Say hello to your brain. Is it your best friend, your worst enemy, or maybe just a bit of a stranger?
A healthy, happy brain is key to your capacity to thrive. It’s tempting to think that all you need to do to be happy is isolate the part of the brain that deals with happiness and then work to ensure that it can thrive…a bit like the idea that doing more ab crunches at the gym will get you a six pack! But the reality is both much more complicated and fascinating than that.
When it comes to the brain, there is one simple truth: your experiences matter. Not just for how they feel in the moment but for the lasting traces they leave in your brain. Your experiences of happiness, worry, love, anger and anxiety make changes in your neural networks. This means that the things you pay attention to today will influence how you respond in the future. Rick Hanson, neuropsychologist and author of Hardwiring Happiness, encourages us to think of our attention like a spotlight: it highlights what it lights on and imprints that on your brain, for better or worse.
Look back over the past week or so – where has your attention mostly been resting?
If you keep resting your mind on self-criticism, worries, what you haven’t done, hurts and stresses, then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety with an inclination towards anger, sadness and guilt.
On the other hand, if you rest your mind on good events and experiences, pleasant feelings, physical pleasures, the things you do get done and your good intentions and qualities, then over time your brain will take a different shape – resilience, optimism and a sense of self-worth will be hardwired into it.
“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.”
Happiness in the brain
There are four main neurotransmitters or chemicals associated with happiness in the brain:
- Serotonin: a mood-booster, emitted when you feel valued or important, and mood regulator
- Dopamine: a chemical with many functions, but one of the most familiar is its role in reward and pleasure
- Oxytocin: sometimes referred to as the trust hormone because it is emitted when feeling close contact
- Endorphins: are released in response to pain and help you persevere when facing a difficult task
Dr Loretta Breuning, neuroscientist and founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, believes that we need to become more strategic in the way we use the chemical reactions that occur in our brains so that we are routinely enlisting our neurology to support changes in our brains and in our behaviours. (If you’re interested in how to turn on your happy chemicals, I’ve written more about it here).
For example, our brains are flooded with dopamine and serotonin when we experience positive emotions, like joy, love, gratitude, inclusion, connection and happiness. This makes us feel good and increases the likelihood that we will want to repeat the experience that gave rise to this good feeling. However, Barbara Fredrickson’s work on positive emotions has shown that the benefit of positive emotions goes beyond the uplift we feel in the moment, they also help us to learn, problem solve, and to think quickly and creatively, meaning that they’re also helping us build our inner resources.
Building the brain you want
Until very recently it was accepted that by the time we reached adulthood our brains were fully formed. However, neuroscientists have shown that this is not the case. For example, in 2000 researchers studying the brains of London black cab drivers found something previously unimaginable: the cab drivers brains had a significantly larger hippocampus – the brain structure devoted to spatial memory – than the average person.
This discovery has led to the belief, supported by more and more evidence as brain scan technology becomes ever more sophisticated, that the brain can change depending on how you live your life. Meaning our brains can change in response to our actions and circumstances. This is called neuroplasticity.
Professor Michael Merzenich, neuroscientist and founder of The Brain Plasticity Institute, believes the discovery that we can change the “mechanics” in the brain, is just the first step, using this knowledge to refine how our brains operate comes next. Once we accept that the brain has the capacity to build new neural connections and rewire existing ones, it opens up a world of possibility.
How your brain can get in the way of your happiness
Our brains are built to promote survival, not happiness. Their capacity to scan the environment for threats and react appropriately is probably one reason why we have survived as a species, however, constantly being on the alert for what is wrong can get in the way of good mental health.
Today, it is rare that we face threats to our physical survival. Most of us live relatively safe lives, but our brain continues to operate in threat detection mode, giving priority to noticing what is wrong over what is going well. What once worked for us is now working against us: our neurobiology is setting us up to struggle. Once we realise this, it helps us to understand why we sometimes feel stressed and unhappy, even when we logically know that there are lots of good things happening in our lives. Psychologists refer to this brain quirk as negativity bias. That may not be a name you’ve heard of but you’re probably quite familiar with how it works.
Consider this: what do you do when a lesson goes well? Do you play it over in your mind? Analyse it closely so that you can identify exactly where it went well? Get forensic about who benefitted the most from the way in which you scaffolded the learning? Probably not. If you’re anything like me, you feel a moment of satisfaction, and then you get on with your day. However, what about when a lesson goes badly – how often do you play that over in your mind? How forensically do you analyse what went wrong? When? How? Why? Probably a lot more than is necessary! If that sounds familiar, then you’re a walking illustration of how our brains are, according to Hanson, Teflon for good and Velcro for bad.
“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.”
Michel de Montaigne, 1533-1592
Training your brain to capitalise on possibility
The Three Good Things activity, developed by positive psychologist Martin Seligman, is a way of tuning in to positive moments. Every day, for at least a week, write down three things that go well for you and give a short explanation of why they went well. Don’t be tempted to just think about three things, make the time to write them down.
One study found that people who did this activity every day for a week were happier and less depressed compared to those who didn’t one month, three months and even six months after the study ended.
The power of this simple activity is that it obliges you to pay close attention to good things in your life, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential. As teachers we know that experiences only get transferred from the working memory to the long term memory if we pay attention to them. Things we don’t pay attention to, for whatever reason, are discarded by the brain, it’s like they never happened. By consciously focusing the ‘spotlight’ of our attention on our positive experiences, replaying them in our mind and writing about them, we capture those experiences and in so doing, we build a happier brain.
In The Happiness Advantage Shawn Achor reminds us that “focusing on the good isn’t just about overcoming our inner grump to see the glass half full”, rather it’s about creating a cognitive pattern that looks for the positive so that we open up our minds to new ideas and opportunities that have the potential to help us to be more productive, creative, successful and happy.
“The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes.”
William James, 1842-1910
It’s one thing to know how to build a happy brain, but quite another to start doing it. Knowledge and curiosity are great, but it’s only by taking action that you will create new neural pathways and build a happy, healthy brain that supports you to thrive.
Send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org and share how you’re feeding your positivity!