We’ve come a long way in the science of happiness and have a pretty good idea of what happy looks like in your brain these days. It’s now known that what you do in your life every day, because of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change both physical form and function based on your behaviors, emotions, and thoughts, rewires your brain. You can either intentionally direct your brain to become more positive, resilient, and motivated or let it get stressed out, anxious, and depressed.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic pill or one single thing that cures depression or makes your brain calm and happy. Mental strength and having a happy and healthy brain are skills you can learn and support with your lifestyle including diet, exercise, sleep, stress coping practices, social interaction, and mental stimulation.
Your Brain Is A Positive Feedback Loop
Calm and happy are also found in the multitude of small, seemingly insignificant things you do every day. Your brain is a positive feedback system, and often all it takes is one small shift to keep it feeling good or start it on an upward cycle. While what works for one person may not do any good for another, there are many small things you can try to give your brain a more positive slant to see what works for you.
So whether you’re depressed, feeling down or anxious, or find yourself in one of those crisis freak-out moments, there are simple steps you can take, backed by neuroscience, right now to start your brain on a more positive path.
Diaphragm Breathing – Taking long, deep breaths into your tummy, slows your heart rate and activates the calm, parasympathetic nervous system. Place your hand on your diaphragm, the center of your stomach a couple of inches below your lungs, and take slow, full breaths counting to six making your hand move in and out with each inhale and exhale. After you get the hang of it, you can practice diaphramatic breathing anywhere without using your hand.
Give or get a hug – A long hug releases the neurotransmitter oxytocin, the bonding hormone, which reduces the reactivity of your amygdala, the fear alarm, and just makes you feel warm and fuzzy.
Get out in the sun – Bright sunlight helps boost the production of serotonin in your brain. Make an effort to get outside on your lunch hour, go for a walk during the day, or step outside to soak in the sun. Sunlight also improves the release of melatonin which will help you sleep better that night.
Put your feelings on paper – A number of studies have demonstrated that linguistic processing of the emotions produces less amygdala activity, the fear center in your brain, helping to alleviate emotional distress. A calmer amygdala means a happier, less anxious you.
Recall some happy memories – Studies show that thinking about happy times boosts serotonin levels in your brain. Serotonin is essential for the proper functioning of your prefrontal cortex, which governs self-reflection and the regulation of emotions, helping it to override old panic patterns. Try visualizing a joyful time in detail or even write it down.
Splash cold water on your face – Seriously. Find a sink, fill your hands with cold water, and rinse your face. Doing this slows down your heart rate by indirectly stimulating your vagus nerve, which regulates a variety of vital bodily functions including your heartbeat and the muscles used to breathe. The vagus nerve also controls the chemical levels in your digestive system, which greatly affect mood and health.
Smile – It’s a simple thing to do and really does improve your mood. Most people think we smile because we feel happy, but it works the other way too. You can feel happier if you smile. You don’t need to smile in front of anyone or in a mirror. Just smile. In “Written All Over Your Face” I explain:
This process works in the other direction as well. The face does not just display emotion. It creates it. Emotion can also start on the face. The face is not a secondary billboard for our internal feelings. It is an equal partner in the emotional process.
Laugh – Laughing works for the same reasons smiling does. You may feel silly, but opening your mouth and letting out a chuckle or thinking of something funny to make you giggle can make you feel happier. There’s not much difference in your brain between fake and genuine laughter and provoked laughing can often lead to the real thing.
Be around other people – If you start to feel your mood slipping go somewhere where you’re with other people, like a coffee shop, book store, or break room. You don’t even have to interact with them to benefit, just being in the same physical space can do the trick. Chatting or chilling with a friend has even more brain benefits. If you don’t feel like talking, try doing an activity with a friend where you won’t feel forced to talk. Social interaction causes your brain to secrete oxytocin which supports the serotonin system giving you get the benefit of both feel good neurochemicals.
Turn up the heat – Feeling warm can boost oxytocin or at least mimics the effects of it increasing feelings of trust and generosity. So if you can’t get a hug, wrap your hands around a mug of coffee, cuddle up in a blanket, or take a warm bath or shower.
Touch a pet – Just stroking your pet or even someone else’s can increase oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine in your brain. Several studies show that having a pet can reduce depression, encourage healthier habits, and increase feelings of connectedness. One Japanese study showed that playing with a dog with which you have a bond, who is likely to make eye contact with you, increases oxytocin levels.
Root for a sports team – Cheering for your favorite team isn’t just fun, it makes your brain happy. Cheering for the winning team increases testosterone which gives your energy and sex drive a boost. Getting wrapped up in the game also provides a sense of community – even if your team loses.
While no one is happy all the time, staying consistently positive and motivated starts in your brain with routine thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. Small steps can help nudge or keep your brain in a more upbeat cycle and literally start the process of bettering your brain and life right now.