I used to think that being happier was all about teaching yourself to think more positively. But, at times positive thinking can be quite difficult, particularly when you’re in a bad emotional place, and occasionally it can actually get in the way of happiness. In doing research for my new book I discovered that the most powerful path to increasing happiness is to strengthen the right brain circuits, because happiness and well-being are all about a dynamic balance between the cognitive, emotional and action circuits in the brain. Fortunately, there are numerous simple actions you can take right now that positively affect your brain activity and chemistry. Here are the top five tips that you can implement easily on your own.
1. Get some sun
The human brain didn’t evolve in a dimly lit office building. It needs sunlight to function optimally. Being outside during the day modulates the brain’s internal clock, improving the release of melatonin, which helps you get a better night’s sleep. That improved sleep provides further benefits such as reduced aches and pains and increased energy and clarity. In addition, sunlight absorbed through your skin helps your brain make the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is important in elevating your mood.
2. Move your body:
When done intensely, this is sometimes referred to as “exercise,” but seeing benefits doesn’t require that you go to the gym four times a week. Simply moving around activates serotonin neurons. Take a short walk around the block. Use the stairs instead of the elevator. And if you get a bit more vigorous, you’ll also get benefits in the norepinephrine and dopamine systems.
3. Stretch your tight muscles:
When your muscles are tense your brain thinks that you’re stressed. Stretching your muscles actually reduces stress through a process called biofeedback. It can even release neurochemicals similar to morphine and THC, which reduce pain and increase feelings of well-being.
4. Go get a massage:
Massage releases the neurohormone oxytocin, which reduces stress and anxiety and helps you feel more connected with others. It also increases serotonin. But really, how many reasons do you need to get a massage? And if you can’t afford a massage, then go hug a friend, which provides a lot of the same benefits.
5. Take a Deep Breath:
Another way to take advantage of biofeedback is through deep breathing. Simply take a long, deep breath, pause at the end of your inhale, and then release it slowly. Deep breathing affects the brain by modulating activity in the vagus nerve, and is a powerful way to reduce stress and anxiety. Repeat as necessary.
For more tips on strengthening your brain’s capacity for happiness, check out The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time.
This post is re-blogged, with modifications, from my post for The Independent.