Brain Wellness: Train Your Brain to Be Happier
I am delighted to participate in LifeTwo’s “How to be Happier” week with this post. Happiness is still largely unchartered territory for neuroscience. It sounds like a hidden, elusive El Dorado. However, once one follows positive psychology research and Harvard’s Dr. Ben-Shahar’s advice, “The question should not be whether you are happy but what you can do to become happier”, the happiness quest starts to become more tangible and workable according to latest neuroscience research.
We are now going to explore the four key concepts of Dr. Ben-Shahar’s statement — 1) “you”, 2) “can”, 3) “do”, and 4) “happier” — from a neuropsychological perspective.
1) Who is “you”? According to latest scientific understanding, what we experience as “mind”, our awareness, emerges from the physical brain. So, if we want to refine our minds, we better start by understanding and training our brains. A very important reality to appreciate: each brain is unique, since it reflects our unique lifetime experiences. Scientists have already shown how even adult brains retain a significant ability to continually generate new neurons and literally rewire themselves. So, each of us is unique, with our own aspirations, emotional preferences, capacities, and each of us in continually in flux. A powerful concept to remind ourselves: “you” can become happier means that “you” are the only person who can take action and evaluate what works for “you”. And “you” means the mind that emerges from your own, very personal, unique, and constantly evolving, brain. Which only “you” can train.
2) Why the use of “can”? Well, this reminds me a great quote by Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who said that “Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculptor of his own brain”. Each of us has immense potential. However, in the same way that Michaelangelo’s David didn’t spontaneously appear out-of-the-blue one day, becoming happier requires attention, intention, and actual practice.
Attention: Every second, you choose what to pay attention to. You can focus on the negative and thereby train your brain to focus on the negative. You can choose to watch TV five hours in a row, thereby training your brain to become a passive spectator of events. Or you can do the opposite. Attention works outwards and inwards: you can pay attention to your own meaningful emotions or try to ignore them. Many times we are not aware of the choices we are really making and their implications, which is why practices like mindfulness meditation can help. Try this experiment on selective attention.
Intention and Mindset: Our frontal lobes (the area in blue in the image above) equip us to: 1) Understand our environments, 2) Set goals and define strategies to accomplish our goals, 3) Execute those strategies well. Becoming happier is as worthy an endeavor as our education and professional careers, or our efforts to be fit and slim by exercising our bodies. Please use those frontal lobes to define the goals that can work for you.
Practice. [LifeTwo’s] Wesley mentioned the importance of “rituals” to make it easy to practice new skills. Great idea. Let’s talk more about that in the next point.
3) The critical word “do”: You may have heard the expression “Cells that fire together wire together.” Our brains are composed of billions of neurons, each of which can have thousand of connections to other neurons. Any thing you do in life is going to activate a specific constellation of neurons. Visualize one million neurons firing at the same time when you order your next cappuccino. Now, the more cappuccinos you order, the more those neurons will fire together, and therefore the more they will wire together (meaning that the connections between them become, literally, stronger), which then creates automatic-like behaviors. For example, try this experiment: Quick! say aloud the color you see in every word in the picture on the right. DON’T simply read the word. Tough, isn’t it? Well, that is because, during many years, you have trained your brain to read words. You can also choose to train your brain to say the color-with attention, intention and practice. This point has an enormous implication: whatever we do in life is, in practice, training our brains. How do you want to train your brain next?
4) The objective measure of “happier”. Being “happy” is subjective. No scientist could look at you, read some instrument, and measure your happiness. But there are ways to measure, and train being “happier.” For example, stress and anxiety are key obstacles to happiness. Appreciating the beauties of life often, and developing positive emotions, are key allies. Fascinating research is showing how emotional self-regulation happens, helping all of us identify those states as they happen (stress, anxiety, appreciation & positive emotions) and allow us to intervene and “regulate” our response as we wish. Some of the most promising applications are biofeedback programs (that measure body variables giving you great visual feedback in real-time on your level of stress, as in the image), meditation, and cognitive therapy. Take an extreme example: we probably all would agree that, if you happened to have visceral fear of spiders, suddenly facing a spider wouldn’t be one of the happiest moments in your life. In a 2003 paper on the impact of cognitive therapy on people with extreme spider fear, scientists observed how the fear induced by viewing film clips depicting spiders was correlated with significant activation of specific brain areas, like the amygdala (the “fear center of the brain”) that, once activated, trigger specific body reactions (like the “fight or flight” physiological response). After the intervention was complete, however, viewing the same spider films did not provoke activation of those areas. Those individuals were able to “train their brains” and managed to reduce the brain response that typically triggers automatic stress responses. And we are talking about adults with extreme phobias. You can click on the image for an example of emotional self-regulation through biofeedback.
It’s time to combine the respective quotations from positive psychologist Dr. Ben-Shahar and neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal. “The question should not be whether you are happy but what you can do to become happier” and “Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculptor his own brain.”
In short, you can sculpt (train) your brain to become happier. Which brings us back to “you”, what are you doing today to exercise your “happier” muscle?