Neuroscientists study the brain and human consciousness. University of California at Los Angeles neuroscience researcher Alex Korb recently offered some insights into attaining happiness. Here are his four keys:
1. If you’re down, there is one important question you should ask.
The question is: What am I grateful for?
The answers to that question will lead you to greater joy.
Often, our first thoughts are the ones that lead us to feel guilt and shame. Neuroscientists say we are drawn to those feelings because they activate the neural circuits of the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, insula and the nucleus accumbens of the brain. Interestingly, those are the same areas of the brain that respond to feelings of pride; they are the reward center of the brain. So we unconsciously go to the thoughts that trigger those areas.
Or we worry. When we worry, we feel as if we are at least doing something. Worrying helps calm the limbic system through increasing activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and lessening activity in the amygdala.
Gratitude, on the other hand, activates the brain stem region that makes dopamine. It boosts the neurotransmitter serotonin, which prevents depression.
We all have something for which we can be grateful. Even if it takes a while to think of something, the search is good for your brain.
2. Label your negative feelings.
A study demonstrated that when a participant saw pictures of people whose faces reflected emotion, the participant’s amygdala was activated. When the participant named the emotions, however, his or her ventrolateral prefrontal cortex was activated and the emotional amygdala reactivity was reduced. In other words, identifying the emotions lessened their impact.
Are you sad? Angry? Anxious? Identifying the emotion will make you feel better.
3. Go ahead and make that decision.
The process of making a decision includes creating an intention and setting a goal, and all three of those are part of the same neural circuitry. They engage the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, lessening worry and anxiety. Making a decision calms the limbic system and changes your perceptions.
Deciding helps you feel in control, and being in control reduces stress. Actively deciding increases dopamine activity.
Don’t try to make a “perfect” decision; just make a “good enough” decision. And whenever possible, make the decision that will result in the most joy and satisfaction for you.
4. Get close to other people.
Be open to touching and receiving touch from others. Touching releases oxytocin, a hormone that fosters attachment and good feelings. Touch makes you more persuasive, increases performance on teams, and has even been shown to improve math skills (how about that?). A touch can be as simple as a handshake, a pat on the back, or an arm thrown across a shoulder.
Touch between people who love each other has been shown to reduce pain. Studies on married couples showed the deeper the love connection, the more powerful the pain-relieving effect.
Research has demonstrated that getting five hugs every day for four weeks causes a big boost in happiness. If you don’t have anyone to hug at the moment, go get a massage. Receiving a massage raises your serotonin by as much as 30 percent and reduces pain by releasing endorphins. It improves sleeps and reduces cortisol, the stress hormone.