Depression occurs in more than 15 million adults across the US (source). Most people turn to mainstream pharmaceuticals for treatment. However, happiness research now shows that creating these four habits in your daily life can actually make you happier… without the side effects of prescription drugs.
Unfortunately pride, shame, and guilt all activate the same reward center in our brains, despite their differences. Worrying also has a similar trigger rewarding us for doing “something” while ignoring its long term negative affects. So, what can we do to change the conversation in our own brains? We can ask ourselves “What am I grateful for?”
Gratitude is now proven to give us a dopamine boost, similar to the effects of the main stream antidepressant Wellbutrin. Alex Korb is a neuroscientist who wrote the book The Upward Spiral. He states:
The benefits of gratitude start with the dopamine system, because feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine. Additionally, gratitude toward others increases activity in social dopamine circuits, which makes social interactions more enjoyable …
One powerful effect of gratitude is that it can boost serotonin. Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex.
Interestingly Korb also tells us that just the act of searching for gratitude is enough to trigger this response…. you don’t actually have to come up with something specific to be grateful for.
It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.
2. Acknowledge Negative Emotions
Most of us know what it feels like to roll an impending conversation, that we don’t want to have, around in our heads. The lead up is often exhausting. However, once our thoughts and emotions are shared with the other person, our anxiety softens. There is a “let down”, a release.
To reduce arousal, you need to use just a few words to describe an emotion, and ideally use symbolic language, which means using indirect metaphors, metrics, and simplifications of your experience. This requires you to activate your prefrontal cortex, which reduces the arousal in the limbic system. Here’s the bottom line: describe an emotion in just a word or two, and it helps reduce the emotion.
3. Make Decisions
Decision making helps us to feel in control and empowered. It reduces stress, and boosts pleasure, which inturn increases our reward dopamine activity.
Making decisions includes creating intentions and setting goals – all three are part of the same neural circuitry and engage the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, reducing worry and anxiety. Making decisions also helps overcome striatum activity, which usually pulls you toward negative impulses and routines. Finally, making decisions changes your perception of the world – finding solutions to your problems and calming the limbic system. (source)
Decision making can often be challenging or overwhelming. Be okay with a “good” decision. Remind yourself you don’t have to make the “perfect” decision… that kind of expectation will only create more stress and cut off the beneficial dopamine response.
4. Hug, and Get Massages… Often!
For those that know me well, you know that hugs a huge part of my personal mantra. Consequently, I will often call someone out for a short, or unintentional hug. I will often come back for a second embrace. Hugs feed my soul; they feed all our souls. Korb talks about the neuroscience behind this:
A hug, especially a long one, releases a neurotransmitter and hormone oxytocin, which reduces the reactivity of the amygdala.
In addition he also talks about massage having a similar effect on the brain.
The results are fairly clear that massage boosts your serotonin by as much as 30 percent. It also decreases stress hormones and raises dopamine levels, which helps you create new good habits … massage reduces pain because the oxytocin system activates painkilling endorphins. Massage also improves sleep and reduces fatigue by increasing serotonin and dopamine and decreasing the stress hormone cortisol.
Go forth, and be grateful! Honor and name your negative emotions. Make decisions and hug your friends and family. Treat yourself to regular massages. Connect with your fellow humans. Choose happy!
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