Neuroscience: Defining What Makes You Happy

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Neuroscience: Defining What Makes You Happy

It is possible that our brains are lying and that our minds are seeking the wrong things / Photo by anyaberkut via 123RF


It is believed that you have to think your way out of bad feelings in order to become happy. However, this is not how the brain works. Once you are stressed and frustrated, you cannot tell yourself not to be. This cannot bring you happiness.

According to three Yale University professors at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2019 in Davos, the brain could be lying about what can make you happy. They explained the neuroscience why the pursuit for happiness can become hard for many people.

Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale University, said that there could be a problem with our minds in the sense that we might be seeking the wrong kinds of things.

It is important to understand how the brain processes happiness because today's world includes many cases of anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Based on the Global Risks Report 2019 of the World Economic Forum, structural changes impact people's lives, work, and relationships, bringing about 700 million people who are affected by mental and health problems.

Is it possible to rewire the brain to be happy? Here are possible ways to do it.

Money is not the answer

Santos said that many people think that money is the answer to happiness. According to studies, money can only make you happy up to a certain point.

A study was made by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton where they found out that in the US, as the salary increased, the emotional well being of a person also increased but it leveled off after a person got an annual income of $75,000.

Morality of money

Molly Crockett, an assistant professor of Psychology at Yale, said that how the brain perceives money depends on whether it was earned morally or not.

Crockett conducted a study where she asked the subjects to provide electronic shocks to themselves or strangers in exchange for cash. The study found out that people required twice as much money to shock a stranger than to shock themselves.

Crockett then changed the parameters of the study and told the participants that the money gained by administering shocks went to a good cause. The result of the study is that most people would personally profit from their pain than from a stranger's pain. However, if the money goes to charity, people were willing to shock another person.

"The value of money depends not just on its moral consequences," Crockett said. “It also might depend on the stories we can tell about our choices.”

Helping others

Another way to improve happiness is to do good things for others such as volunteering or doing charity.

A study was conducted by Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin, and Michael Norton. They gave participants $5 or $20 and the choice was to either spend it on themselves or others. Many said that they would feel better if they spent the money on themselves but they reported feeling better when they spent the money on others.


Social connections can also improve one's mood. Even short interactions with strangers can make one happy.

Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder conducted a study in 2014 wherein they had a set of people travel in solitude while another set spent the time on the train talking to others. Most people have said that they would be happier riding in solitude but the results showed the opposite.

Santos said that people might think solitude will make them happy but being social actually will.

The quality of our relationships plays a vital role in the brain's feelings of happiness. Spending time with friends, giving more hugs and having fun will boost your happiness. Some studies even show that getting five hugs a day for four weeks will increase your happiness by a lot.


Multitasking can make you unhappy according to Hedy Kober, an associate professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at Yale University. During multitasking, the mind wanders half of the time and it leaves you distracted and stressed.

Meditation can improve concentration and health. “Mindfulness training changes your brain," Kober said. "It changes your emotional experience, and it changes your body in a way that makes you more resilient to stress and disease.”

According to studies, happiness because of money lasts only up to a certain point / Photo by dolgachov via 123RF


Generosity and compassion

Being more generous and compassionate can improve feelings of happiness. This is actually backed by neuroscience. Neuroscientist Jordan Grafman from the National Institutes of Health did a brain-imaging study and he revealed that the pleasure centers of the brain are active when we see a kind act as opposed to being at the receiving end of charity.

The most important step for lasting happiness is emotional intelligence. Some people will prefer to have a root canal than face their feelings because it is deemed as a weakness. This avoidance can cause more problems and stress. Instead of avoiding stress and negative feelings, you should be able to practice more effective means of dealing with personal feelings to change your thoughts.



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