Humans are the only species known to have consciousness, awareness that we have brains and bodies capable of adaptability, that we can affect the course our lives take, that we can make choices along the way that vastly affect the quality of our lives-biologically, intellectually, environmentally, and spiritually. As humans, we have the ability to mold our very beings to become what or who we wish to become. While some of us may, indeed, have genetic and biological imperatives that may require medication or training to overcome, or at least to modulate, the vast majority of us do, in fact, hold our emotional destiny in our hands.
All that being said, until the last decade, scientists believed that the human brain and its connections were formed during gestation and infancy and remained pretty much unchanged through childhood. They believed that humans had a given number of neurons in a specific brain structure, and while the number might vary among people, once you were done with childhood development, you were set in this mold. Your connections were already made, and the learning and growing period of your brain was over. In the last decade, however, researchers have found significant evidence that this is not so, and that something called neuroplasticity continues throughout our lives.
What Is Neuroplasticity?
In neuroscience, "plastic" means that a material has the ability to change, to be molded into different shapes. Thus, neuroplasticity is your brain's ability to alter its physical structure, to repair damaged regions, to grow new neurons and get rid of old ones, to rezone regions that performed one task and have them assume a new task, and to change the circuitry that weaves neurons into the networks that allow us to remember, feel, suffer, think, imagine, and dream.
Thanks to neuroplasticity, scientists now believe that most of us have the capability to:
- Reactivate long-dormant circuitry. The expression "it's like riding a bike" is very true when it comes to your brain. Often, you never completely forget a skill once learned, though you might need a short period of practice to kick your neurons back into gear.
- Create new circuitry. For instance, the neurons in your nose responsible for smell are made new and replaced every few weeks, and new neurons are made in other parts of your brain as well. Also, whenever you learn something new, your brain can strengthen existing neuronal connections and create new synapses that allow you to maximize new skills.
- Rewire circuitry. Parts of your brain that were used for one purpose can be retasked to other uses. This is often the case with stroke victims who relearn to use a limb or to speak after some neurons are destroyed.
- Quiet aberrant circuits and connections (such as those contributing to depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), phobias, and so on). Some parts of your brain (your prefrontal cortex, for example) can exert control over others (the amygdala, for example) and change how much they affect your mood, decision-making, and thought processes.
Please note that the techniques we are discussing do not apply to those who are dealing with brain chemistry imbalances that require medication (such as schizophrenia, bipolar disease, obsessive-compulsive disorder, ADHD, clinical depression, and so on). No one should ever feel responsible for their chemical imbalances, or stop taking prescribed medication in hopes that they have the ability to alter their chemistry through thought control. What we are saying is that-for most people-situational fluctuations in mood or behavior can be improved by consciously using your mind to tamp down negative neuronal pathways and to bolster positive neuronal pathways. In those cases, how your brain does this, and when, and why are all things that are entirely up to you. The way that you view the world around you, and the associations that you make, are entirely within your ability to shape and control. Those with healthy, balanced brains can affect change in the way their brains think and react, which, over time, can make them-and their brains-happier.
How Neuroplasticity Can Help You Be Happier
You can use your mind to foster neuroplasticity in the following ways:
- You can change the way your think or react to certain situations. The actions you take can literally expand or contract different regions of the brain, firing up circuits or tamping them down. For example, if you worry excessively, you are activating certain types of pathways due to habit. You can learn, however, to retrain your brain to quiet these pathways and strengthen others, so it doesn't automatically go down the "worry" highway.
- You can choose activities that alter the structure of your brain. The more you ask your brain to do, the more space it sets up to handle the new tasks, often by shrinking or repurposing space that houses your ability to perform rarely used tasks. For example, if you typically go into a melancholy funk when you face problems, your brain will continue that habit. If, however, you instruct your brain to come up with creative solutions to your problems, you can shut down the melancholy pathways by making them less used and smaller, and instead open up and increase use of the creativity workshop in your brain.
- You can use imagination to trick your brain. New brain-scanning technology has shown that conscious perception activates the same brain areas as imagination. In effect, you can neutralize the long-term effects of painful memories by rewriting (or more correctly, rewiring) the past that lives within your brain.
- You can use visualization as a way to train your brain to get happy. It works because your brain usually cannot reliably distinguish between recorded experience and internal fantasy. If you program your mind with images of you being happy and spend time visualizing the desired images long enough and hard enough, your brain will think those images really happened and will associate happiness with them.
Come On, Think Happy
In other words, whatever you ask your brain to do (employing intention, focus, practice, and reinforcement), it will strive to do. It is a tool you can use in whatever way you see fit. Again, presuming you aren't dealing with any psychobiological illnesses that require medication, the more often you ask your brain to think happy thoughts, the more your brain responds by forging new or beefing up existing neuronal circuitry to light up your happy board, and by weakening the neuronal connections that drain your happy thoughts.
You can use your clever, industrious mind to train your brain to bury the unproductive, depressing thoughts and habits that drag you (and your brain) down and to shine light on, nourish, and reinforce the productive, cheerful thoughts and activities that recharge your happiness batteries. By using your thoughts and choosing certain activities, you can lay the groundwork for brain restructuring that will make you happier. It's not a simple undertaking, and it will require focus, intention, dedication, accountability, action, and persistence, but you can reshape your brain-and its taskmaster mind-to experience and create greater happiness.
The good news is that plastic is fantastic when it comes to neuroscience. Plus, everything you do to foster happiness reinforces positive changes in your brain, and the more you continue pursuing happiness with vigor, the more you, and your brain get into a happy groove.
Where to Begin?
As to what you can specifically do to train your brain to get happy, well, we wrote an entire book on the matter, which means we can't possibly summarize everything in one column, but we'll be offering concrete suggestions in future columns. In the meantime, things you can do to mold your brain for greater happiness include:
- Meditation. It helps you monitor and direct thoughts, tamp down stress, increase empathy, and more fully experience pleasant emotions. The Buddhist practice of mindfulness meditation, in particular, has proven very effective in improving brain function.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It involves using your mind to distract your thoughts, neutralize negative thoughts, stop thoughts, reframe events, concentrate on positive thoughts, and use positive affirmations, as well as other techniques.
- Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). It marries the practice of mindfulness meditation with cognitive psychology in a way that is distinct from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is about examining your thoughts so you can re-evaluate and redirect thoughts, as appropriate. MBCT employs the tenets of mindfulness meditation (sans any religious aspect) as a way to stay open to the present moment without relying on habitual ways of thinking, feeling, or responding.
- Visualization. It helps your brain anticipate happiness and neutralize painful memories. Both will reduce stress-related brain chemicals and increase nourishing brain chemicals.
- Relaxation. It quiets an overactive brain, which affords your mind an opportunity to renew, refresh, and re-imagine desired outcomes.
- Nurturance. How well you eat and how much you sleep will positively affect your brain's ability to function. A healthy brain is always a happier brain.
- Recreation. Factoring play into your life gives your brain opportunities to produce serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that bathe your brain in happiness.
- Stimulation. Choosing and participating activities that make you feel good reinforces the types of neuronal pathways that will lead to greater happiness.
That's more than enough to get your brain popping with ideas you can embrace that will train your brain to be happier. More later . . . .
This article was co-written by Teresa Aubele, PhD and Susan Reynolds