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4 Rituals for a Happy Life

HappinessNeuroscience researcher Alex Korb, of the University of California Los Angeles, believes you can rewire your brain and create an upward spiral of happiness in your life.  Here are for four “rituals” he recommends for all of us:

1. When you feel down, ask yourself this question.

Why do I get stuck in feeling bad?

Korb explains that pride, shame, and guilt all activate the same areas of the brain, what neuroscientists call the reward center. Psychotherapists often point out that miserable feelings are addictive, because they are familiar and thus comfortable to us. Yet shame and guilt are usually associated with personal growth.

Korb also points out the neurological benefits of worry:

In fact, worrying can help calm the limbic system by increasing activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and decreasing activity in the amygdala. That might seem counterintuitive, but it just goes to show that if you’re feeling anxiety, doing something about it — even worrying — is better than doing nothing.

A powerful tool for turning negative feelings around is to practice gratitude. Korb explains:

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 …

2. Name your negative feelings.

Anger, sadness and anxiety are normal human emotions, developed over the millenia to help us survive as a species. Often when we feel these “negative” feelings, we turn to drugs or alcohol, or overeating or compulsive activity; we try to mask these feelings. But Korb says it is important to name those feelings:

… in one fMRI study, appropriately titled “Putting Feelings into Words” participants viewed pictures of people with emotional facial expressions. Predictably, each participant’s amygdala activated to the emotions in the picture. But when they were asked to name the emotion, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activated and reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity. In other words, consciously recognizing the emotions reduced their impact.

3. Make a decision.

If you resist making a decision because of fear you can’t make the perfect decision, give yourself a break. Korb says “good enough” is the most you can expect as a human being.  Resist perfectionism.

Making decisions includes creating intentions and setting goals — all three are part of the same neural circuitry and engage the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, reducing worry and anxiety. Making decisions also helps overcome striatum activity, which usually pulls you toward negative impulses and routines. Finally, making decisions changes your perception of the world — finding solutions to your problems and calming the limbic system.

4. Touch somebody.

Touch is critical to human happiness. Korb says:

One of the primary ways to release oxytocin is through touching. Obviously, it’s not always appropriate to touch most people, but small touches like handshakes and pats on the back are usually okay. For people you’re close with, make more of an effort to touch more often.

Korb concludes that everything and everyone is interconnected. Gratitude supports sleep. Sleep ameliorates pain. Lowering pain improves mood. Better mood reduces anxiety, which in turn improves focus and planning. Focus and planning supports better decision making, which leads to less anxiety and more enjoyment in life.


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Category: Wellness

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