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Health and happiness
“Very little is needed to make a happy life. It is all within yourself. In your way of thinking “. – Marcus Aurelius
Happiness. What does it mean to be happy and where does it come from? Since time immemorial humans have searched for happiness like Juan ponce de leon searched for the fountain of youth. Some might associate happiness with the perpetual feeling of well-being or some might say it’s absence of pain and unpleasantness. Some might believe that happiness is just a state of mind where daily life experiences mimic a recreational drug and for some it is just serotonin. Is getting a high paying job happiness or meeting a lover happiness? Is it happiness to win the lottery or just finishing your work on time happiness. Sometimes we are happy when we are among friends or if it’s a pleasant weekend but sometimes we are also unhappy when we are among friends, or on a pleasant weekend. We spend our whole lives in the pursuit of happiness and this idea is infused into our minds from a very young age -the moment we are brought into the real world- that you have to be happy at all times at all costs. Growing up in our class lectures, in our light hearted banter with our elders, all the TV shows, the books and the motivational speakers they all tell you just one thing: “how to be happy”. So it must be easy to become happy? After all that’s what we are after and sooner or later we shall find it, right? Here’s an apt representation of the concept illustrated by Steve Cutts
We believe in the idea that happiness can be found maybe sitting with a bunch of friends maybe on a farm, smelling the wet green grass after the rain. And yet we look for happiness in a mall or a trip abroad and yet we count our happiness with the zeros in our salary. There are countless definitions of happiness. A spiritual master like Sadhguru will tell you happiness is in the form of your inner energies. The energies that replenish your body and soul. A monk and a scholar, David Steindl Rast will say to be happy is to be grateful. To find happiness you must show gratitude. A psychologist like Daniel Todd Gilbert, the author of “Stumbling on Happiness”, will explain that our brains are wired to synthesize happiness. That the complex mechanisms and machinery in our brain can synthesize this highly sought after emotion in the fraction of a second, only if you allow it. And your mom will suggest that in order to be happy you must put down your Iphone. The farther you venture in your pursuit of happiness the higher will be the complexity in understanding it. The science of happiness is simple. In science two plus two equals four. And serotonin plus oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins equals happiness.
Scientists have done a great deal of research on happiness. In 1978, a trio of researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts attempted to answer this by asking two very different groups about the happiness in their lives: recent winners of the Illinois State Lottery — whose prizes ranged from $50,000 to $1 million — and recent victims of catastrophic accidents, who were now paraplegic or quadriplegic. In interviews with the experimenters, the two groups were asked, among other things, to rate the amount of pleasure they got from everyday activities: small but enjoyable things like chatting with a friend, watching TV, eating breakfast, laughing at a joke, or receiving a compliment. When the researchers analyzed their results, they found that the recent accident victims reported gaining more happiness from these everyday pleasures than the lottery winners. And after a year when their happiness was put on a chart, the bars were almost equal. And the authors phrased it as:
“Eventually, the thrill of winning the lottery will itself wear off. If all things are judged by the extent to which they depart from a baseline of past experience, gradually even the most positive events will cease to have impact as they themselves are absorbed into the new baseline against which further events are judged. Thus, as lottery winners become accustomed to the additional pleasures made possible by their new wealth, these pleasures should be experienced as less intense and should no longer contribute very much to their general level of happiness.”
Contrary to the common belief happiness easier to find and harder to maintain. It’s not the finding part that sucks out your energy it’s the maintenance of it that makes happiness so desirable. It is partly to be blamed on hedonic adaptation, a tendency in human beings to get used to the things that once made them happy.
How to Train Your Brain for Happiness
When a person is born, he brings some of his happiness with him. His genetics determine how happy or grumpy a kid he is going to be. But the happiness set point in our genetics only accounts for 40 percent of our happiness. Having enough food, shelter, and safety are 10%. And the remaining 50 percent? That’s entirely in our own hands.
Our brains can be effectively trained through awareness and exercises to think in a happier, more optimistic, and more resilient way.
New discoveries in the field of positive psychology show that physical health, psychological well-being, and physiological functioning are all improved by how we learn to “feel good” (Fredrickson B. L. 2000).
The thinking patterns that we need to eliminate from our brains.
- Perfectionism – Often confused with conscientiousness, which involves appropriate and tangible expectations, perfectionism involves inappropriate levels of expectations and intangible goals. It often produces problems for adults, adolescents, and children.
- Social comparison – When we compare ourselves to others we often find ourselves lacking. Because there’s always someone faster, prettier, stronger and richer out there. Healthy social comparison is about finding what you admire in others and learning to strive for those qualities. However, the best comparisons we can make are with ourselves. How are you better than you were in the past?
- Materialism – Attaching our happiness to external things and material wealth is dangerous, as we can lose our happiness if our material circumstances change. If your happiness is proportional to your bank balance then you will never achieve your desired amount of happiness. Because there will be no limit. (Carter, T. J., & Gilovich, T. 2010).
- Maximizing – Maximizers search for better options even when they are satisfied. This leaves them little time to be present for the good moments in their lives and with very little gratitude (Schwartz, B., Ward, A., Monterosso, J., Lyubomirsky, S., White, K., & Lehman, D. R. 2002).
How Is The Brain Wired For Happiness?
Our brains come already designed for happiness. Our brains can regulate chemicals like oxytocin. People who have more oxytocin trust more readily, have increased tendencies towards monogamy, and exhibit more caregiving behavior. These behaviors reduce stress which lowers production of hormones like cortisol and inhibits the cardiovascular response to stress (Kosfeld, M., Heinrichs, M., Zak, P. J., Fischbacher, U., & Fehr, E. 2005).
The following TED talk provides an insight into how we can overcome our negative mental patterns:
If happiness has little to do with having too many resources, then it is an inner state that we have the power to cultivate. The above video even offers specific exercises for you to try. Just by doing them, you are actively re-wiring your brain towards calm and happy sensations.
Meanwhile, this TEDtalk gives a better understanding of how to wire your brain to accept the positivity and happiness in your life:
The negativity bias that Dr. Rick Hanson discusses can help us understand how we can activate and “install” positive thinking as part of our core brain chemistry. If you don’t have a moment to watch either of these videos now, make time for it later—they are rich with relevant data and tips.
This whole conversation is about convincing your brain that it is capable of synthesizing it’s own happiness. Once you have successfully convinced yourself that your happiness is not in the material things you are chasing after but depends entirely on how well your brain is trained to synthesize its own happiness, we can talk about that remaining dose of happiness that we can get from our everyday activities.
Our body and mind work in close coordination to keep us safe from any unpleasantness that can affect our mood. Our brain has this fascinating ability to restore and revive itself and hence ensuring our wellbeing. Good health and good mood are two sides of the same coin. The question is what role does sleep play in our wellbeing and eventually our happiness? Even if scientists didn’t do all the research and experimentation on sleep, it would be no secret that a good night sleep does wonders to boost your mood and energy. But we need to break down the complex science of sleep to actually understand how we can improve our wellbeing by improving the quality of our sleep.
In 1965 17-year-old high school student Randy Garner stayed awake for 264 hours -that’s 11 days- to see how he could cope without sleep. On the second day he stopped focusing. Next he lost the ability to identify objects by touch. In the next couple of days he was moody and uncoordinated. At the end of the experiment he was struggling to concentrate and had trouble with short-term memory. He became paranoid and started hallucinating. After the experiment was over he recovered without long-term psychological or physical damage while science shows that for others losing shut eye can result in hormonal imbalance, illness and in extreme cases death. Scientists have been trying to understand why we sleep to begin with. But we do know that adults need 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night and adolescents need about 10 hours of sleep. We grow sleepy due to the signals from our body telling our brain we are tired and signals from the environment telling us it’s dark outside. The rise in sleep inducing chemicals like adenosine and melatonin send us into a light doze that grows deeper making our breathing and heart rate go down and our muscles relax. This non-REM sleep is when DNA is repaired and our bodies replenish themselves for the day ahead. This replenishment eventually leads to a feeling of joy and a new-found enthusiasm to start a new day.
In the United States it is estimated that 30% of adults and 66% of adolescents are regularly sleep deprived. This isn’t just a minor inconvenience. Staying awake can cause serious bodily harm. When we lose sleep our learning, memory, mood and reaction time are affected. As your sleeping hours reduce so does your energy bar and your mood. Pulling an all nighter for an exam sounds like a good idea because we are more focused on the short term goals. Sleeping less than 4 hours a day consecutively for days can make the body resistant to happy hormones.
Sleeplessness may also cause inflammation, hallucinations high blood pressure and it’s even been linked to diabetes and obesity. In 2014 devoted soccer fan died after staying awake for 48 hours to watch the World Cup while his untimely death stroke studies show that chronically sleeping fewer than six hours a night increase the stroke risk by four and a half times compared to those getting consistent 7 to 8 hours of shut eye. But how can sleep deprivation cause such immense suffering? The answer lies with the accumulation of waste products in the brain. During our waking hours our cells are busy using our day’s energy sources, which get broken down into various byproducts including adenosine. As adenosine builds up it increases the urge to sleep also known as sleep pressure. Other waste products also accumulate in the brain and if they’re not cleared away they collectively overload the brain are thought to lead to the many negative symptoms of sleep deprivation. So what’s happening in our brain when we sleep to prevent this. In our brain there’s a clean up mechanism that removes buildup and is much more active when we’re asleep. It works by using cerebrospinal fluid to flush away toxic by products that accumulate between cells. Now we also know that the hormones and chemicals that are linked with good mood and happiness also circulate in our brain but unless the accumulated byproducts are removed there isn’t enough free flow of the other important chemicals. Keeping this in mind, slipping into slumber is an absolute necessity if we want to maintain our health and sanity. Along with other health benefits, sleep is the most efficient mood stabilizer. An average 7 hours of shut eye not only reduces your risk of chronic ailments but keeps you happy and energetic, at all times.
The thrill of watching your favorite team make it to the finals. The unexpected last minute penalty shot that wins the tournament. The uproar and the adrenaline rush. Many people love to glorify victory on the playing field, cheer for favorite teams and play sports but here’s a question, should we be so obsessed with sports? Is playing sports actually as good for us as we make it out to be or just a fun and entertaining pass-time. What does science have to say. First of all it’s well excepted that exercise is good for our bodies and minds and that’s definitely true. Exercising especially when we’re young has all sorts of health benefits like strengthening our bones, clearing out bad cholesterol from our arteries and decreasing the risk of stroke high blood pressure and diabetes. Our brains also release a number of chemicals when we work out including endorphins. Endorphins are one of the hormones that are responsible for our good cheerful mood. These natural hormones which control pain and pleasure pathways in the central nervous system can lead to feelings of euphoria or as often called a runners high. We often spend the entire day in bed having depressing and unhappy thoughts. Only 20 minutes of running can change that. We tirelessly chase happiness, hoping to find it in material things, meaningful relationships and fame and money, when we can simply synthesize it on our own.
For students especially there are innumerable benefits of exercise. Increased endorphins and consistent physical activity in general can sharpen your focus and improve your mood and memory. Here’s the interesting part because it turns out that if you can find a sport and a team you like studies show that there are all sorts of benefits that go beyond the physical and mental benefits of exercise alone. So we can benefit more from sports than simply hitting the gym 5 days a week. Some of the most significant or psychological benefits both in the short and long-term come from the communal experience of being on a team. Team mates learning to trust and depend on one another. To accept help, to give help and to work together towards a common goal. In addition commitment to a team and doing something fun can also make it easier to establish a regular habit of exercise. School or college sport participation has also been shown to reduce the risk of suffering from depression for up to four years meanwhile your self-esteem and confidence can get a big boost. There are a few reasons for that. One is found in training for the sport. Working at skills especially with a good coach you reinforce a growth mindset within yourself that’s when you say even if I can’t do something today I can improve myself through practice and achieve it eventually. That mindset is useful in all walks of life and then there’s learning through failure one of the most transformative long-term benefits of playing sports the experience of coming to terms with defeat to build the resilience and self-awareness necessary to manage academic social and physical hurdles. If you spend some time looking you’ll be able to find a sport that fits your individual needs and if you do there are so many benefits.
Along with all the health benefits, exercise makes you happy and cheerful.
But what does my gut have to do with my mood?
When we consider the connection between the brain and the gut, it’s important to know that 90% of serotonin receptors are located in the gut. In the relatively new field of nutritional psychiatry we help patients understand how gut, health and diet can positively or negatively affect their mood. When someone is prescribed an antidepressant such as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), the most common side effects are gut-related, and many people temporarily experience nausea, diarrhea, or gastrointestinal problems. There is anatomical and physiologic two-way communication between the gut and brain via the vagus nerve. The gut-brain axis offers us a greater understanding of the connection between diet and disease, including depression and anxiety.
A recent study suggests that eating a healthy, balanced diet such as the Mediterranean diet and avoiding inflammation-producing foods may be protective against depression. Another study outlines an Antidepressant Food Scale, which lists 12 antidepressant nutrients related to the prevention and treatment of depression. Some of the foods containing these nutrients are oysters, mussels, salmon, watercress, spinach, romaine lettuce, cauliflower, and strawberries.
We should be careful about using food as the only treatment for mood, and when we talk about mood problems we are referring to mild and moderate forms of depression and anxiety.
Suggestions for a healthier gut and improved mood
- Eat whole foods and avoid packaged or processed foods, which are high in unwanted food additives and preservatives that disrupt the healthy bacteria in the gut.
- Instead of vegetable or fruit juice, consider increasing your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables. Frozen fruits without added sugars/additives are a good choice too.
- Easy enough fiber and include whole grains and legumes in your diet.
- Include probiotic-rich foods such as plain yogurt without added sugars.
- To reduce sugar intake at breakfast, add cinnamon to plain yogurt with berries, or to oatmeal or chia pudding.
- Adding fermented foods such as kefir (unsweetened), sauerkraut, or kimchi can be helpful to maintain a healthy gut.
- Add a range of colorful fresh fruits and vegetables to your diet, and consider choosing certain organic products.
People who follow the Mediterranean diet or consume healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein have a 25% – 35% lower risk of depression than those who eat high levels of sugar and processed foods. Good diet can trigger our serotonin even when we are at our lowest. Perhaps that’s the reason we feel excited watching cooking shows and binge cooking videos.
FOODS TO AVOID THAT NEGATIVELY IMPACT OUR MENTAL HEALTH
- Refined sugar: Simple sugars found in candy or soda can cause blood sugar levels to spike and drop, which could lead to bursts of energy followed by lethargy and possible depression. Fluctuations in blood sugar can also worsen many of the symptoms associated with anxiety.
- Foods high in trans fats: Eating foods high in trans fats like potato chips, pizza, and fast food are linked to decreasing serotonin levels. These foods affect our mental health by causing inflammation that could prevent the production of Omega-3 fatty acids that improve brain function and mental health.
- Caffeine: Too much coffee can leave you feeling shaky and anxious. If you suffer from anxiety, it could be a good idea to limit or cutting out caffeine to lessen symptoms of hypertension. Try drinking caffeine-free herbal tea instead, which tends to have a soothing or relaxing effect.
- Alcohol: People often think of alcohol as a mood elevator, but it’s actually a depressant. More so, alcohol increases anxiety symptoms the morning after drinking, particularly after overindulging. Lastly, alcohol reduces the quality of our sleep.
- Highly processed foods: Limiting or avoiding convenient options like frozen dinners, instant ramen, and any products with added sugar or loads of sodium can boost your mood by increasing serotonin.
A better diet means better mental health. So you do become what you eat after all. A happy meal is not the what you get at Macdonalds, a happy meal is the fresh organic food that will give you that delicious serotonin rush. A slight change in habits is all it takes to feel happy.
A daily dose of laughter.
Laughter and good humor are so irresistibly contagious; you might be able to hold back your tears in a teary situation but you can’t hold back that giggle. Laughter is pure therapy. “A guy walks into a bar…” you hear those first words and your brain quickly springs into action. Various brain regions are involved in the pathway of neuronal activity: the frontal lobe, to process the information; the supplementary motor area, to tap learned experience to direct motor activities such as the movements associated with laughter; and the nucleus accumbens, to assess the pleasure of the story and the reward that the laughter brings. When you hear a joke and It results in a hearty spontaneous laughter your brain releases “feel good” neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin, and an array of endorphins. The light hearted humor in our everyday lives, in a gathering of close friends, all the inside jokes, that’s all we need to get through the day and life itself. That’s what we live for. We wake up every morning to finish the unfinished work, to go attend our classes and face the hardships of life. But at the end of the day when we sit with the people we love and the fits of laughter that follow, that’s what keeps us going.
Scientists have done a great deal of research on laughing and it’s effects on the brain. The brains of depression sufferers, for example, show decreased activity in the regions that are engaged during the processing of something humorous. Researchers are studying whether this decrease in activity somehow impairs the brain’s ability to process humor. If indeed researchers find processing abnormalities in parts of the brain that handle humor, then some speculate it might be possible to boost activity in these key regions to lessen the symptoms of depression.
Carl Marci a psychiatrist at Harvard university investigated humor’s role in mood disorders. In 2004, he published a study in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease on the effects of laughter during psychotherapy session. To determine whether laughter had an effect on the patients, Marci measured the skin conductance, basically a measure of sweat, of both patients and psychiatrists. Skin conductance increases with the nervous system activity that controls blood
pressure and heart rate, which together signal an aroused state. When clinicians did not laugh with patients, conductance measures still indicated both parties were aroused. But when patients and psychiatrists laughed together, the arousal measures for each group doubled.
The contagious nature of laughter, Marci says, suggests patients felt that the emotions they expressed were being validated. It also supports the notion that empathy is a shared experience. That is a reason television sitcoms use laugh tracks: taped laughter invites audience participation. And that is why to share joy is to double joy and we must surround ourselves with people who exude positivity and people who make you laugh.
For the past forty years, studies have shown that good, hearty laughter can relieve tension and stress; boost the immune system, by reducing stress hormones and increasing activity among immune cells and antibodies; and help reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, by improving blood flow and blood vessel function.
Laughter and humor can be a tonic for the brain, as well. Triggering the brain’s emotional and reward centers spurs the release of dopamine, helping the brain to process emotional responses and enhancing our experience of pleasure; of serotonin, to buoy our mood; and of endorphins, to regulate our pain and stress and to induce euphoria.
The next time you hear a joke, whether you get it or not, let yourself go and enjoy a good, hearty laugh. The next time you feel low and overwhelmed by unhappy thoughts, watch a stand up instead of that popular new thriller. Laugh a little and then a little more. That’s how you find your own happiness, in little things all around you.
Apart from aforementioned habits, we need to control the pace at which our brain is thinking all the thoughts. Our brain is a highly complex machine, made of millions of unique neuronal pathways. The interesting part is that the brain is performing both voluntary and involuntary functions at once. The brain never goes to sleep, and yet we can put our thought process to sleep every now and then. Millions of neurons in your brain are sending electrical impulses at the speed of 120m/s right now as you are reading this. That’s what the brain is wired to do. But sometimes when we continuously put our brain to work it might get triggered into overthinking. Usually when we are overthinking a certain thought or a certain event, our brain fabricates unusual scenarios in our head, which aren’t always pleasant. These unhappy thoughts prevent us from focusing on other important matters of life. We are always unhappy because we try to solve all our problems in our head all at once. Despite having the ability to multitask, our brain can focus on one problem at a time without over-stressing the body and itself. Solve problems one at a time. Our brain never stops searching for solutions to every problem that worries us. This takes a lot of energy so whenever the brain gets tired and the problem remains unsolved you feel anxiety and irritation. On the other hand for every right decision or brain rewards itself with a dose of neurotransmitters that calm the limbic system and help us once again see the world in a better light. Therefore you need to try to deal with one problem at a time to stay happy.
Brain can store all our short and long term memories and all our current and old thoughts are saved in the brain’s archives and we can pull them out anytime we want. But when we keep storing all the negative thoughts, brain releases stress neurotransmitters. So it’s better not to keep things pent up. Talk about what bothers you. The processes of wordlessly going through something unpleasant and talking about your predicament involve making use of different parts of the brain. In the latter case negative emotions have a lesser impact on your well being. It is therefore advisable to not keep your problem pent up. Whenever you talk about them your brain triggers the production of serotonin and even manages to find some positive sides to the situation. Engage yourself in pleasant expectations. The process of waiting for something nice such as food or a trip is similar to the learned salivation response. Our brain experiences pleasure by simply anticipating the fun event that’s why are so fond of counting the hours and minutes to some particular moment be it a birthday or a wedding, a meeting with a friend or just an end to a long working day. This is how you train yourself to be happy. Happiness does come from within and that is the purest form of happiness indeed.
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