June 1

The Key to More Happiness


By Bryan Johnston

June 1, 2021

happiness, how to

Editor’s note: This post contains affiliate links.


We all want it, and if we have it, we want more. And that’s a good thing (it’s not a “never satisfied” situation like so many other instances in life).

We all know the correlation between it and our overall health. It’s well documented. A general state of contentment is more than just feeling good, and sunny, and positive. It has a far-reaching effect on our whole being. Health and happiness are intimately connected, and we should strive for both. Want to be healthier? Get happier. Want to be happier? Get healthier. 

If you take care of your body, your mind will follow, and vice versa. Get enough sleep. Eat a balanced diet. Cultivate relationships, and indulge your passions. It’s not rocket science.

But it is neuroscience, as it turns out. Happiness is getting a lot of high tech attention lately, and the research is providing us with concrete, science-backed strategies for reducing stress and depression, while increasing our overall satisfaction. It’s no longer just guesswork. 

Our brain is a very complex organ, with many parts functioning together to regulate absolutely everything about who we are, and what we do. Some recent studies have shown us that a) our “emotional brain” can operate independently of our “thinking brain” (but not vice versa), and b) the emotional brain works twice as fast as our thinking brain.

Okay. But what does that mean to our happiness and wellbeing? In essence, you can’t think yourself happy when you’re feeling sad, or angry, or anxious, or depressed. It doesn’t work that way. The emotional brain is stronger and faster. When a negative emotional response takes hold, it’s in charge. And stress, anxiety, and apprehension are a big, big part of our daily lives. A Notre Dame study suggests we experience 50-200 fight, flight, or freeze impulses in an average day, and they activate our fear, anxiety, and aggression systems (primarily, but not exclusively, our amygdala). Too much of those things, and you’re obviously not feeling too happy. 

Try these six, neuroscientist-approved strategies to move from happy enough to happier. 

Set Goals, Have Intentions, and Make Decisions

Neuroscientist Alex Korb outlines and explains several “small” changes we can implement in our lives in his book Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time. These little adjustments and strategies work together to naturally reverse depression and increase happiness. 

We often dismiss advice we hear all the time as having no or little value, but it’s not always true. Far from being an empty platitude, the often repeated advice to set goals and make decisions in life is scientifically proven to decrease worry and anxiety. We frequently agonize over decisions, and that leads to stress, sleepless nights, and unease. Making a decision just feels good, doesn’t it? We speak of having a “huge weight off our shoulders”. Decision making activates our PFC (our intelligence and problem-solving centre, and as we already established, part of our “thinking brain”). When the thinking brain is in charge, we’re rational and less impulsive. We relax and deal with whatever is on our plate. And that makes us happy. So make a decision already. Don’t agonize for days. Don’t overthink it. Done is better than perfect.

But even better, is making a decision that moves us towards a personal goal. An experience may make us feel good and happy, but when we choose to do it as part of a larger goal (going to the gym, volunteering, or whatever), we experience a greater positive return than if we were forced to do the same thing. As Korb himself says:

We don’t just choose the things we like; we also like the things we choose. 

Want to be happier in life? Set concrete goals, and make decisions that move you towards them. 

Get Ripped

So, what else can you do? Take your prefrontal cortex (or PFC, part of your thinking brain) to the gym, and pump a little iron. So to speak. You need to practice ways to calm down and allow your thinking brain to regain control during those times of emotional discomfort. Meditation, yoga…even walking. Activities such as these strengthen the “thinking” (PFC) and sidestep the emotional. Rick Hanson discusses the idea in greater detail in his highly recommended book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom

Relax. Calm down. Activate your PFC. Simple, right? As always, it’s easier said than done. But thankfully, there’s still more you can do. 

Give Your Blues a Name

We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about and considering our emotions. We have large, all-encompassing ideas that we use to generalize. We feel “bad”. Or “down in the dumps”. This kind of thinking appeals to and activates our amygdala (or old foe, the “emotional brain”). It’s responsible for big emotions like fear, anxiety, and aggression. 

Instead, give that blue feeling a concrete name. Are you depressed? Discouraged? Angry? Consciously identifying the emotion beyond broad strokes pulls our “thinking brain” back into the driver’s seat. Naming the emotion, according to Korb’s research, actually lessens its influence. Our amygdala shuts down a bit, and our PFC lights up a bit more. Identify it. Be precise. 

Accentuate the Positive

Hanson describes our brains as “like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive experiences”. The good ones just slide right out, whereas negative ones stick around forever. Over time, this leads to a tremendous imbalance and negativity bias. In order to prevent that, Hanson suggests three steps to implement into your daily existence whenever something “good” or positive happens:

  1. Turn positive events into positive experiences. Notice them. Don’t deflect or dismiss them (even though that’s often our default reaction). 
  2. Intensify that experience. Savour it. Focus on the details. Use your senses. 
  3. Concentrate on making that positive moment a permanent part of you. Visualize it sinking into the very fiber of your being. 

Get Social

And no, not on Facebook. Or Twitter. Or any other digital medium. You need to get yourself around real, flesh and blood humans. Social exclusion and isolation are processed by the brain in the same way as physical pain. Think about that. Think about the isolation that, ironically, social media promotes. You don’t feel it as physical pain, but it is keeping your nervous system in a state of heightened, negative awareness. So get thee to some friends and family! 

And when you do, hug them. Touch them. Physical contact and social bonding promotes the release of oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone”. And while it serves many functions, its release helps strengthen those bonds, and you’ll want to initiate even more contact and socialization to keep it flowing. And that will always make anyone feel happier. It’s the opposite of a vicious circle. You’ll feel better and closer because of the contact, and you’ll want more contact because of the way it makes you feel. Human beings are social creatures, and we’re just now discovering how much that is hardwired into us. 

Focus on Gratitude 

The last of Korb’s strategies is perhaps the easiest. Focus on gratitude. You’ve heard that before…and with good reason. But too many of us forget. There are so many reasons to not feel gratitude, that we lose sight of the reasons we should feel it. Human beings tend to focus on the negative (duh!). 

So force yourself. No matter how bad, crappy, shitty, or upset you feel, focus on gratitude. 

But why? Gratitude activates both dopamine ( a number of functions including pleasurable reward and mood) and serotonin (regulates sleep, mood, and appetite). These neurotransmitters will make you feel, for lack of a better word, happier. 

And the best part of all? Korb says looking for gratitude is more important than actually finding it (or, at least, just as important). Even if you fail to find things to be grateful about (which means you’re probably not trying very hard), you still get the benefits. How awesome is that!?

We have all sorts of reasons to feel stressed and anxious. But we also know it’s killing us. Stress is detrimental to our health. So focus on happiness instead. 

Slow and steady wins the race. You don’t need to eliminate stress and sadness from your life (that would be something…miraculous, really). But you can implement little methods for making it less influential. Take control of your brain. Flex your PFC “muscle”. 

Don’t worry, be happier.

What’s your best stress-busting secret? What do you do to improve your mood? Leave your thoughts in the comments below. 

About the author

Former high school English lit & drama teacher. Current writer, stand-up comedian, & improv performer. A big switch? You betcha.

International expat for 12+ years with stops in Beijing, Dubai, Shanghai, & Guangzhou. Dad to a high school junior & a Portuguese water dog. Lover of funny things & people. Oh, and craft beer.

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