THINGS TO DO FOR THE HAPPINESS OF THE BRAIN
Exercise. If you hate exercise, here’s the good news: All it takes is just 15 minutes of fun cardio activity. (Achor says this is the equivalent of taking an anti-depressant for the first six months, but with a 30 percent lower relapse rate over the next two years. And the reason why exercise is valuable is it trains your brain to believe, “My behavior matters,” which is optimism.)
Breathe. Stop what you’re doing, hands off the laptop. Now breathe and watch your breath go in and out for two minutes. Do this every day. This allows your brain to focus on one thing at a time. (Achor says it will “raise accuracy rates, improve levels of happiness, and drop stress levels.”)
Express kindness through a text or email. The most important of the five: For two minutes per day, write a positive email or text praising or thanking someone you know. And do it for a different person each day. (Achor says people who do this become known as positive leaders with strong social connections–the greatest predictor of long-term happiness.
Sleep more – you’ll be less sensitive to negative emotions. We know that sleep helps our bodies to recover from the day and repair themselves, and that it helps us focus and be more productive. It turns out, it’s also important for our happiness. In the book NutureShock , Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain how sleep affects our positivity. The BPS Research Digest explores another study 4 that proves sleep affects our sensitivity to negative emotions. Using a facial recognition task over the course of a day, the researchers studied how sensitive participants were to positive and negative emotions. Those who worked through the afternoon without taking a nap became more sensitive late in the day to negative emotions like fear and anger. Of course, how well (and how long) you sleep will probably affect how you feel when you wake up, which can make a difference to your whole day. Especially this graph showing how your brain activity decreases is a great insight about how important enough sleep is for productivity and happiness.
Meditate – rewire your brain for happiness. Meditation is often touted as an important habit for improving focus, clarity and attention span, as well as helping to keep you calm. It turns out it’s also useful for improving your happiness. Meditation literally clears your mind and calms you down, it’s been often proven to be the single most effective way to live a happier life. I believe that this graphic explains it the best. The fact that we can actually alter our brain structure through mediation is most surprising to me and somewhat reassuring that however we feel and think today isn’t permanent.
Talk about your problems and feelings. Talking about what is making you sad, worried, stressed, or scared with someone else, be them a friend, family member, or professional, helps us work through our problems and makes them seem a little smaller (like a literal weight off of your chest/shoulders). This simple act releases serotonin in your brain, a neurotransmitter that helps you to feel more positive and constructive. You feel like you have more control over your situation, instead of feeling helpless and in despair, you feel empowered and ready to tackle it head-on.
Solve problems one at a time. Your brain is constantly searching for solutions to every problem and everything that worries you. Anyone who has spent a night lying awake worrying about whether or not they should quit their job, what to get their sister for her birthday, and if they should paint the living room “beachside drive” or charismatic sky” (hint: they’re both blue) can attest to this. This build up of problems makes them seem overwhelming and even the tiniest ones unsolvable.
The solution here (after talking it through with someone) is to tackle each problem one at a time. Each time you make a successful decision, your brain rewards itself with neurotransmitters that calm the limbic system (responsible for higher thought and emotions) and leaves you with a more positive outlook and can-do attitude. Our advice? Start with the small problems (i.e. choosing the paint color) to get the ball rolling and work your way up to the larger issues.
Say “thank you” more often. People who have more gratitude are happier, much to the chagrin of all the pessimists out there. Every time you say thank you, whether it’s to the barista handing you your morning coffee, the coworker who helped you with your computer problem, or that silent word of thanks you send up to the cosmos after a successful sprint for the train, it makes you focus on the positive aspects of your life. These positive, happy memories trigger serotonin production in your brain, which as we know helps to replace anxiety and irritability with joy and optimism. Gratitude and appreciating the small gestures and wins each day help you to develop an overall more positive outlook on your daily life.
Learn something new every day. Each time you learn something new, it changes your brain. Acquiring new knowledge causes a permanent adaptation to a changing environment. As your brain changes and develops, it rewards itself, this time with another chemical dopamine, the happy neurotransmitter. This is the chemical that gets released when your food finally arrives, when you have sex, and even each time you receive a text message. Continuous learning will not only provide you with a greater understanding of the world around you and a new set of skills, it will also make you feel happy and accomplished.
Journal one positive experience. For two minutes a day, write in detail about one positive experience you’ve had during the last 24 hours. (This allows your brain to relive it, and teaches your brain that the behavior matters.)
Give lots of hugs. Humans are a tactile species and physical touch is extremely important to our well being. This can be observed just by watching the progress of babies in the NICU who are given a little extra cuddle time. Touch and embrace are so important that our brains perceive this lack of physical connection the same way it perceives real, physical pain. If you are feeling down, or one of your friends or family members are, go in for that big, warm hug: a silent embrace can often say more than a thousand words ever could.
Get moving. Though exercise is good for you for so many different reasons, technically speaking it is still a stressor on your body. When you complete your exercise bout, your brain is hit with endorphins, chemicals that have a similar effect to opiates on your brain. Endorphins have the ability to relieve pain, boost your mood, and just in general feel good. Whether you join a sports team (bonus points for human interaction!) or go for a quick walk on your lunch break, the physical release that comes with exercise can help you feel accomplished, relieve anxiety, and provide you with a happier, more positive attitude.
Focus on positive memories and upcoming events. Thinking back to happy memories, for example the fun camping trip you went on last weekend or the nice thing your friend said to you, as well as looking forward to the good things to come, such as your birthday or your decision to order in from your favourite Chinese food place tonight, can increase serotonin and causes a “salivation response”. By both remembering good things that have already happened to you and anticipating the good things to come will help you to feel more positive about your life as a whole.
Engaged in mind games. Your brain is a muscle. You need to exercise it regularly. Norman Doidge, psychiatrist and author of The Brain’s Way of Healing, suggests playing Scrabble and Sudoku to sharpen your mind. According to Cynthia Green, PhD, Author of Brainpower Game Plan, you must time yourself while working a crossword or sudoku to boost processing speed, attention and positive intellectual engagement. People who are cognitively active have better memory as they age. So quiz yourself, flex your brain and improve your memory power.
Aromatherapy. The next tine you need to train your brain, consider using the practice of aromatherapy to increase your productivity. Aromatherapy works wonders, and some particular essential oils help sharpen the brain. You can try rosemary for mental clarity and alertness, or peppermint/basil oil to reduce mental fatigue and enhance your mind’s innate ability to focus. You can use diffusers to aerate the oil or directly apply some essential oils to the skin to reap their benefits.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SLEEP AND EXERCISE FOR THE BRAIN
Ø Sleep is an important part of your daily routine—you spend about one-third of your time doing it. Quality sleep – and getting enough of it at the right times — is as essential to survival as food and water. Without sleep you can’t form or maintain the pathways in your brain that let you learn and create new memories, and it’s harder to concentrate and respond quickly.
Sleep is important to a number of brain functions, including how nerve cells (neurons) communicate with each other. In fact, your brain and body stay remarkably active while you sleep. Recent findings suggest that sleep plays a housekeeping role that removes toxins in your brain that build up while you are awake.
Everyone needs sleep, but its biological purpose remains a mystery. Sleep affects almost every type of tissue and system in the body – from the brain, heart, and lungs to metabolism, immune function, mood, and disease resistance. Research shows that a chronic lack of sleep, or getting poor quality sleep, increases the risk of disorders including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity.
Sleep is a complex and dynamic process that affects how you function in ways scientists are now beginning to understand. This booklet describes how your need for sleep is regulated and what happens in the brain during sleep.
Ø When we sleep well, we wake up feeling refreshed and alert for our daily activities. Sleep affects how we look, feel and perform on a daily basis, and can have a major impact on our overall quality of life.
To get the most out of our sleep, both quantity and quality are important. Teens need at least 8 hours—and on average 9¼ hours—a night of uninterrupted sleep to leave their bodies and minds rejuvenated for the next day. If sleep is cut short, the body doesn’t have time to complete all of the phases needed for muscle repair, memory consolidation and release of hormones regulating growth and appetite. Then we wake up less prepared to concentrate, make decisions, or engage fully in school and social activities.
Ø Sleeping is an integral part of our life, and as research shows, it is incredibly complex. The brain generates two distinct types of sleep—slow-wave sleep (SWS), known as deep sleep, and rapid eye movement (REM), also called dreaming sleep. Most of the sleeping we do is of the SWS variety, characterized by large, slow brain waves, relaxed muscles and slow, deep breathing, which may help the brain and body to recuperate after a long day.
Ø Sleep accounts for one-quarter to one-third of the human lifespan. But what exactly happens when you sleep?
Before the 1950s, most people believed sleep was a passive activity during which the body and brain were dormant. “But it turns out that sleep is a period during which the brain is engaged in a number of activities necessary to life—which are closely linked to quality of life,” says Johns Hopkins sleep expert and neurologist Mark Wu, M.D., Ph.D. Researchers like Wu are spending many of their waking hours trying to learn more about these processes and how they affect mental and physical health. Here is a glimpse into the powerful (often surprising) findings of sleep researchers—and what they’re still trying to discover about the science of sleep.
Ø It helps alleviate depression: Research shows that exercise is so effective at chasing away the blues, it can even help treat major depressive disorder. In fact, last year, researchers at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center came up with clinical guidelines for the necessary exercise “dose” doctors should recommend to patients to reap the antidepressant effects.
Ø It improves your memory: Getting your heart rate up improves blood flow to the brain, which helps boost memory and overall brain function. In one study that looked at brain structure pre- and post-workout, researchers found increases in brain volume in a number of areas after participants got sweaty. The effect is pretty noticeable, too: Patients in the study did 10 to 15 percent better on a variety of memory and attention tasks after they’d exercised.
Ø It helps you de-stress: When you’re stressed, it’s often because your to-do list is a mile long—so you probably feel like it would just be more nerve-wracking to try to squeeze in a workout on top of everything else. But here’s why you should: A study that came out last year from the University of Colorado at Boulder found that even forced exercise can help protect you from anxiety and stress. So stop making excuses, and get thee to the gym when you’re feeling frantic.
Ø It makes you more focused: After evaluating more than 100 studies on exercise, University of Iowa researchers concluded that strength training helps your focus because it requires focus: After all, it takes some serious effort to eek out those reps without sacrificing the correct form, all while remembering to breathe and tuning out the distracting guy huffing and puffing beside you.
Ø It helps you stick to your goals: In the same University of Iowa study, researchers concluded that, since cardio requires such long and consistent effort, doing a lot of it may help you develop an ability to follow through with tasks. That, in turn, can help you stick to other (non-exercise-related) goals that require long-term effort.
Ø The human brain benefits from both physical and mental exercise. Physical exercise helps the brain by improving circulation and memory, and balance, coordination and reflexes are all improved with exercise. Mental exercise can help the brain by building new neural connections, boosting memory and offsetting the debilitating effects of age and disease.
Ø In particular, exercise leads to the release of certain neurotransmitters in the brain that alleviate pain, both physical and mental. Additionally, it is one of the few ways scientists have found to generate new neurons. Much of the research done in this area has focused on running, but all types of aerobic exercise provide benefits. Although the exact nature of these benefits is still being determined, enough research has been done to provide even skeptics with a motivation to take up exercise. Exercise exerts its effects on the brain through several mechanisms, including neurogenesis, mood enhancement, and endorphin release. This paper not only examines how these mechanisms improve cognitive functioning and elevate mood states, but also proposes potential directions for future research. Furthermore, it provides an explanation for exercise’s generally non-habit forming nature, despite effects on the reward centers of the brain that mimic those of highly addictive drugs like morphine.