The Neuroscience of Happiness
What do we know about Happiness? What causes Happiness? How do we feel happy? Which region of the brain is activated when we feel positive emotions like happiness?
Happiness is about experiencing frequent positive emotions that influence the formation of new neural pathways in the brain; when we consciously focus on creating new healthy habits with consistency and practice, we progressively rewire our brain with stronger positive networks; these neural connections tame over time, the automatic emotional brain response to external stimuli that is accompanied by the release of cortisol, a neuro-chemical also known as the “stress hormone” because of its connection to the stress response. High levels of cortisol over prolonged periods of time are said to be responsible for various stress-related illnesses.
According to one study that was published in the Journal of Neuroscience in July 2015, the prolonged activation of a specific region in the brain known ventral striatum is directly related to the maintenance of positive emotions and rewards. What neuroscience has unveiled through research is that such region can be activated at a conscious level, giving us the ability to influence how we feel as a result of our experience of the World through our senses and life circumstances. The study indicates that people with higher levels of sustained ventral striatum activity show higher psychological well-being levels and lower cortisol levels.
How can we maintain positive feelings then?
Research findings indicate that the “how much” of a positive emotion is as important as the duration or iteration of its occurrence.
The way we form a new habit is similar to the way we form positive emotions: A new habit depends on the stimulus our brain receives under prolonged repetition or duration over time. The longer and more consistent the stimulus, the stronger the new connection formed, and the resulting new habit.
How can we activate positive emotions such as #happiness and influence the way we feel?
Neuroscience tells us that Happiness is located in the left hemisphere of our brain. Studies show that each time we’re feeling excited, full of energy, positive, and hopeful, the area that presents the most neural activity is our left prefrontal cortex.
Dr. Richard Davidson, Head of the Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin and author of The Emotional Life of Your Brain, says that “The Key to having a healthy life is having a healthy mind”.
The amazing fact is that through mental activity alone we can intentionally change our own brains.
–Dr. Richard Davidson
In 2008, as a result of one of his studies to demonstrate the correlation between neuroplasticity (the ability of our brain to form new neural pathway and rewire itself or, more simply, its ability to change and adapt over time) and meditation techniques, he wanted to see if the people who had been practicing meditation techniques for a good part of their lives had greater electric activity and improved concentration. His findings led him to say that:
Meditation gives you the wherewithal to pause, observe how easily the mind can exaggerate the severity of a setback, and resist getting drawn into the abyss.
–Dr. Richard Davidson
How can we stimulate this specific brain region then?
Some activities boost our overall well-being and happiness. Among them, Mindfulness practice and the benefits associated with it are well known. There is scientific evidence of changes in brain regions in people who regularly practice mindfulness and meditation. The practice of meditation has been linked to an increased thickness in the pre-frontal cortex, an area that is important for general cognitive function like attention and sensory processing. Mindfulness is known to impact brain systems that control emotion regulation and self-awareness.
Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.
Dr. Davidson established that, in order to modify our brain activity, the best thing we can do is improve our thoughts and overall mental activity.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is being greatly regarded as an effective alternative for treating anxiety, depression, phobias, and stress.
We’re the ones who should want to live a happier, more flexible, and open life. We should give ourselves the opportunity to settle the authentic neurological foundations of happiness. As a result, nature has endowed the human brain with a malleability and flexibility that lets it adapt to the demands of the world it finds itself in. The brain is neither immutable nor static but continuously remodelled by the lives we lead.
–Dr. Richard Davidson
The true ROI of Happiness.
Having in place a holistic Well-being program in the organisation will result in happier people and, in turn, higher engagement and performance levels. Investing in Well-being should be core to strategy making.
There are a number of approaches that can be put in place to achieve happiness. Fostering a culture of empowerment promotes positive behaviours. Organisations can engage employees and kick-start a whole set of positive changes. Without widespread commitment, organisational values are undermined and employees become dis-engaged with their work. Here are some practical steps to either initiate or re-design an effective Well-being program.
In the loop
- Encourage employees to take personal responsibility for knowing what’s happening at work, ensuring that your people have access to the same information. This approach nurtures a culture of trust and enables employees to align their work with the organisational vision. Communicate. Iterate. Take pulses. Adjust the trajectory if necessary.
Feedback works both ways
- Promote a Coaching culture based on open dialogue, set direction, and sprints. Feedback, when is constructive, supports change in positive behaviour and personal development. Inviting employees to have honest conversations with line managers can help empower teams to find solutions to problems collaboratively, in line with the shared-vision, igniting purpose and engaging them with their work as something that it is valued beyond the mere job description rather as driving force towards Company’s growth and long term sustainability.
Build bridges not walls
- Embed TRUST as core to your Company’s values. Building positive relationships is one of the most effective ways to increase happiness at work. Encouraging collaborative working with senior management also reaffirms organisational values and gives opportunities for employees to contribute to wider projects.
- Celebrate achievements, milestones and wins, whether small or big: Recognising someone’s efforts triggers the reward regions of the brain associated with positive feelings and motivation. Sharing personal experiences encourages others to do the same and can create a ripple effect.
Last but not least, do not forget to be kind to yourself because Happiness starts with YOU. Practice self-care through healthy habits and holistic rituals like Mindfulness & Meditation. Cherish the good in life and be grateful. Reinforce your positive affirmations and intentions every day. Find the time to stretch, breathe, observe your body and let your mind acknowledge all that is. Take a walk. Admire and being swayed by the transformational power of nature. And above all:
Be the change you want to see in the world.
– “What is happiness? And the neuroscience behind it”, Brilliant Living, Online
– “The Neuroscience of Happiness”, Exploring your Mind, Online (photo credit)
– “Martin Seligman and Positive Psychology”, Exploring your Mind, Online
– “Driving Workforce Happiness”, LI Learning, Online (photo credit)
– “23 Amazing Health Benefits of Mindfulness for Body and Brain”, Positive Psychology, Online
– “The benefits of happiness in the workplace”, Training Journal, Online