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Just what is this thing we call happiness?

Try to define it. You’ll end up describing feelings, things, or even circumstances which will undoubtedly vary from person to person because happiness is a completely subjective perception and experience. It’s a universal “you know what I mean” feeling, but to precisely pinpoint its components is impossible.

Similarly, achieving happiness is going to be unique for each of us. However, there are activities that generally up happiness across the board.

Happiness Is What You Decide It Is

In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert tells of two conjoined twins, Lori and George Schappel. Lori and George, being joined at the forehead, share a blood supply, part of their skulls, and some brain tissue. (George was formerly known as Reba. ) The twins have spent their whole lives locked together, eye to eye, sharing every waking and sleeping moment.

Most of us would think this existence difficult and sad, yet the twins are joyful, playful, and optimistic — happy. They have no desire to be separated and think it would be ruining two lives. In fact, when asked, they say they wouldn’t have it any other way. In the book, Gilbert tells that research on conjoined twins found that the desire to stay together is practically universal. How can this be?

We may look at them and see only the challenges and inconveniences in comparison to someone who isn’t a conjoined twin. However, what if we consider the positive attributes of the situation? It’s a matter of where we put our focus. The idea of always having your best friend right there, someone who knows you better than anyone else and knows all of your secrets — but loves you anyway, is strongly compelling.

You might say “They only think they’re happy because they don’t know any different.”

That’s precisely it!

They’ve defined happiness for themselves and found it within their current circumstances.

Happiness Is Basically Identical In Our Brains

Happiness is a point of view, an emotion, a feeling, and it’s going to be a different experience for every individual. While we can all agree that the sky is what we call the color blue, we can’t begin to assume that everyone is having the same experience of blue. Blue, like happiness, is a subjective interpretation of input to your brain. In fact, your reality is a subjective experience colored by the filter of your subconscious. 

In our brains, happiness is roughly the same neural activity pattern in all human beings and within the same person. Yet, what constitutes happiness is very different from person to person and has a wide range of manifestations  — even within the same individual. While downing some Ben and Jerry’s Caramel Sutra ice cream, burying my face in the furry belly of a purring cat, and dancing around to Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister” may activate the happy circuit in my brain, these things may do absolutely nothing for you.

When you’re young, your brain is very changeable or neuroplastic. It’s kind of like a sponge soaking up everything it experiences, good and bad. So, your brain got wired based on your individual past experiences. Each time your neurochemicals surged, your brain built connections. Today, it turns on your brain chemicals in the same patterns as in your past. In a way, you can think of it as how your brain learned how to make “happy.”

Making Happy Happen In Your Brain

Science has proven that you can take control of your own happiness, influence your brain, and hack into your happy neurochemicals. By understanding how these chemicals originate and function, you can work experiences into your daily life to increase them which can up your happiness, productivity, and peace of mind. You can rewire the happy pathways in your brain — just like when you were a child — and raise your happiness setpoint.

As an adult, it’s not as easy to build new circuits to turn on in new ways and requires repetition, focus, and time, but it can be done under certain circumstances. Your brain is capable of neuroplastic change until the day you die. So, pick a new happy habit and start implementing it with repetition and consistency, and you will start to shift the neurochemical balance in your brain.

Of course, depression, mood, and behavior are the products of more than just your neurochemicals, but understanding and consciously altering them is one step closer to a happier you and a better life.

How to Make Happy Happen In Your Brain

7 Ways Science Says You Can Get A Happier Brain

Research shows that over half of your happiness is actually under your conscious control. You can purposefully choose lifestyle habits that help your brain stay happy. 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.

Smile And Laugh More Often

Science has discovered that simply smiling can make you happier.  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

Research has determined that comparing yourself to others can cause you 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

The gap 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 instead of disappointed. One study found that having money and success didn’t increase happiness as much as lowering expectations did.

Be Mindful of the Present

Research found that almost half of our thoughts aren’t 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 generally an unhappy mind, especially if it’s ruminating about past hurts. You can teach your mind to wander less by coming into the present and practicing mindfulness and meditation.

Recall Positive Memories

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 supports 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.

Practice Gratitude

Gratitude is good for your brain. 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, 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.

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  1. It’s so empowering to know that we can change our brain circuits and rewire them for more happiness! I want to focus on the positive this year, happiness here I come!

    • I think it’s empowering too, Sandra – even if I don’t always feel like I have much control! 🙂

  2. I enjoyed the tips offered on getting a happier brain. I find it interesting that it is better to pursue meaning rather than happiness directly. Thank you for sharing!

    • So many studies say this. I think it makes sense because the pursuit of happiness itself can be frustrating and elusive.

  3. So glad you wrote about this Debbie. It’s so important to know that we are in control of at least half our happiness quotient. And I can definitely attest personally to smiling evoking vibrations of happiness within. As a big smiler in general! Which isn’t something I have to do, it’s something that it’s part of my natural beingness on the planet, so I consider myself blessed to have this head start for happiness.

    • Good for you, Elle. 🙂 I think being a natural smiler ups your happiness quotient. I find the information empowering to know that we can control our happiness so much.

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