Tell us about ‘The Science of Happiness’ … what’s happening in the brain when we’re happy?
NATHAN: On a hormonal level, it’s really about having a balance of the right hormones. Serotonin would be the hormone most people associate with happiness; if you’re low in serotonin, you’re usually put on antidepressants. But a lot of it has to do with engaging your frontal cortex – the part of the brain that gives you the ability to control your emotions, have empathy for others, a higher intelligence, etc.
However, that part of your brain goes offline when you’re stressed. It helps if you look at it this way: think of your ‘survival brain’ and your frontal cortex as a set of scales. If you want your frontal cortex to be up (so that you can feel happy), your survival brain has to be down – relaxed and calm. So happiness is as much about calming the stress response system as it is about doing things to make you happy.
Obviously, feeling good and happy is its own reward – but what does the science say are the benefits to feeling happier?
NATHAN: The benefits are huge! The happier you are, the longer you live, the deeper you breathe, the better your blood pressure … it affects your whole system.
There’s so much information coming into the human brain these days; you can’t attend to everything equally, and your brain has to select what you’re paying attention to. If you’re depressed, your brain filters out the positive and focuses on the negative; when you’re happy, it does the opposite. The science shows that what you see with your eyes is really only about 7% of what your brain is paying attention to. The other 93% is prediction. For example, right now, your mind isn’t constantly checking to make sure the roof’s still there above your head. It’s predicting that the roof’s there.
So that other 7% is focusing on anything novel or unusual – anything that breaks the norm. That’s just another way of saying that most of what we see is in our head – and for happy people, it means that they tend to see good things. That’s why it can be good to go onto antidepressants for a while if you’re struggling with depression because it balances the serotonin levels in your brain and gives you a different perspective. It allows you to get into the practice of seeing things more positively.
Can you share some strategies with us about ‘rewiring the brain’ from negative thinking?
NATHAN: The first thing that comes to mind is to improve your vagal tone. In a nutshell, the vagus nerve connects your brain, heart, liver, stomach – it connects all of that up. And the better your vagal tone, the happier you are because you can control your stress response much more easily. The research tells us that the best thing you can do to improve your vagal tone is yoga. You can get some of the same benefits from exercise (because you’re releasing endorphins) and some other benefits from meditation, but yoga gives you both.
In terms of silencing your inner critic, you really have to engage your frontal cortex and work on reframing things to think more positively. If you’re depressed, that’s quite an ask! But if you can do that when you’re feeling happy, it becomes easier to return to a more positive mindset when your mood does take a dip. When you hear that voice begin to tell you all your ‘not enoughs’, you need to starve it of attention – distract yourself. Make yourself get onto the phone and talk to a friend, do something that engages your mind, or go for a run. Doing things like that means that you’re not feeding that negative thought anymore.
There was a cult movie a while back, called What the BLEEP Do We Know!?, and I think it’s one of the best documentaries ever made (it’s worth looking up!). In it, they had a great graphic showing the brain releasing the stress hormone cortisol (depicted as triangles) and serotonin (shown as circles). It demonstrated how, if your brain’s releasing triangles (sending out sad thoughts) all the time, then the receptors in your brain kind of go, “Oh, look – we need to be collecting triangles because you’re sending out triangles!” So they change the receptors to the triangle shape.
The result of this is that, even when you do have happy thoughts and send out some circles, they don’t tend to get caught by the receptors. So if you can make yourself focus on the positive (either through the use of antidepressants, if necessary, or just with willpower) for three months, then you’re forcing your brain to adapt. Your receptors will begin to expect – and more easily receive – positive thoughts instead of negative ones.
In actual fact, your brain is relatively easy to change in terms of its biology. The tricky part is having the willpower to keep being positive! You need to ‘fake it ’til you make it’ by saying positive affirmations each day, practising gratitude, etc. And most humans need help with that … someone to walk alongside them – a counsellor, or just someone who’s going to encourage them along that journey.
For people who are coasting along, moderately happy … is it ever helpful to try to be happier? Is such a thing even possible?
NATHAN: Yes, it absolutely is! And a lot of it has to do with how you start the day. People who are happy tend to start the day at a more meditative pace – not the usual panicked “Argh! I’m already running late, and I’ve got SO MUCH to do!!” which sets up the stress levels and pace for the rest of the day. Waking up and doing slow breathing exercises for 15 minutes at the start of the day helps improve your vagal tone and calm the human stress response system. It sets you up nicely to be calmer and enables you to focus on happy stuff for the rest of the day. And as mentioned earlier, do some yoga!
Focusing on your relationships can help a lot, too. Humans are such an interdependent species; we do better when we’re supported by each other. And it works both ways – because we’re wired to be so interdependent, helping other people gives your brain a huge reward. So having a purpose greater than yourself and focusing on adding value to the lives of others makes a huge difference to how happy you are.
EDITOR’S NOTE: CHECK OUT OUR FEATURE ARTICLE ‘FROM CRAPPY TO HAPPY’ – ALSO IN THIS ISSUE – FOR SOME TIPS AND TRICKS TO MAKE THE MOST OF THE RELATIONSHIPS IN YOUR LIFE.