The Neurobiology of Happiness – how to change your brain to be healthier and happier.

Happy woman

The Neurobiology of Happiness

How to change your brain to be healthier and happier

 By Jayney Goddard MSc, FCMA, FRSM, FRSPH

If you’re a regular reader of my column for Natural Health Magazine, you’ll no doubt be aware of the concept of ‘neuro-plasticity’ – or your brain’s way of ‘re-wiring’ itself for optimal function.  If not – here’s a quick summary:  Your brain is in a constant state of change – it adapts and evolves in order to facilitate function.  It used to be thought that the brain was set in a fairly fixed state and that the only change that the brain underwent was a mass ‘die-off’ of cells after a certain age.  The relatively new understanding of neuro-plasticity shows that, in fact, your brain has an incredible capacity to adapt to change – it physically changes shape – and function.  When you read articles about this incredible phenomenon, the concept of neuro-plasticity is usually reported upon as an exclusively positive thing.  For example, if you had suffered damage to a particular part of your brain and a particular physical, emotional or cognitive function was compromised, there is a very strong possibility that other parts of your brain unassociated with that function would take over and adapt to better facilitate that function.  This is wonderful – and amazing – but it is not the full story as we shall see:


“Synapses that fire together wire together” This is a phrase that is now used ubiquitously throughout neuroscience.  There is a gap or ‘cleft’ between neurons (nerve cells) called a synapse. This gap is called the synaptic cleft.  Whenever you have a thought, a chemical is diffused across this gap – and this builds a bridge across which an electrical impulse can move – thus carrying along the relevant information that you are experiencing – or thinking about. Now, here’s the curious thing – every time this electrical charge is activated across the synaptic cleft, your synapses actually grow closer together – to make this leap easier. What this means, in essence, is that your brain is adapting so that this thought or emotion is more easily and readily experienced – because your synapses are more easily able to fire together.  This is how your thoughts and feelings re-shape your brain. 


The path of least resistance

Given that your brain is constantly re-shaping itself with every thought – it is important to realise that those thoughts that we have most frequently will cause certain sets of synapses to bond together more strongly.  The strongest bonds become our ‘default’ personality because we can access them more readily.  Essentially, your thoughts create the physical structure of your brain – and thus the things that we think about and feel most frequently become our hard-wired ‘set point’.  Our personalities evolve through the repetition of certain thoughts and feelings, and the pairs of synapses that represent your personality proclivities grow closer and closer together – because it is easier for the chemical messenger and then the electrical impulse to jump across that gap.


Choose your thoughts wisely

Given what we know about how your brain shapes itself to assist and facilitate your most frequent thoughts and feelings, it becomes very apparent that it would be wonderful if we could create a set-point within ourselves that would be optimally healthy.  After all, we know from the science of psycho-neuro immunology (PNI) that ongoing, repeated emotions such as fear, anger, jealousy, guilt and lack of gratitude, dwelling on negativity and complaining about things are all toxic – they provoke the release of a slew of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) which directly cause chronic inflammation.  And, chronic inflammation is at the root of all the diseases we wrongly attribute to ageing and decline (many cancers, heart disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and more). 


Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could train ourselves to think mostly lovely thoughts?  However, it almost seems to be an impossible task – how on earth can we shift from simply reacting to situations to actively choosing our thoughts?  Well, we know that if we repeatedly think certain thoughts we will restructure our brain – so spending time actively cultivating positive thoughts will cause those neural pathways to grow stronger – the synapses will grow closer together and thus our set point will more preferentially produce positive, life-affirming emotions – such as love, happiness, awe, gratitude, compassion and kindness – and these thoughts lead to wellbeing – mentally, emotionally and physically.


Now, I appreciate that life will fairly constantly, and totally unpredictably, throw you a curve ball and move you outside your comfort zone – where it may be insanely challenging to keep thinking positive thoughts.  But, there is a way that we can help ourselves – and that is by choosing to love whatever comes our way.  This is a way of accepting everything that comes our way with an optimistic spirit – by reframing life events – good or bad – as ‘life lessons’.  By cultivating a spirit of gratitude for these events you are rewiring your brain to produce more gratitude, happiness, love, kindness and compassion – and it actually happens really quickly.  This isn’t a Polly Anna outlook though – it is not denying badness, evil and negativity – this practice fully acknowledges these phenomena but crafts our response to them – and this is one of the most important things that you can do to enhance your well-being.


Big, strong, muscular synapses

If you begin to choose your thoughts and feelings with love you will create big, strong, loving synapses that will fire preferentially – so that your personality set-point becomes one of positivity, innate mental, emotional and spiritual strength and resilience.   You’ll find that you become much more happy as a result and that your world becomes a much more beautiful place to reside.


Next steps:

One of the most effective ways of becoming aware of your emotions and thoughts – and becoming able to actively choose positive responses - is through the practice of Metta Meditation, which centres around loving kindness.  There are many research studies which prove that this meditation technique is strongly linked to greater and more consistent feelings of love and happiness. 

  • Check out an app called Insight Timer for free access to a range of Metta Meditations.
  • Read ‘Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence’ by Rick Hanson PhD




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