June 30, 2016

Happiness is Biochemical

"Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and like Teflon for positive ones," says Rick Hanson (1, p. 41).  When we briefly notice positive experiences they slip away the way a fried egg slides out of a Teflon-coated pan.  However, the stone age brain we inherited is wired to quickly store negative experiences that may be threats.  A brain scan study found a part of the brain called the amygdala was activated faster when people saw fearful faces than when they saw neutral or happy faces (2).  Twenty-four hors later, subjects remembered more fearful faces than neutral or happy faces when shown the photos again.  When information is tagged as negative the amygdala tells the brain to immediately send that information to long-term memory (1).  

My goal for being happier is NOT to turn into a bubbly person who does not feel angry or sad. 
My goal is to balance the good and bad.  Surprisingly being happy does not require a positive attitude.  It requires concrete action.  Meditation has a positive affect on mood (3,4), but requires disciple and time.  Here are two simpler actions can change the brain.

Take 5 seconds to enjoy a happy moment (1).  I try to notice happy events I did not plan, like the parking spot I got that was close to the entrance of a crowded grocery store the day before Christmas.  Lately I have been enjoying a shower.  Sub-freezing temperatures have finally arrived so a warm shower rehydrates my dry skin and relaxes my cold muscles.  I have been standing still for 5 seconds after I get out of the shower to enjoy this luxurious feeing.  When you are happy the brain releases dopamine which builds a more richly detailed positive memory.
For me, noticing multiple brief episodes of happiness has a cumulative effect that affects how I feel at the end of the day. 

Sleep = more happy memories.  Sleep depravation produced a 19% loss of negative information, but a 59% loss of positive information (5).  Sleep deprived subjects also recalled more negative words (e.g. cancer) than positive words 24 hours after they saw the list.  This difference occurs because of the different way these two types of information are stored.  Positive memories stay in short-term memory until a part of the brain called the hippocampus sends them to long-term memory as we sleep.   

1. Hanson R, Mendius R. Buddha's Brain. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications; 2009.
2. Yang E, Zald D, Blake R. Fearful expressions gain preferential access to awareness during
    continuous flash suppression. Emotion. 2007;5:227-250
3. Davidson R. Well-being and affective style: neural substrates and biobehavioral correlates.
    Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 2004;359:1395-1411.
4. Holzel B, Lazar S, Gars T, Schuman-Olivier Z, Vago, D, Ott U. How does mindfulness
     meditation work?  Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective.
     Perspectives on Psychological Science.2011;6:537-539.
5. Walker M, Stickgold R. Sleep, memory, and plasticity. Amer Rev Psychol. 2006;57:139-166.

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