If you want to be happy the rest of your life, make sure you keep your brain happy. Why? Because being happy matters more to your brain than you might think. In fact, feeling pleasure can be so stimulating for your brain that it is primed to respond to pleasure in a way that reinforces pleasure. Your brain offers rewards to steer you on a pathway to happiness, and you can offer your brain rewards that will encourage it to become even more finely tuned-and to grow well into your old age. Other reasons to want a happy brain: Negative mood variance disturbs your interaction with your environment, affecting your ability to perceive, remember, and reinforce existing or create new neural connections, while being happy improves your ability to be more cognitively alert and productive. Other than being much more fun to be around, being happy:
- stimulates the growth of nerve connections.
- improves cognition by increasing mental productivity.
- improves your ability to analyze and think.
- affects your view of surroundings.
- increases attentiveness.
- leads to more happy thoughts.
Happy people are more creative, solve problems faster, and tend to be more mentally alert.
The Power of Positive Thoughts
Your thoughts form your character, how you operate in the world, how far you travel mentally, physically, and spiritually. You are what you think you are, and all of your actions proceed from thought. Your inner thoughts will always be reflected in your outer circumstances, because self-generated changes in your life are always preceded by changes in the way you think about something.
As far as your brain, every thought releases brain chemicals. Being focused on negative thoughts effectively saps the brain of its positive forcefulness, slows it down, and can go as far as dimming your brain's ability to function, even creating depression. On the flip side, thinking positive, happy, hopeful, optimistic, joyful thoughts decreases cortisol and produces serotonin, which creates a sense of well-being. This helps your brain function at peak capacity.
Happy thoughts and positive thinking, in general, support brain growth, as well as the generation and reinforcement of new synapses, especially in your prefrontal cortex (PFC), which serves as the integration center of all of your brain-mind functions.
In other words, your PFC not only regulates the signals that your neurons transmit to other brain parts and to your body, it allows you to think about and reflect upon what you are physically doing. In particular, the PFC allows you to control your emotional responses through connections to your deep limbic brain. It gives you the ability to focus on whatever you choose and to gain insight about your thinking processes. The PFC is the only part of your brain that can control your emotions and behaviors and help you focus on whatever goals you elect to pursue. It helps you grow as a human being, change what you wish to change, and live life the way you decide!
Why Optimism Leads to Greater Happiness
Neuroscientists have discovered that people who have a more cheerful disposition and are more prone to optimism generally have higher activity occurring in their left PFC. But that's a brain explanation. Interestingly, behavioral scientists have observed fascinating differences between optimists and pessimists. Optimism, for example, involves highly desirable cognitive, emotional, and motivational components. Optimistic people tend to have better moods, to be more persevering and successful, and to experience better physical health. One factor may be simply that optimists attribute good events to themselves in terms of permanence, citing their traits and abilities as the cause, and bad events as transient (using words like "sometimes" or "lately"), or the fault of other people. In addition, optimists:
- Lead happy, rich, fulfilled lives
- Spend the least amount of time alone, and the most time socializing
- Have good relationships
- Have better health habits
- Have stronger immune systems
- Live longer than pessimists
On the flip side, pessimistic people explain good events by citing transient causes, such as moods and effort, and bad events as permanent conditions (using words like "always" or "never"). Pessimists:
- Automatically assume setbacks are permanent, pervasive, and due to personal failings.
- Are eight times more likely to be depressed than optimists
- Perform worse at school and work
- Have rockier interpersonal relationships
- Die sooner than optimists.
According to Sonia Lyubomirsky, a University of California researcher, unhappy people spend hours comparing themselves to other people, both above and below themselves on the happiness scale; happy people didn't compare themselves with anyone.
The good news is that you can use your mind to train your brain to tamp down the negative thoughts that lead to pessimism, while ramping up the types of positive thoughts that lead to optimism. You can be the master of the neuronal changes that will lead to greater happiness, and the rewiring starts in those teensy miracles known as your brain cells, or neurons. Even if depression runs in your family, you have the capability of improving the way your brain functions, of setting up neuronal roadblocks and diminishing the neuronal patterns linked to negative thinking. You may not be able to eradicate a genetic disposition towards depression, but you can greatly reduce its impact and its reoccurrence.
Negative Thinking, Negative Balance
Negative thinking slows down brain coordination, making it difficult to process thoughts and find solutions. Feeling frightened, which often happens when focused on negative outcomes, has been shown to decrease activity in your cerebellum, which slow the brain's ability to process new information-limiting your ability to practice creative problem solving. Additionally, the fear factor impacts your left temporal lobe, which affects mood, memory, and impulse control.
Your frontal lobe, particularly your PFC, decides what is important according to the amount of attention you pay to something and how you feel about it. Thus, the more you focus on negativity, the more synapses and neurons your brain will create that support your negative thought process.
Your hippocampus provides the context of stored memories, which means the emotional tone and description your mind creates can potentially rewire your brain by creating stronger neuronal pathways and synapses. What you think and feel about a certain situation or thing can become so deeply ingrained that you will have to work hard to dismantle the negative connections and rewire your brain in order to be less afraid, to think positively, to believe that dreams can come true, to trust that your efforts will be successful.
Train Your Brain to Think More Positively
One of the oldest precepts of neuroscience has been that our mental processes (thinking) originate from brain activity: that our brain is in charge when it comes to creating and shaping our mind. However, more recent research has shown that it can also work the other way around: that focused, repetitive mental activity can affect changes in your brain's structure, wiring, and capabilities.
The actions we take can literally expand or contract different regions of the brain, firing up circuits or tamping them down. The more you ask your brain to do, the more cortical space it sets up to handle the new tasks. It responds by forging stronger connections in circuits that underlie the desired behavior or thought and weakening the connections in others. Thus, what you do and what you think, see, or feel is mirrored in the size of your respective brain regions and the connections your brain forms to accommodate your needs.
What does all this mean? It means that what we think, do, and say matters; that it affects who we become on the outside, the inside, and in our brain. Mostly, it means that you can retrain your brain to be more positive.
Start by thinking happy thoughts, looking on the bright side, and refocusing your brain when negative thoughts occur. Your mind has the ability to determine how your brain thinks about what happens in your life. Use it to your own advantage to reframe events and think positively.
Stick with us, as we'll post more specifics on training your brain to get happy in coming weeks.
This article was co-written by Teresa Aubele, Ph.D. and Susan Reynolds