrink which leads to reduced depression and anxiety.

While the amygdala gets smaller, the pre-frontal cortex, responsible for higher-order brain functions like concentration, alertness, and decision-making, grows and becomes thicker with meditation. According to studies, even a brief meditation session by non-experienced meditators can enhance mood and emotions.

14 Free Ways to Help Your Brain Find Happiness Right Now

Read a book

Reading has multiple benefits for your brain and mental health. On a physical level, reading stimulates your brain, improves connectivity, function, and memory. It can even help you sleep more soundly. Emotionally and mentally, science shows reading relieves stress. I know I love that “getting lost in a book” feeling I get when devouring a page-turner.

Reading has always been regarded as a worthwhile hobby. Now, science has proven that reading, especially fiction, has great brain benefits. Reading reduces stress, enhances empathy, and more. Reading can put your brain into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings similarhealth benefits. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.

Get more sleep

Every single aspect of your physical and mental health is affected by sleep — for better or worse. Mentally, not getting enough sleep escalates anxiety and depression. Poor sleep is one of the most common symptoms of depression, contributes to developing the condition, and perpetuates it. Sleep troubles can lead to depression and depression can lead to sleep troubles.

If you get the chance during the day, take a quick nap. Napping can improve your mood and happiness. The relaxation that comes from lying down can boost your mood, even if you don’t fall asleep. While you sleep, your brain produces serotonin, also known as the happy chemical, which helps you feel energized and positive. A light midday nap can also boost your memory and other types of cognition.

14 Free Ways to Help Your Brain Find Happiness Right Now - man with headphones on eyes closed smiling

Turn on the tunes

Music can have an immediate impact on your mood because it activates the limbic system, which controls emotions and memory, and releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of pleasure and well-being. Happy music can cause the brain to produce dopamine and serotonin, which can evoke feelings of joy.

Calming music can relax the body and mind. Research shows that listening to soothing music can lower blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety. You can create a soothing playlist or blow off steam by rocking out to more upbeat tunes.

Work with your thoughts

We all have has pesky, negative, worrisome thoughts. That’s normal. Your brain is naturally negative.  Your brain’s top priority is always your survival, not your happiness. It learns from and holds onto anything it considers a danger or loss — depressing, fearful, and negative stuff — with much more gusto than something neutral or pleasant. Dr. Rick Hanson says, “Your brain is like Teflon for good and Velcro for bad.”

You can’t control the random thoughts that pop into your head. That’s impossible and trying to do that leads to its own kind of suffering. However, you do have control over how you respond to those thoughts. Instead of unconsciously going wherever your mind takes you, you can consciously take control of and guide your mind in a different direction by working with your thoughts. There are many ways to do that.

14 Free Ways to Help Your Brain Find Happiness Right Now - Older couple dancing under night sky and twinkle lights

Get your groove on

Because dance is both a physical and emotional release and incorporates the positive power of music, it’s an ideal activity for anyone feeling stressed, depressed, or anxious. Studies show that dance, in particular, can decrease anxiety and boost mood more than other physical outlets. In one study, researchers had people with anxiety disorders participate in one of four activities: a modern-dance class, an exercise class, a music class, or a math class. Only the dance class significantly reduced anxiety.

Dancing is euphoric and uplifting. It can be energizing or impart a sense of calm, depending on the style of dance. Dancing can improve your happiness instantly and help you feel more relaxed and reduce stress and anxiety. Dancing releases endorphins, which are brain chemicals that can increase feelings of pleasure and decrease pain. When you dance, your body releases dopamine, which can also help lift your mood and alleviate anxiety and depression.

Practice gratitude

Instead of focusing only on what is wrong and scary, you could intentionally look for and remind yourself of the good that is present in your life. It always there, if you remember to look for it. Your brain doesn’t automatically notice it. It zeroes in on the bad. You have to look for the good and encourage happiness.

The benefits of gratitude are physical and mental and immediate. It changes the neurochemicals in your brain increasing happiness while decreasing cortisol and stress. Being thankful on-the-spot floods your brain with rewarding neurochemicals for an instant boost. Practicing gratitude regularly strengthens your immune system, lessens symptoms of anxiety and depression, and gives your brain a more positive slant overall.

14 Free Ways to Help Your Brain Find Happiness Right Now

Get some sunshine

I’m betting that you don’t need statistics to tell you that there’s a link between sunshine, mood, and mental health. You can feel it. On sunny days with a crisp blue sky and a big bright sun, you might notice there’s more of a spring in your step. You just naturally feel happier. On cloudy, grey days, it’s much easier for your mood to match the weather. At the most basic level, it’s simple. More sunshine equals more health and happiness. Then, it starts to get more complicated.

Doses of sunshine can boost your mental and physical health. The sun’s UV rays help your body make Vitamin D, which is important for your bones, blood cells, and immune system. Natural sunlight helps your body set its circadian rhythms, which can also aid in sleeping more soundly. Sunlight boosts the production of serotonin in your brain. Serotonin greatly influences your mood and more of it can give you more energy and help keep you calm, positive, and focused.

Splash cold water on your face


Find a sink, fill your hands with cold water, and rinse your face. Doing this slows down your heart rate by indirectly stimulating your vagus nerve, which regulates a variety of vital bodily functions including your heartbeat and the muscles used to breathe. The vagus nerve also controls the chemical levels in your digestive system, which greatly affect mood and health.

The vagus nerve is the brain’s method of controlling the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and digest system. No other nerve in your body has such broad and far-reaching effects. In the brain, the vagus nerve helps regulate anxiety and depression.

14 Free Ways to Help Your Brain Find Happiness Right Now

Touch a pet

A pet provides comfort, companionship, and a routine. Pets give us a sense of purpose and provide social interaction. Just stroking your pet or even someone else’s can increase oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine in your brain. Owning a pet can improve mood and mental health long term and immediately when you spend time with them.

Several studies show that having a pet can reduce depression, encourage healthier habits, and increase feelings of connectedness. Pets signal the production of serotonin in the body, which largely accounts for the reduced stress levels. Spending time with a pet can also increase the production of endorphins, the brain’s feel-good chemicals, which can help to boost mood and decrease feelings of depression.

Spend time with positive people

Getting support from an encouraging friend or family member can give your mood a boost. Emotions are contagious. People who are peaceful, positive, or motivated help you to feel similarly. I’ll bet you can think of a special person who makes you feel as if you can do anything and the possibilities are endless whenever you talk to them. On the other hand, there are those people who are negative, reactive, or low energy which rubs off on you as well. Make it a point to spend time with someone who lifts you up and encourages you.

If it’s appropriate, you could give or get a hug to get a further boost. A long hug releases the neurotransmitter oxytocin, the bonding hormone, which reduces the reactivity of your amygdala, the fear alarm, and just makes you feel warm and fuzzy.

14 Free Ways to Help Your Brain Find Happiness Right Now

Crack a smile (and giggle)

Smiling is a simple thing to do and really does improve your mood. Most people think we smile because we feel happy, but it works the other way too. You can feel happier if you smile. Science has discovered that when you smile your brain releases mood-boosting dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. Even a fake smile can trick your brain into thinking it’s happy.

Laughing works for the same reasons smiling does. 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. You may feel silly, but opening your mouth and letting out a chuckle or thinking of something funny to make you giggle can actually make you feel happier. There’s not much difference in your brain between fake and genuine laughter and provoked laughing can often lead to the real thing.


Don’t go looking for happiness.

It’s something you can encourage and invite into your life every day. Savor the positive moments, and refocus your attention on what is going to make you happy. Take a moment to breathe mindfully. Spend time in nature, and get your body moving by exercising or dancing.

It won’t do much good to stress yourself out and try to squeeze a bunch of happiness habits into one day. However, do try to fit something in each day that is going to help your brain tilt towards happiness. You will be happier in the moment every day and over time, you will help your brain’s default level to be happier.

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