How to feel happier, according to neuroscientists and psychologists (1)

Feeling a little blue lately? A handful of recent research suggests you’re not alone.

Thankfully, there may be something — or several things — you can do about it.

Researchers have known for decades that certain activities make us feel better, and they’re just beginning to understand what happens in the brain to boost our mood.

A study published in the journal Nature on July 11 found that when people were given the option of spending money on themselves or another person, those who spent it on someone else had more activity in a brain area linked to the subjective feeling of happiness.

Focus on others instead of yourself.

Volunteers prepare meals at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen April 29, 2008 in New York City.Mario Tama/Getty Images

We’ve all been there. It’s been a bad day and you feel the urge to buy your favorite comfort food or snag a new pair of shoes. However, studies suggest you’ll feel happier if you spend that money on someone else.

The new study in Nature suggests that people feel happier after doing something generous because activity in the brain regions involved in helping others seems to override the activity in the regions linked with personal reward.

A 2008 experiment supports these findings — for that study, volunteers were split into two groups and either splurged on themselves or another person. Those who got something for others were shown to be happier than those who bought something for themselves.

Donating your time can have the same effect. In a recent review of 40 studies done over the last 20 years, researchers found that volunteering was one of the most successful ways to boost psychological health. Volunteering was found to be linked with a reduced risk of depression, a higher amount of overall satisfaction, and even a reduced risk of death from of a physical illness as a consequence of mental distress.

Write down how you’re feeling and what you’re grateful for.

Keeping tabs on the things you feel lucky to have in your life is a great way to boost your mood.

In a recent study from psychologists at UC Davis, researchers had 3 groups of volunteers keep weekly journals focused on a single topic. One group wrote about events that happened that week, the second group wrote about hassles they experienced, and the last group wrote about things they were grateful for.

Ten weeks later, those in the gratitude-journal group reported feeling more optimistic and more satisfied with their lives than those in the other groups. They also reported fewer physical symptoms of discomfort, from runny noses to headaches.

Even just recording your feelings is a great way to clarify your thoughts, solve problems more efficiently, relieve stress, and more.

A team of psychologists recently studied brain scans of volunteers who wrote about an emotional experience for 20 minutes a day for four sessions. They compared the scans to those of volunteers who wrote down a neutral experience for the same amount of time. The brain scans of the first group showed neural activity in a part of the brain responsible for dampening strong emotional feelings, suggesting that the act of recording their experience calmed them. This same activity was absent in the volunteers who recorded a neutral experience.

Go on a hike or gaze at the stars.

Awe is a powerful (even awesome, you might say) human emotion. A handful of recent studies have found a link between experiencing a sense of awe — like the feeling you get when looking at a starry sky or across a wide open valley — with decreased stressedand higher levels of satisfaction.

People who’ve recently had an awe-inspiring experience are also more likely to say they feel more curious about the world around them and to act more generously toward others.

Drink coffee (not too much, though).

They don’t call it “Central Perk” for nothing. As a central nervous system stimulant, caffeine doesn’t just boost alertness, it can also improve your mood.

Several studies have even found a connectionbetween caffeine consumption and reduced risk of depression, as well as an even a lower risk of suicide. However, at least one of these studies found this connection with caffeinated coffee but not tea, though others found the same effect for tea as well.


You don’t have to be Don Draper to reap the benefits of some peace and quiet.

Multiple studies suggest that meditating — focusing intently and quietly on the present for set periods of time — can help lessen feelings of depression and anxiety. Research in long term meditators (Buddhist monks, for example) shows that these peoples’ brains are well developed in areas that could be linked to heightened awareness and emotional control.

While it’s possible that people with such brains might be more likely to meditate in the first place, other studies show that people who complete a meditation program tend to show brain changes linked with self-awareness, perspective, and memory.

Read an adventure story.

You may be able to get some of the benefits of an awe-inspiring experience just by reading about someone else’s. A small 2012 study found that people who read about someone else’s adventure were more satisfied, less stressed, and more willing to volunteer to help others than people who were simply shown something that made them feel happy.

Get outside.

Stressed out? Head for a forest. One study found that a group of students sent into the trees for two nights had lower levels of cortisol — a hormone often used as a marker for stress — than those who spent the same two nights in a city.

In another study, researchers found a decrease in both heart rate and cortisol levels in people in the forest compared to those in urban areas. “Stressful states can be relieved by forest therapy,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

A 2015 study also suggested that a brief walk in nature could chase away negative thoughts.

In the study, a group of 38 Northern Californians were split up into two groups — one that took a 90-minute walk in nature and another that did the same walk in the city. The nature walkers reported having fewer negative thoughts about themselves after the walk, while the urban walkers reported no change.

What’s more, fMRI brain scans of the participants who took nature walks revealed less activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC), a brain region that may play a key role in some mood disorders and has been linked with patterns of negative thought. Those who went on the urban walk did not show any of these benefits, according to the study.

Work it out.

Exercise is proven to increase feel-good chemicals in the brain, reduce stress hormones, and relieve depression and anxiety according to Happify, a website and app that offers psychology-based games to increase your happiness.

You can achieve these positive changes in just a few minutes — researchers at the University of Vermont found that just 20 minutes of exercise can give you mood-boosting benefits for up to 12 hours. Moreover, people who are active are happier and more satisfied with their lives.

The duration and location of your workout also affects how happy you feel afterward. Check out Happify for a guide to achieving your maximum happiness sweet spot.

Do things you usually enjoy — even if you’re not feeling happy.

Experiencing positive emotions — whether or not you’re already in good spirits — not only appears to have the power to neutralize negative ones, but can also encourage people to be more proactive.

“Positive emotions may aid those feeling trapped or helpless in the midst of negative moods, thoughts, or behaviors … spurring them to take positive action,” a team of UC Riverside psychologists wrote in a recent paper summarizing these findings.

Participate in cultural activities.

Visiting a museum or seeing a concert is yet another way to boost your mood. A studythat examined 50,000 adults’ levels of life satisfaction in Norway found that people who participated in more cultural activities reported lower levels of anxiety and depression. They also had a higher satisfaction with their overall quality of life. So go see a play or join a club!

Listen to sad songs.

Happiness is entirely subjective — something that makes one person happy might affect someone else differently. However, listening to sad music seems to be linked with increased happiness around the globe.

In a study that looked at 772 people in the eastern and western hemispheres, researchers found that listening to sad music generated “beneficial emotional effects such as regulating negative emotion and mood as well as consolation.”

To be continued


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