5 scientific ways to make your brain happy

The Age

My ultimate goal in life is to be happy. To be content and satisfied with where I am and what I’m doing at in any given point in time. Easier said than done.

Life is notorious for handing out lemons and I’ve definitely received my fair share. But what if there were things we could do that would instantly boost our mood? Eric Barker from Barking Up The Wrong Tree, recently spoke with Alex Korb, postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at UCLA, to find out some simple ways to make your brain feel happy.

1. Get a good sleep

It sounds obvious but shuteye is super effective at shutting out those inner demons. Power naps, nanna naps or the traditional full night’s sleep, whatever your method, a good dose of doze will make you feel mighty fine.

What does the science say?

While we know that depression can negatively impact people’s sleep, it also works the other way too: bad sleep also causes depression.

According to Korb, studies show that people who suffered from insomnia were much more likely to suffer from depression than those who slept well.   

If you’re looking for some ways to get more zzz we have ten great tips right here.

2. Smile

If someone tells me to smile when I’m in a bad mood, generally it makes me really goddamn angry. Turns out, however, they might be onto something. Science tells us that the simple act of smiling can make us instantly happier. And it’s all because of “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,” says Korb.

In other words, we can trick our brain into thinking we are happy.

“That’s part of the ‘fake it until you make it’ strategy,” says Korb. “When your brain senses, ‘Oh, I’m frowning,’ then it assumes, ‘Oh, I must not be feeling positive emotions.’ Whereas when it notices you flexing those muscles on the side of the mouth it thinks, ‘I must be smiling. Oh, we must be happy.’”

In fact, Barker writes that smiling can give us as much pleasure as 2000 blocks of chocolate (and it won’t make you fat).

Let’s try it together. Relax your face, open your lips slightly, and start to move the corners of your mouth towards your ears. Hold for five seconds. Feeling good?

3. Listen to your favourite music

They’re not called bangers for nothing. Music can instantly lift your mood and transport you back in time. Back to the days when Bomfunk MC used to rock the microphone and your only concern was the contents of your Kinder Surprise.

According to Korb, music has the capacity to remind us of previous times because of our brain’s limbic system, which is responsible for transferring information into memory. The main location where this transfer occurs is called the hippocampus, which is a portion of the temporal lobe.

For example, many people say that their wedding was the “happiest day of my life”. If they start listening to songs from that day, it can evoke the same joyful feelings they experienced. It’s known as “context dependent memory.”

If you find the scientific terms a bit boggling, here is a simple equation that could help.

Hippocampus + hip-hop = happy. Simple.

Girl lying down in the grass and enjoying the music from mp3 player - copyspace

Photo: iStock

4. Think about your goals

Like, really think about them. What are your dreams? How do they make you feel? When do you want to achieve them? And why do they matter to you?

When you’re feeling down, thinking about your goals prompts your brain to release dopamine which can make you feel more motivated and in control.

“The goals and intentions that you set in your prefrontal cortex change the way that your brain perceives the world,” says Korb.

Thinking about your goals can actually make it feel rewarding to be doing homework instead of going to the party, he says. “…your brain is like, ‘Oh yeah. I’m working towards that goal. I’m accomplishing something that’s meaningful to me,” says Korb.

“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.”

5. Don’t procrastinate

If you like feeling sad, stressed out and full of self-loathing then procrastination is your best friend. If, on the other hand, you prefer to feel calm and in control, it’s time to get off procatinator (I know.. it’s rough) and get started on your goals.

Procrastination is essentially a bad habit. There are three parts of your brain that control decision making: the prefrontal cortex, the dorsal striatum and the nucleus accumbens.

There’s no need to get into the nitty gritty, but basically the second two are the guys responsible for procrastination. The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is the vigilant one. He’s the guy that will help you achieve your goals.

More often than not, we let the dorsal striatum and the nucleus accumbens overrule the prefrontal cortex because they give us instant gratification.

It is possible, however, to retrain our brains. According to Korb, when we exert effort the prefrontal cortex can trump the other two. Do it regularly enough and we can rewire the dorsal striatum to replace old bad habits with good ones.

The best way to retrain is to start small, says Korb. When we get stressed the prefrontal cortex goes offline and we fall back into old habits.

“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,” said Korb