Do you ever wonder what will make you happier? Very few people actually know what will really increase their level of life satisfaction. UCLA researcher Alex Korb recently released The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time in which he breaks down the complex processes in the brain that cause depression. The neuroscientist offers 4 research-based strategies to rewire the brain in order to create a happier, healthier life.
Overcoming a persistently bad mood can be challenging because of your brain’s misguided reward center. Korb found that feelings of guilt and shame activate the same part of your brain as does being proud of yourself. When struggling (or failing) to reach a goal, people tend to worry that they’re not good enough.
This anxiety about being good enough triggers feelings of guilt or shame, emotions which decrease activity in the amygdala (the part of your brain that causes you to feel fear). Experiencing guilt or shame actually makes you less afraid, Korb discovered. But the fear reduction comes with a painful price tag: feeling guilty because you’re imperfect or ashamed because you’ve greatly disappointed others.
These negative emotions disengage people from their struggle to succeed. Helplessness and hopelessness pervade their thinking. Their inner critic relentlessly focuses on their flaws, which they’re sure is all anyone sees when they look at them. People become depressed when they’re no longer afraid they may fail, they’re certain that they already have.
Worrying, then, is actually a good thing because it’s a better alternative to responding to a challenge than becoming depressed about the situation. Kolb discovered that worrying calms the fearful reactions by increasing activity in your prefrontal cortex (the planning part of your brain). At least when you’re worrying you’re trying to figure out something to do about the problem you’re facing, which is better than being frozen by the fearful images of worst-case outcomes.
So you now know that it’s better for your brain to be anxious and insecure than it is to feel inadequate and incompetent. Great. How do you combat that kind of hardwiring?
The first strategy that Korb found effective in disrupting the doom loop of depressive thinking is ask “What am I grateful for?”
Gratitude affects your brain at a biological level by boosting the amount of the feel good neurotransmitters in your brain. Expressing gratitude to others increases dopamine, Korb found, which is the same result derived from taking the antidepressant Wellbutrin. More dopamine makes social interactions more enjoyable, which sets off a self-reinforcing upward spiral.
Feeling grateful for having more positive social interactions boosts the production of the brain chemical serotonin, just the way Prozac does. And the more you search for the positive aspects of your life, the greater the production of serotonin in your anterior cingulate cortex. This part of your brain benefits from increased serotonin by improving your rational cognitive functions, such as reward anticipation, decision-making, empathy, and impulse control.
But what if your bad feelings have completely overtaken you? Korb’s second strategy for managing negative emotions involves labeling the feeling, which activates the prefrontal cortex and reduces the fight/flight/freeze reactions of the amygdala. You just need to apply a word or two in order to reduce the intensity of an emotion.
The third strategy Korb found effective for mitigating negativity is to make a decision to do something positive. By setting a specific goal you will create intention, thereby engaging your prefrontal cortex, which is the part of your brain that enables you think about how to achieve positive outcomes.
But there’s a catch. You have to make a “good enough” decision about how to make your life a little happier rather than setting a big goal for what the perfect life might look like. Trying to create the best possible outcome increases stress, while achieving a “good enough” goal gives you a feeling of being in control.
You’ll benefit by practicing being grateful, labeling negative emotions, and making decisions that accomplish a little something nice. But all of that will still leave you feeling lonely without having love and acceptance from other people.
Your brain needs you to touch people. Not having the comforting touch of a loved one is painful. Without positive interactions with others, your brain reactions register the same as if you were experiencing physical pain. Hugs, especially long ones, release the neurotransmitter oxytocin. Studies show that enjoying 5 hugs a day gives you the biggest happiness boost.