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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 Frontal Lobesaware­ness, 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, lit­er­allStroop Testy, 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 spidHeart Rate Variabilityer 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.

Take-away

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?

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For more infor­ma­tion, you can read this relat­ed post, Men­tal Train­ing for Grat­i­tude and Altru­ism, and check many high-qual­i­ty relat­ed arti­cles on Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­o­gy News Dai­ly

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9 Responses

  1. Happiness says:

    I like the top­ic, but didn’t read much in here that real­ly moti­vates one into action. All this aca­d­e­m­ic and intel­lec­tu­al infor­ma­tion gath­er­ing doesn’t do much to inspire a per­son emo­tion­al­ly. And it’s the emo­tions that will dri­ve a per­son to action. Knowl­edge for the intel­lect just makes for more knowl­edge for the intel­lect.

    It’s good stuff here, just not a much prac­ti­cal doing stuff that a per­son can imple­ment. At least a link to a biofeed­back pro­gram would be more help­ful.

    thanks for the starter infor­ma­tion.

  2. Alvaro says:

    Thanks for the com­ment. Fol­low­ing your sug­ges­tion, I have added a link to an inter­est­ing biofeed­back exam­ple and pro­gram.

    In my view, there is not a lack of emotional/ inspir­ing infor­ma­tion out there, some bet­ter some worse. What I want­ed to do here was to pro­vide a bet­ter sci­ence-based under­stand­ing of what is going on…so you can make your own deci­sions. You’d be sur­prised to hear how many peo­ple believe hap­pi­ness (as intel­li­gence) as fixed enti­ties we were born with and are com­plete­ly beyond our own influ­ence.

    Thanks again

  3. Dhikr says:

    Inter­est­ing indeed.

  4. Kristian says:

    Well this all seems like kind of a no-brain­er to me, no pun intend­ed. I received cog­ni­tive ther­a­py after going through a depres­sion, and I learned how to rec­og­nize neg­a­tive emo­tions (incred­i­ble how we tend to sim­ply ignore them) and I learned to always view a sit­u­a­tion or prob­lem from dif­fer­ent angles, and then choose the one with the most pos­i­tive effect on my well being.

    There will always be dif­fer­ent ways to twist and turn argu­ments in your mind, and this twist­ing and turn­ing can become quite tire­some if you don’t have a goal with it. We want to be ratio­nal peo­ple, but for­get the only true ratio­nal moti­va­tion for thought: To pro­mote hap­pi­ness and well being in the pres­ence, with­out sac­ri­fic­ing it in the future. It’s real­ly just about being self­ish, but since what you think can’t harm oth­ers, there is only the log­i­cal con­clu­sion that you should always be self­ish in the mind and choose the train of thought and line of action that makes you “hap­py”.

    But then again, I have/am a some­what hyper-reflec­tive mind, and I got­ta say you have to some­times just go with the flow or these attempts of self-con­trol will dri­ve you nuts 🙂

  5. Rodney H. says:

    Alvaro:

    Thanks for the inter­est­ing arti­cle. I appre­ci­at­ed the notion of “sculpt­ing” and “train­ing” the brain to search for things and expe­ri­ences to enrich our lives moment by moment, mak­ing each of us hap­pi­er, rather than hap­pi­ness being an “all or noth­ing” propo­si­tion.

    -thanks.

  6. Alvaro says:

    Kris­t­ian: indeed those cog­ni­tive prin­ci­ples and tech­niques are pow­er­ful and use­ful. And indeed there is a time and place for every­thing, includ­ing shut­ting down our “blah blah” minds some­times 🙂 Thanks for shar­ing your expe­ri­ence.

    Rod­ney: I can see you appre­ci­ate pos­i­tive “brain sculpt­ing”, by the qual­i­ty of the com­ment itself. Thank you

  7. Marc says:

    We are the creator’s of our own reac­tions. Most of our reac­tions are pro­grammed in by this time in your life, but you can change your mind. I read books of wis­dom, found that in order to gain peace you must offer it in the face of that which you hate, loath or oth­er­wise don’t approve of.

  8. Nabin says:

    Wow!
    A great per­spec­tive from new angle!

  9. Alvaro says:

    Marc and nabin, thanks for your com­ments.

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