What follows here should be a detailed explanation in precise scientific language using lots of terms that require frequent trips to the dictionary. I don’t know about you, but those kinds of explanations make my eyes glaze over and my mind want to take an extended vacation to the Bahamas. Instead, let me offer a very brief overview of your brain’s alarm system and its impact on your bodies.
Whenever the amygdala signals fight or flight, your body immediately jacks up your heart rate, releases floods of adrenaline, and sends other stress hormones cascading into your bloodstream. That adrenaline, according to a recent study conducted by Dr. Jim McGaugh of the University of California–Irvine, creates stronger memories in the brain than pleasure hormones do. This means that your disturbing experiences are “chemically supercharged” to stay with you far longer than your happy ones.
What makes this an even bigger problem is that many of us have amygdalas that are overreactive: they trigger the release of adrenaline too easily and often. Scientists call this having a “hot” amygdala and say that it’s a major obstacle to being happy. It’s behind the tendency to have a short fuse, panic easily, and generally make mountains out of molehills. People with the hottest amygdalas are the drama queens, rage-a-holics, worrywarts, and chronic complainers among us.
When the amygdala gets stuck in overdrive, it widens the negative neural pathways in our brain. Our minds become overrun with negative thoughts, and we worry, picturing over and over what we don’t want to happen, creating anxiety and unhappiness in our lives. We tell ourselves stories based on our Stuck Old Beliefs, what I call our S.O.B. stories.
Having a hot amygdala has negative health implications as well: when your amygdala is constantly pushing the fight-or-flight button, the stress chemicals released into the body build up. In today’s world, the saber-tooth tigers of our ancestors have been replaced by such things as near-accidents on the highway, confrontations with a boss or coworker, and arguments with a spouse. Although these everyday situations trigger the release of fight-or-flight hormones, they don’t require you to sprint to safety or punch someone out, physical activities that once used up those powerful stress chemicals. Instead, the chemicals hang around and accumulate, creating fatigue and disease in your body.
Having an overreactive alarm system can damage your health and dramatically lower your happiness set-point — unless you learn to override it.
Teaching an Old Brain New Tricks
Studies done by Dr. Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin–Madison demonstrate that thinking new and different thoughts creates new neural pathways. When we change our thinking to support our happiness, the negative neural pathways shrink and the positive neural pathways widen. This makes it easier and more automatic for us to think more positively.
For years, it’s been commonly accepted that the genetic component of our happiness set-point — the 50 percent determined by our DNA — can’t be changed. But according to Bruce Lipton, a molecular biologist and author of The Biology of Belief, our DNA may not be as immutable as we think. His intriguing research suggests that our DNA is influenced by our positive and negative thoughts — one more indication that our thinking can reprogram our happiness set-point.
I’m not talking about wishful thinking, or simply deciding to be happier. That’s like pasting a smiley face over our pain or spreading a layer of icing over cake that’s burned to a cinder. The bad stuff is still there. What I’m talking about is accessing the higher center of your brain, your neocortex, to reverse the negativity bias and override your primitive alarm system.
Crank up the Neocortex
According to the latest research, the neocortex is where happiness lives in the brain — in the left prefrontal area, to be exact. Studies have shown that happy people have a high level of activity in this area, while those who have a tendency toward anxiety, fear, and depression have higher activity in the right prefrontal cortex.
When it comes to happiness, you can’t fool the brain. Psychologist Dr. James Hardt, one of the world’s experts on brain waves, explained to me that the brain wave activity of a happy person is different from the brain wave activity of someone who is unhappy. His research shows that people who are less reactive to the fearful messages of their amygdale have more alpha wave activity — the sign of a happy brain.
Instead of being overrun with negative thoughts or constantly going into fight-or-flight mode, happy people have habits that allow them to respond more easily from their higher brain center, the neocortex.
From my interviews with over 100 unconditionally happy people, I’ve found that they don’t believe everything they think. Instead here’s how they respond to their thoughts:
- They are more skeptical of their negative thoughts.
- They question the alarms and override them when necessary.
- They don’t fight with their negative thoughts (they know they’re just by-products of their negativity bias)
- They let negative thoughts go.
- They register their positive thoughts more deeply and savor their positive experiences.
Here are three Happiness Habits that will help you create new brain pathways:
- Question Your Thoughts
- Go Beyond the Mind and Let Go
- Incline Your Mind Toward Joy
No matter how old your brain is, learning these “new tricks” will help it stay young, fit and happy.