Neuroscience has proven that gratitude makes us happier, affecting our brain at a biological level.
The benefits of gratitude start with the dopamine system, because feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine, the chemical that makes us feel happy.
Another powerful effect of gratitude is that it can boost serotonin, which helps maintain the balance of moods as well as contributing to wellbeing and happiness. Thinking of things for which we are grateful forces us to focus on the positive aspects of life. This simple act increases serotonin production in the brain.
It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. One study found that it actually affected neuron density in the brain. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.
Now to the four things that make us happier.
1.When we’re feeling down, ask: “What am I grateful for?”
Focusing on what we have helps boost dopamine and serotonin levels, both which increase our feeling of happiness and wellbeing.
2. Acknowledge and label negative feelings
Rather than ignoring or suppressing our disappointment, anger, frustration or sadness, accept them. Allow these feelings to be felt and move through and out rather than trying to pretend they don’t exist.
3. Make a decision
When we make a decision, we create intention and set goals. This engages the brain in a positive way, reducing anxiety and worry and helps move us toward solutions, all things that tamp down negative emotions and feelings of helplessness. Neuroscience shows that making a good decision rather than trying to make the best decision is the answer. It reduces stress and pressure to be perfect.
4. Touch people
Hugs, handshakes, pats on the back and holding hands are all ways we connect with others socially. When we retreat from having this type of physical contact, we feel excluded and retreat, causing feelings very similar to physical pain. But when we connect through touch, our brain releases oxytocin, yet another hormone that makes us feel accepted, appreciated and connected with those around us. In fact, research shows that getting four or five good hugs and day dramatically increases happiness.
These four things can have an enormous impact on happiness, especially when we are feeling down.
Everything is interconnected. Gratitude improves sleep. Sleep reduces pain. Reduced pain improves your mood. Improved mood reduces anxiety, which improves focus and planning. Focus and planning help with decision making. Decision making further reduces anxiety and improves enjoyment. Enjoyment gives you more to be grateful for, which keeps that loop of the upward spiral going. Enjoyment also makes it more likely you’ll exercise and be social, which, in turn, will make you happier. ~UCLA neuroscience researcher, Alex Korb