Neuroscience Says This Is The Formula For True Happiness

April 25, 2018

This article was originally published on February 13, 2017.

Neuroscience Says This Is The Formula for Happiness

In any given moment, we can exist in one of two states: peace or conflict. Peace could be considered a by-product of acceptance. You might not necessarily revel in your reality, but if you’re at peace, it means that you’re not trying to fight it. There’s a way of striving for something else without resisting what you’re experiencing. Conflict, on the other hand, is a state of complete resistance. And this often derives from lack of understanding.

Carrying this concept forward, we can begin to see that understanding is like Advil when it comes to conflict and resistance. It kills pain. And it does this by allowing us to experience the reality of another person. It softens our judgment and stubbornness.

When we put ourselves in another’s shoes, we understand why they are fighting for the values they hold dear. It is then that opposing views can be compromised with thoughtful debate rather than brute force.

Just as conflict and resistance arise in situations external to us, they also arise within us. Happiness feels like an intangible feather at times, forever floating away on a breeze. But using the aforementioned logic, an important tool to utilize is that of understanding. Specifically, I’m referring to our biological makeup.

Composed of millions of cells, we are truly remarkable organisms. Complex as we are, there’s a lot to learn when it comes to having a good understanding of how we operate. No area could be considered more complicated than the brain. It controls everything we have done, are doing, and will ever do.

Our brain is a beauty but at times can also be a beast. It can sometimes feel like it runs the show. To avoid this spin cycle, stop what you’re doing right now and get ready to learn about true mental well-being by a world-leading neuroscientist.

Happiness and lasting well-being depend on four circuits in the brain, according to world-renowned neuroscientist Richard Davidson. Famous for his studies on Buddhist monks and work with the Dalai Lama, Davidson observed that happiness relies upon four pillars working in harmony.

  1. Our ability to maintain positive states. How do you maintain something? You observe it and give it what it needs. We can think of maintenance as caring actions. By observing what is required, our ability to maintain a positive state becomes more responsive.
  2. Our ability to recover from negative states. We all experience situations throughout our lives that induce a negative mental state. It’s unavoidable because we are emotional beings. However, what counts is the ability to recover from these. How easily can you return to a positive state?
  3. Our ability to focus and avoid “mind-wandering.” This is where meditation comes in. It’s so easy with distraction after distraction to become lost in the mind, taking on every thought as if it is the definition of you. This simply isn’t true. A thought is nothing more than an opinion. The ability to focus the mind and use it in a way that benefits you is what’s important.
  4. Our ability to be generous. This is perhaps the least talked about–at least in the research I’ve done. Happiness is unobtainable if a portion of your energy is not focussed on generosity and helping others. It’s ingrained into our very core and thus should not be denied. It feels good and it does good to help another person, so how can you start acting on this?

Davidson had built his career on studying the brain in relation to complex and difficult feeling states such as anxiety and depression, trying to understand how it all works. But it wasn’t until he was questioned by His Holiness the Dalai Lama that he switched his focus not on understanding the negative mental states but rather the positive states such as that of kindness and compassion.

An experiment took place observing the brains of Buddhist monks who were asked to fluctuate their mental states between one of meditation (a state of love and compassion in this instance) and one that could be considered more neutral. What was observed was incredible plasticity of the brain. Interestingly, during the meditative state, the anterior insula of the brain was lit up. This part of the brain is deeply connected to many different organ systems, along with our immune and endocrine systems. Wellbeing of these can come when one is in a compassionate frame of mind.

Davidson went on to discover that changing your brain circuits can change your emotions. This is very positive news to those who feel that happiness is simply unachievable.

Realizing these four pillars, what steps can you take today to delve more in the direction of the Dalai Lama rather than down in the dumps? First, embrace mindfulness. Learn to focus your mind through the practice of meditation. Secondly, pour your energy into helping others. This can be as little as giving your undivided attention through the practice of listening to them when they speak or as large as starting a new volunteering project. Practice these two, and you will be on your way to maintaining positive states for longer and recovering from negative states more quickly.

Have you tried this formula for happiness?

Also by Kat: 5 Life-Changers that Won’t Cost a Dime

Related: Why Millennials Desperately Need Mindfulness More Than Any Other Generation

Hygge–Is the Buzzy Danish Practice the Secret to Happiness?

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Kat Kennedy is an Arizona-based physiology doctoral student and holistic health advocate writing about science, health, and her experiences as a third culture kid and global nomad. She's @sphynxkennedy everywhere.


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