This month we are going to be looking at scientific ways to make ourselves happier. January is a notoriously bleak month, and many of us need a little help to feel cheerful. Hopefully these blogs will help.
There are four primary chemicals, known as the D.O.S.E chemicals, in the brain that govern our sense of happiness and contentment. These chemicals are Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin, and Endorphins. The release of these chemicals through the activation of the neural pathways that carry them causes the brain to want more, so happiness makes you want more happiness. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter involved in the positive feelings one gets during the anticipation of an event or feeling, like having sex or eating a pizza. Oxytocin is a hormone, and it is responsible for empathy and social bonding. Serotonin is the neurochemical that regulates mood. It is known as the ‘confidence molecule’, as it has been found that those with high levels of serotonin are less sensitive to rejection and more likely to place themselves in situations that boost self-esteem than those with lower levels of serotonin. Endorphins are hormones that are involved in the masking of pain and discomfort, and are strongly associated with the fight or flight response. Together, the four D.O.S.E chemicals work to create a variety of desirable brain states.
As the brain changes, the mind changes
To understand how to use these chemicals to become happier, there are some facts about the brain that must be understood first. The first is that as the brain changes, the mind changes. The brain – the physical structure itself – influences the mind – the collection of thoughts, emotions, and logic that make up the person. For example, when the left prefrontal cortex is activated to a greater to the right, the person generally experiences more positive emotions and greater well being. Similarly, when cortisol is released in the brain as a result of living a stressful lifestyle, it eats away at the hippocampus – the area of the brain involved in visual spatial memory, context and setting memory, and reduces the volume of the hippocampus by 25%, leaving the individual less able to form new memories, negatively affecting their mental well being.
As the mind changes, the brain changes
The second fact is that as the mind changes, the brain changes. When an individual makes a personal decision to intentionally increase their levels of the D.O.S.E neurochemicals in the brain, the practice of receiving these chemicals encourages the neural pathways that carry them to widen, increasing our accessibility to them.
You can use the mind to change the brain, to change the mind
The third fact is that you can use the mind to change the brain to then change the mind. This is known as self-directed neuroplasticity. Self-directed neuroplasticity is the intentional manipulation of the structure of the neural pathways within the brain to increase feelings of happiness and contentment.
In order to effectively use self-directed neuroplasticity to improve well being and increase the flow of the D.O.S.E. neurochemicals, we must bring awareness to our thoughts and emotions. When we notice negativity, we can step back and observe it, then make a decision to refocus our attention on other things. Instead of allowing ourselves to ruminate on worries or bad memories, we can instead place our attention on things for which we are grateful, on positive things in our lives like love and security. Doing so trains the brain to become better adapted at effectively releasing these chemicals, and over time less and less conscious effort is required. This is due to the ‘what fires together, wires together’ rule. This means that neurons in the brain that fire together create stronger connections and expand the more they are used. This applies to all neural activity. Whether the synaptic connections are responsible for positive or negative experiences is depends on the level of awareness an individual has of how their actions, thoughts, and emotions are influencing their brain chemistry. Greater awareness paired with will power and consistency is key to changing the neurochemistry of the mind for the better.
Therefore in order to become happier, to find more contentment and peace in our lives, it is worth exploring the ways in which our thoughts and actions influence our mental state. When we become aware of our inner processes, it is easier to detach from them and take an active role in changing the brain chemistry that governs these emotions. Through conscious awareness and the practice of gratitude, we can gain control over how we feel, and reshape our lives for the better.
Please keep an eye out for our forthcoming articles how to be happy, and if you have a client, or know of someone who is struggling with seriously low moods during these dark winter months – reach out to Khiron. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and out-patient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long lasting recovery. For information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).