September 9, 2017

Happiness is Biochemical

"Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and like Teflon for positive ones" (1, p. 41).
We briefly notice positive experiences but they slip away the way a fried egg slides out of a Teflon-coated pan.  Our stone age brain is wired to immediately store negative experiences that may be threats (1).  A brain scan study found a part of the brain (amygdala) was activated faster when people saw fearful faces than when they saw neutral or happy faces (2).  24 hours later, they remembered more fearful faces than neutral or happy faces when shown the photos again. 

Surprisingly being happy does not require a positive attitude.  It requires concrete action.  Meditation has a positive affect on mood (3), but requires disciple and time.  Here is a simple action that 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.  I have been standing still for 5 seconds after I get out of the shower to enjoy this luxurious feeling.  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.

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. 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.