Science has the answer for almost everything, so it makes sense to seek help from science when you need to cheer up a bit. Instead of finding a happy pill or other means of temporary high, you can train your brain (not manipulate it) into happiness.
Time’s Eric Barker sums up a very interesting list of suggestions offered by Alex Korb, a neuroscientist and the author of “The Upward Spiral.” Korb has five of the simplest ways you can train yourself to be happy:
1. Listen to music from the best time in your life
Music is a very powerful time machine. Hear that same song that played when you broke up with someone years ago and your eyes may well up instantly. You can use that same effect by listening to songs from the times you were happy.
According to Korb, music has the “ability to remind us of previous environments in which we were listening to that music. That’s really mediated by this one limbic structure called the hippocampus which is really important in a thing called ‘context dependent memory.’ Let’s say college was the happiest time of your life. If you start listening to the music that you were listening to at that time, it can help you feel more connected to that happier time in your life and makes it more present.”
2. Smile and wear those sunglasses
Start your day with a smile and start “feeling happy” by convincing yourself you are happy. Sometimes things around you get confusing enough for your brain to not know how to “feel” anymore. Initiate a positive emotion until your brain is convinced that you are indeed happy.
Korb calls this biofeedback:
“Biofeedback is just the idea that your brain is always sensing what is happening in your body and it reviews that information to decide how it should feel about the world.“
Now about the sunglasses — the idea is to avoid squinting from bright lights that sometimes confuses your brain into thinking that you are not happy:
“When you’re looking at bright lights you have this natural reaction to squint. But that often has the unintended effect of you flexing this particular muscle, the ‘corrugator supercilii.’ Putting on sunglasses means you don’t have to squint and therefore you’re not contracting this muscle and it stops making your brain think, ‘Oh my God, I must be worried about something.’ It’s really just a simple little interruption of that feedback loop.
3. Think about your goals
All your hopes and dreams, no matter how far-fetched, will always put a smile on your face. That dream car, that beautiful lady-prospect from the other department, that multi-million-dollar mansion you will buy one day — these ideas give your brain something to hope for and thus produce a positive outlook.
Here’s how Korb explains the science behind it:
“The goals and intentions that you set in your prefrontal cortex change the way that your brain perceives the world. Sometimes when we feel like everything is going wrong and we’re not making any progress and everything is awful, you don’t need to change the world, you can just change the way you are perceiving the world and that is going to be enough to make a positive difference. By thinking, ‘Okay, what is my long term goal? What am I trying to accomplish?’ Calling that to mind can actually make it feel rewarding to be doing homework instead of going to the party because then your brain is like, ‘Oh yeah. I’m working towards that goal. I’m accomplishing something that’s meaningful to me.’ Then that can start to release dopamine in the nucleus accumbens and that can start to make you feel better about what you’re doing.”
4. Get your sleep
It’s actually a cycle: if you are depressed, you tend to not sleep well, and if you don’t sleep well, then it is easy to be depressed.
Korb cited a study that explains why this is so: “They took all these people with insomnia and followed them for a few years and it turned out that the people with chronic insomnia were much more likely to develop depression. Depression causes sleep problems but sleep problems are also more likely to lead to depression.”
Korb also offers suggestions on how to improve your sleeping habits: ”Get bright sunlight in the middle of the day. At night, try and stay in a dimly lit environment. Having a comfortable place to sleep and having a bedtime ritual so that your brain can prepare to go to sleep are also good. Trying to go to sleep at the same time every night and keeping a gratitude journal can also improve your sleep.”
5. Beat procrastination by reducing stress and doing a simple thing to get started
Not getting things done will leave any person frustrated and stressed. That’s why being proactive and taking the necessary steps to start what needs to be done will contribute highly to your happiness. Korb explains:
“When the pre-frontal cortex is taken offline by stress we end up doing things that are immediately pleasurable. Instead of getting overwhelmed, ask yourself, ‘What’s one little thing that I could do now that would move me toward this goal I’m trying to accomplish?’ Taking one small step toward it can make it start to feel more manageable.”
The list provided above confirms the adage that “happiness is a state of mind” and that it is just a matter of training your brain to be more positive and enjoy the good things life has to offer. Share this with a friend and let the happiness multiply.