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The Neuroscience of Happiness

The Neuroscience of Happiness

Sometimes happiness can feel out of reach, or dependent on outside forces, but it’s also something we can cultivate for ourselves. It takes a little work every day, but cultivating happiness and positive thinking can improve our relationships with others, enhance our performance at work, and even increase our lifespan. 

Cultivating happiness and positive thinking is a practice—something we have to work for, in small actions we do for ourselves every day. At first, this might be difficult to do. That’s because the human brain is naturally designed to pay more attention to negative thoughts and stimuli as compared to positive ones. The good news is that the more you practice cultivating happiness in your life, the easier it will become. 

Some neuroscience-based practices to boost happiness are:

Learn to self-regulate:

Research shows that consciously recognizing your emotions reduces their impact on your thoughts and behaviors. Suppressing emotions can actually make you feel worse and those emotions will ultimately come out anyway, like in a sudden emotional outburst. To practice self-regulation, try writing down what you feel, why you feel that way, and any other thoughts that arise. This will help clear your mind and allow you to challenge your unhelpful thinking. 

Seek out social contact: 

Humans are inherently social. We're wired to need physical touch and a strong support network. Research shows that social exclusion activates the same circuitry as physical pain while touching someone you love actually reduces pain. To increase meaningful social contact, make time to be present with your loved ones. If you can, meet them in person and give them a long tight hug (longer hugs release oxytocin, which reduces stress levels).

Practice gratitude:

Feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine. In addition, this practice leads to a boost in serotonin levels in the body. Some ways to practice gratitude are by observing things around you that you find beautiful, sending a message to family or friends to express your appreciation for them, or making a list of things that make you happy. 

Find ways to work meaningful activities into your daily routine:

Research confirms that doing little things regularly is much better for happiness than doing one big thing occasionally. Lots of little positive things allow you to rewire your brain and consciously change the way you perceive the world. To increase the frequency of meaningful activities, try to plan something for each day. It doesn’t have to be time-consuming or require a lot of effort; it just has to be something you like. Some examples of activities people enjoy are going to a cafe, doing a skincare ritual, going on a hike, doing yoga, and making art.
Move your body:

According to research, taking out at least 15 minutes for high intensity exercise or one hour of low intensity exercise can significantly boost mood and reduce the risk of depression. Try to incorporate 15 minutes of high intensity exercise daily, such as jumping rope, riding a bicycle, running, walking up and down the stairs. Mix it up with low intensity activities on some days, like going out for a walk, running errands, low intensity yoga, stretching—even doing chores around the house.

We encourage you to try these out as a step towards improving your overall psychological health. One thing to remember is that, even with these practices, you may not always feel happy. This is normal—not one person on the planet feels happy 100% of the time, and it’s natural to feel down sometimes, especially if we’re going through something big like the loss of a loved one or the end of a relationship. During these times, acknowledge what you’re feeling and allow yourself to work through it and when you feel ready, try to again implement some of the practices mentioned in your routine. 

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