For many people, the path to happiness appears to be rough. Even the richest, most popular, powerful people who seem to have perfect lives are in search for true bliss.
For science, it isn’t surprising why happiness seems to be a hard-to-attain dream. It’s because science knows how the brain works, and it sees through a negative lens. Due to human genes, evolution, and instinct for survival, the brain is developed to scan for problems. Though there are a ton of “how to’s” for being happy, only science can be the undoubtedly reliable source.
For that matter, Alex Korb, UCLA neuroscience researcher, shares some insights that can create an upward spiral of happiness. Here’s 4 rituals to ultimately blissful life based from Korb’s book, The Upward Spiral:
1. Practice gratefulness
The brain is developed in a way that it scans for negativity. Which is why negative feelings like shame, guilt and pride trigger the reward center of the brain.
Despite their differences, pride, shame, and guilt all activate similar neural circuits, including the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, insula, and the nucleus accumbens. Interestingly, pride is the most powerful of these emotions at triggering activity in these regions — except in the nucleus accumbens, where guilt and shame win out. This explains why it can be so appealing to heap guilt and shame on ourselves — they’re activating the brain’s reward center. – The Upward Spiral
People also tend to worry a lot because in the short-term, the brain feels better when people worry. Worrying, in some way, tells the brain that you’re doing something about the problem.
In fact, worrying can help calm the limbic system by increasing activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and decreasing activity in the amygdala. That might seem counterintuitive, but it just goes to show that if you’re feeling anxiety, doing something about it — even worrying — is better than doing nothing. -The Upward Spiral
It’s clear that in long term feelings of guilt, shame and worry cannot contribute any good help to one’s problems. Thus, neuroscientists say that to resolve this problem, ask your self the question: What am I grateful for?
Gratefulness affects the brain on a biological level. In fact, it works similarly with neural drugs like the antidepressant Wellbutrin. Like this drug, feeling grateful boosts the neurotransmitter dopamine.
The benefits of gratitude start with the dopamine system, because feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine. Additionally, gratitude toward others increases activity in social dopamine circuits, which makes social interactions more enjoyable… – The Upward Spiral
Gratitude also works like Prozac. It boosts the neurotransmitter serotonin.
One powerful effect of gratitude is that it can boost serotonin. Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex. – The Upward Spiral
Though it’s true, sometimes life hits you hard, and finding something to be grateful for is like a needle in a haystack. However, neuroscientists say that finding something to be grateful of doesn’t matter. What counts is the searching.
It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence that breeds happiness. One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful. – The Upward Spiral
Looking for something to be grateful of won’t only give you bliss, it also creates a positive feedback loop in your relationships. Thus, tell your loved ones how you’re grateful to have them.
How about for the times when you’re down in the mud? You feel vulnerable, helpless and you have no idea how to deal with your problems? Neuroscientists say, there’s an easy trick.
2. Name your awful feeling when it arises
Every time you get a bad feeling, identify what it is. Do you feel sad? Anxious, angry?
Believe it or not it’s that simple. It may sound stupid, but not when you hear what neuroscientists have to say.
…in one fMRI study, appropriately titled “Putting Feelings into Words” participants viewed pictures of people with emotional facial expressions. Predictably, each participant’s amygdala activated to the emotions in the picture. But when they were asked to name the emotion, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activated and reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity. In other words, consciously recognizing the emotions reduced their impact. – The Upward Spiral
Apparently, fighting your own negative feelings won’t help you become happier. Suppressing those feelings will only result in a detrimental backfire.
Gross found that people who tried to suppress a negative emotional experience failed to do so. While they thought they looked fine outwardly, inwardly their limbic system was just as aroused as without suppression, and in some cases, even more aroused. Kevin Ochsner, at Columbia, repeated these findings using an fMRI. Trying not to feel something doesn’t work, and in some cases even backfires.
Labeling your negative feelings will do wonders in decreasing its effect on you.
To reduce arousal, you need to use just a few words to describe an emotion, and ideally use symbolic language, which means using indirect metaphors, metrics, and simplifications of your experience. This requires you to activate your prefrontal cortex, which reduces the arousal in the limbic system. Here’s the bottom line: describe an emotion in just a word or two, and it helps reduce the emotion.
Labeling your feelings is a powerful weapon. In fact, ancient methods incorporate this technique, too. Such as, in meditation, labeling the brain is a fundamental practice for mindfulness.
Labeling feelings is truly effective in attaining happiness that it also works on other people. As a matter of fact, this method is being used by the FBI during hostage negotiators.
3. Make decisions
We frequently hear sad, depressed or confused people saying they’re tired of life. In stressful situations, the best solution to give it a rest is to make a decision.
According to science, making a decision decreases anxiety or reduces worries — plus, you’re actually solving your problem.
Making decisions include creating intentions and setting goals — all three are part of the same neural circuitry and engage the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, reducing worry and anxiety. Making decisions also helps overcome striatum activity, which usually pulls you toward negative impulses and routines. Finally, making decisions changes your perception of the world — finding solutions to your problems and calming the limbic system.
However, when making a decision, keep in mind that it’s okay to come up with a ‘good enough’ solution. Sometimes, deciding is hard, so don’t stress yourself to come up with the best decision.
Besides, science also learned that being a perfectionist will only make you feel like you’re out of control. Such an irony, but it’s true. Striving for perfection overwhelms the brain with feelings, and you don’t want that.
Trying for the best, instead of good enough, brings too much emotional ventromedial prefrontal activity into the decision-making process. In contrast, recognizing that good enough is good enough activates more dorsolateral prefrontal areas, which helps you feel more in control…- The Upward Spiral
Deciding will make you feel like you’re in control, it reduces stress. More importantly, making decisions delivers pleasure.
In a study using rats injected with the same doses of cocaine, there were differences in the level of dopamine when the other rat made a decision. Rat A pulled the lever, while rat B didn’t do anything. Results showed that rat A had larger boosts of dopamine.
So they both got the same injections of cocaine at the same time, but rat A had to actively press the lever, and rat B didn’t have to do anything. And you guessed it — rat A released more dopamine in its nucleus accumbens. – The Upward Spiral
The experiment only shows that when you make a decision on a goal, and eventually achieve it, you feel better than when a good thing happens by chance.
Thus, every time you drag your butt to the gym because you think you have to or you should, your brain doesn’t get any pleasure from it. It may even cause stress.
Interestingly, if they are forced to exercise, they don’t get the same benefits, because without choice, the exercise itself is a source of stress rather than happiness. – The Upward Spiral
Neuroscience researcher Alex Korb sums it up nicely:
We don’t just choose the things we like; we also like the things we choose.
4. Keep in touch, literally
If the tips above seem lonely for a happy prescription, you can actually involve other people in your pursuit of happiness. Neuroscientists say, you can be happy while making others feel better by touching them. Not in any weird way, though.
Feelings of rejection and not being loved can be painful. In fact, the brain receives this kind of pain like a physical pain.
In a study made, where people were playing a ball-tossing video game, the players are asked to toss the ball to other players. When other people stopped playing nice, and stopped tossing the ball to others, the subjects’ brain responded as if they were feeling a physical pain. Meaning, rejection doesn’t cause a broken heart; in the brain, it’s like a broken leg.
In fact, as demonstrated in an fMRI experiment, social exclusion activates the same circuitry as physical pain… at one point they stopped sharing, only throwing back and forth to each other, ignoring the participant. This small change was enough to elicit feelings of social exclusion, and it activated the anterior cingulate and insula, just like physical pain would.
This is why your relationships with other people mean a lot for your happiness. If you want to strengthen your bond with other people, the easiest way is to touch them.
One of the primary ways to release oxytocin is through touching. Obviously, it’s not always appropriate to touch most people, but small touches like handshakes and pats on the back are usually okay. For people you’re close with, make more of an effort to touch more often.
Touching can also help reduce pain – physical or emotional. In a study done among married couples, they learned that the stronger the marriage, the more powerful touching is.
In addition, holding hands with someone can help comfort you and your brain through painful situations. One fMRI study scanned married women as they were warned that they were about to get a small electric shock. While anticipating the painful shocks, the brain showed a predictable pattern of response in pain and worrying circuits, with activation in the insula, anterior cingulate, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. During a separate scan, the women either held their husbands’ hands or the hand of the experimenter. When a subject held her husband’s hand, the threat of shock had a smaller effect. The brain showed reduced activation in both the anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex— that is, less activity in the pain and worrying circuits. In addition, the stronger the marriage, the lower the discomfort-related insula activity.
If you don’t have someone to touch or hug, we’re really sorry to hear. However, there is a great substitute that can do the work — that’s to get a massage.
The results are fairly clear that massage boosts your serotonin by as much as 30 percent. Massage also decreases stress hormones and raises dopamine levels, which helps you create new good habits… Massage reduces pain because the oxytocin system activates painkilling endorphins. Massage also improves sleep and reduces fatigue by increasing serotonin and dopamine and decreasing the stress hormone cortisol.
UCLA neuroscience researcher Alex Korb also explains the interconnection of happiness and everything else. He tells why it’s important to feel happy, and why we should start its upward spiral:
Everything is interconnected. Gratitude improves sleep. Sleep reduces pain. Reduced pain improves your mood. Improved mood reduces anxiety, which improves focus and planning. Focus and planning help with decision making. Decision making further reduces anxiety and improves enjoyment. Enjoyment gives you more to be grateful for, which keeps that loop of the upward spiral going. Enjoyment also makes it more likely you’ll exercise and be social, which, in turn, will make you happier.