1. Ask “What am I grateful for?”
Believe it or not, shame, guilt, and pride all activate the same reward center in your brain. This is why it's actually appealing on some level to guilt and shame ourselves, because it's actually triggering a reward in our brains. In the short term, we feel better, but in the long term we get depressed.
The solution is simple. Gratitude. Neuroscience has actually proven that gratitude boosts the neurotransmitters Dopamine and Serotonin . This is what most antidepressants do as well.
"The benefits of gratitude start with the dopamine system, because feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine. Additionally, gratitude toward others increases activity in social dopamine circuits, which makes social interactions more enjoyable…"
One way you can do this is by taking 60 seconds of your day to write out a gratitude list.
Sometimes life deals you a bad hand and its not easy to find things to be grateful for, but it turns out it's the act of "searching" that helps you the most.
"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 both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. 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."
2. Label Your Negative Emotions
Ok, so sometimes things are going to become overwhelming. Obviously, gratitude helps but it's not a cure all. What else can you do?
You can label your negative emotions. Many people try to suppress their feelings and emotions and this almost always backfires. Give the feeling a name and your brain reacts. Crazy simple.
via Your Brain At Work:
"To reduce arousal, you need to use just a few words to describe an emotion, and ideally use symbolic language, which means using indirect metaphors, metrics, and simplifications of your experience. This requires you to activate your prefrontal cortex, which reduces the arousal in the limbic system. Here’s the bottom line: describe an emotion in just a word or two, and it helps reduce the emotion."
3. Make Decisions
Being indecisive can cause us a ton of stress. Trying to be a perfectionist is equally stressful. So, what is the solution? Make the best decision you can. Don't try to be perfect, just make a decision that is "good enough".
"Trying for the best, instead of good enough, brings too much emotional ventromedial prefrontal activity into the decision-making process. In contrast, recognizing that good enough is good enough activates more dorsolateral prefrontal areas, which helps you feel more in control…"
It turns out that being decisive actually activates the pleasure center in your brain. A good example of how this works in real life is going to the gym. If we feel like we have to go work out, we don't get the same brain pleasure because we aren't being voluntarily decisive. We just feel stressed, like working out is a chore.
"Interestingly, if they are forced to exercise, they don’t get the same benefits, because without choice, the exercise itself is a source of stress."
4. Human Touch
Relationships are probably the most important aspect of life. Whether with family, friends, or love interests we, as humans, need to feel loved and accepted.
Scientists did a study where people would toss a ball with other people. Well, it was done through a computer program, but the people were told that the computers were being controlled by other human beings. When a person standing in the circle didn't get the ball tossed to them and was ignored, it activated pain sensors in the brain. The same pain sensors that would be activated if you broke a bone. Crazy, right?
I"n fact, as demonstrated in an fMRI experiment, social exclusion activates the same circuitry as physical pain… at one point they stopped sharing, only throwing back and forth to each other, ignoring the participant. This small change was enough to elicit feelings of social exclusion, and it activated the anterior cingulate and insula, just like physical pain would."
It turns out that small acts of intimacy such as holding hands or a hug can have a profound impact on our happiness. Science shows us that human touch doesn't get nearly enough credit for our happiness. To love and be loved is one of the most transformative experiences a human being can have. Here is one last powerful example.
"In addition, holding hands with someone can help comfort you and your brain through painful situations. One fMRI study scanned married women as they were warned that they were about to get a small electric shock. While anticipating the painful shocks, the brain showed a predictable pattern of response in pain and worrying circuits, with activation in the insula, anterior cingulate, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. During a separate scan, the women either held their husbands’ hands or the hand of the experimenter. When a subject held her husband’s hand, the threat of shock had a smaller effect. The brain showed reduced activation in both the anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex— that is, less activity in the pain and worrying circuits. In addition, the stronger the marriage, the lower the discomfort-related insula activity."
In summary, if you want to be a happier person, you can. When you're feeling down, write out a gratitude list. If you're feeling some type of way, you can take the power out of that negative feeling by labeling it. If you have anxiety, make a decision and remember good enough really is good enough. Most of all, cherish your relationships. Give people long hugs, hold someone's hand, and tell them how thankful you are that they are in your life.