The science behind happiness: Rewire your brain to be happier

Published: Feb. 10, 2016 at 5:21 PM EST
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A few decades ago, the science behind emotions only focused on the negative feelings, like depression and anger. But one neuro-psychologist decided to turn that frown upside down and study the science behind happiness, joy and love. She says there are ways to create happiness out of thin air.

When Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at UNC-Chapel Hill, hears “go to your happy place,” she literally heads for her PEP Lab (Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory). For more than 20 years, she’s been studying positive emotions, tackling how they affect the heart, the immune system and mental health.

“The ways that we feel happiness and well-being are actually showing up in the cells of our immune system and supporting our health in that way,” she explained.

Money and success account for only a small part of a person's happiness. A bigger portion is self-created, and meditating even just 15 minutes a day is an easy way to do that.

“Before and after a three month study, we’ll measure people’s heart rates, and we see a healthy pattern of cardiovascular activity,” Fredrickson explained.

Mary Brantley, Meditation Instructor at UNC Chapel Hill explained, “Everyone has this place inside of them that’s peaceful, but often we don’t know how to tap into it.”

It is possible to re-wire your brain to be happier, and according to psychologist and happiness researcher Shawn Achor, these five habits will do it:

1. Think of three things you’re grateful for

2. Write about a positive experience from the past 24 hours

3. Exercise

4. Meditate

5. Perform one random act of kindness.

If you do this every day, for just 30 days, it can change the neuro-pathways in your brain, making happiness second nature.

A new study also argues that happiness does not lead to a longer life. Researchers believe suffering from disease or other illnesses causes people to be unhappy and it also causes them to die earlier. But simply being unhappy, on its own, does not. However, happiness at least improves the quality of life.