Changing your mind, and your brain for happiness

Changing your mind, and your brain for happiness

Whenever we talk about positive interventions, we are assuming that people are malleable. William James wrote about intentional activity to change habits in ways that make life better. That’s the premise of books like The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky: that research has shown that people can make lasting changes in their level of happiness, but it requires action, effort and persistence.

That’s what psychologists have found. Neuroscientists are finding the same thing. Richard Davidson is a neuroscientist who uses brain imaging to study behavior and emotion. (See his site for a more technically correct description of what he does.) He claims, ‘social and emotional learning changes the brain,” and “We can change the brain by training the mind.” Social and emotional learning is a process by which people become better at understanding and managing emotions and learn how emotions impact the choices they make, the relationships they have, and their outlook in life.

Dr Davidson has a 16-minute lecture online that is available at the Edutopia site. Here are some of his primary points:

– Behavioral interventions have biological impacts. They change the brain.

– Behavioral interventions can cause more specific brain changes than psychotropic medications. They can affect very specific circuits, which is beyond our ability with drugs.

– The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is involved in more than cognition. It is also very involved when we use positive emotion to guide decision-making. For example, when someone is getting motivated to pursue a goal, the PFC is involved.

– The prefrontal cortex is also connected to the amygdala – the part of the brain that detects threats and generates negative emotions. Scientists can visualize the connections between a person’s PFC and amygdala. They have reasons to believe that stronger connections enable better self-regulation. These connections can be built with intentional activity.

– Amygdala responses are important for avoiding threats, but not many of us are chased by tigers any more. The physical responses to negative emotion have been hijacked for situations that are much less threatening – e.g., attacks to our self-esteem. (This reminded me of Martin Seligman saying that we still have Pleistocene brains ê¢__‘Ô_ )

– Scientists have shown greater prefrontal cortex activity in the brains of people who recover more rapidly from negative events. Presumably the PFC is actively reappraising a negative stimulus and coming up with a more adaptive and positive response. People can learn to do this with practice.

– This ability to regulate emotion is important not just to happiness but also to health. Adolescents with strong PFC activation in response to negative events tend to have lower levels of cortisol in the evenings. Higher cortisol takes a toll on many organs, including the brain.

– Neuroscientists have shown that anxiety impairs working memory. Therefore the ability to calm oneself is an important skill for learning.

To read more about these exciting scientific studies and how it might boost your happiness – click here