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How Happy Are You – Really?

Written by: Elizabeth Noske, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

Marci Shimoff (yes, the one who featured in The Secret many years ago and is a world-renowned transformational leader) decided to write a book on happiness. She searched the world for the happiest people she could find and reduced her research to those she referred to as the happy 100. Within this select group, she focused her research on what it is that makes them more consistently happy than the rest of us mere mortals. She condensed her findings into book form, titled Happy For No Reason – 7 Steps to Being Happy From the Inside Out. Let’s dive into the neuroscience of Marci’s ‘home for happiness’ model.

Marci uses the model of a house to help us remember the 7 secrets to living a happy life.

  • Foundation: Take responsibility for your own happiness

  • Pillar of the Mind: Take control of your thoughts

  • Pillar of the Heart: Live with an open heart

  • Pillar of the Body: Happy cells, happy body

  • Pillar of the Soul: Connect to your soul’s passion

  • The Roof: Live a life of purpose

  • The Garden: Grow your garden of relationships

Foundation: Take Responsibility For Your Own Happiness


If only 10% of our happiness set-point is due to circumstances, why are so many of us not particularly happy on a day-do-day basis? Why are so many of us ‘glass half empty’ instead of ‘glass half full’ kind of people?


Why do we prefer to blame other people and external circumstances for our state of mind rather than take responsibility for our own happiness?


Neuroscientists and psychologists agree that the ability to sustain positive emotions over time is the best way to take responsibility for our own happiness. The ventral striatum, a brain region deep in our emotional brain, has been identified as being directly related to the maintenance of positive emotions, and the self-rewarding spray of dopamine that we experience as a result of having them. Interestingly, researchers discovered that it is not just the intensity, but also the duration of the positive emotions that makes the difference. Evenly more importantly, maintaining positive emotions is within our conscious control. They also found that showing kindness and compassion towards others increases our ability to sustain and therefore enjoy our positive emotions.


Marci selected three happiness practices that encourage us to take responsibility for our own happiness.

  1. Focus on Solutions: Rate a troubling situation 1-10. Write down the things you are already doing to warrant scoring yourself as high as you did. What small steps could you take to increase your rating, even just a little?

  2. Look for the Lesson and the Gift: Recall a specific situation in which you felt wronged. From a more distant perspective, consider what part you could take responsibility for and/or how you could have done it differently. What’s the lesson for you and how might you find the higher purpose ‘gift’?

  3. Make Peace with Yourself: M-Power March is a manoeuvre courtesy of Morter HealthSystem© to re-time your body and update muscle physiology. You’ll find it on the internet.

Pillar Of The Mind: Take Control Of Your Thoughts


Dr. Richard Davidson, chair of the Center for Healthy minds and renown researcher on affective neuroscience believes that happiness is located in our left-brain hemisphere, and that when we are experiencing excitement, energy, positivity and hope the most neural activity is taking place in our left prefrontal cortex. He believes that the key to having a happy life is having a healthy mind. The research identified what happens in the brain when a person meditates and focuses on kindness, altruism, and happiness.


Using fMRI technology his team discovered that when we feel upset, stressed, or depressed, circuits that link the amygdala (our brain’s panic button) with our more conscious and logical prefrontal cortex (most specially in the right hemisphere) this brain region is highly active and in a state of hypervigilance. Whereas when we’re feeling calm, optimistic, hopeful, and relaxed the intense neuronal activity can be found in the left prefrontal cortex.


They suggested that we can ‘appease’ our over-active right frontal lobe by practicing meditation, kindness, altruism, taking some ‘me time’, nurturing friendships, maintaining motivation and enthusiasm, and staying positive and hopeful. As Dr. Davidson states, “The amazing fact is that through mental activity alone we can intentionally change our own brains” and in so doing, we can help to raise our happiness set-point.


Marci’s happiness habits to support the pillar of the mind are:

  1. Question Your Thoughts: Consider a current belief and ask yourself if it is true, how you react when you believe the thought, and who you would be without this thought. Then find three genuine examples of how a turnaround thought might be true.

  2. Go Beyond the Mind and Let Go: A powerful process excerpted from The Sedona Method, which a technique designed to help you let go of any painful or unwanted feeling in the moment.

  3. Incline Your Mind Toward Joy: Give out five Daily Happiness Awards each day, sifting through your experiences for the cutest dog, friendliest smile, most courteous service, or the best solution to a problem.

Pillar Of The Heart: Live With An Open Heart


The heart and brain communicate in four main ways. Neurologically through the nervous system, biochemically through hormones, biophysically through pressure waves, and energetically through electromagnetic field interactions. We know how quickly our heart reacts to prepare us for ‘fight or flight’ by rapidly raising our heart rate and blood pressure. Recent research indicates that the heart has its own ’logic’ that doesn’t necessarily mirror that of our central nervous system (our brain). It seems that there are documented instances of the heart having a ‘mind of its own’ and actually sending meaningful messages to the brain that are both understood and obeyed by it.


So intricate and complex is this process that researchers have named this life-sustaining organ the heart-brain, and believe that not only can it operate independently of our cranial brain, but it can also learn, remember, make decisions, and experience feelings. It seems that the philosophers and poets were right after all!


According to the Heart Math Institute, neural messages from the heart travel upwards to the medulla, hypothalamus, thalamus, and amygdala and from there to the cerebral cortex. The heart actually sends more messages to the brain, than the brain does to the heart. The heart is also a hormone gland that secretes oxytocin, the ‘love and bonding hormone’. But when we are stressed, unhappy or angry our heart’s rhythm will be more erratic and signals will be sent to the brain to obstruct our higher order cognitive functions, such as thinking, memory and concentration. This is why we think more clearly when we are happy than when depressed or upset.

Marci’s gratitude, forgiveness, and appreciation practices are a great way to strengthen the heart-brain connection.

  1. Focus on Gratitude: The Quick Coherence ® Technique releases stress and halts the draining emotions of frustration, irritation, anxiety, and anger. Check it out online.

  2. Practice Forgiveness: Think of someone about whom you are holding anger, hatred, or resentment. See them as having some pain, lack or suffering. Sit quietly with feelings of expansion and compassion.

  3. Spread Loving Kindness: Expand your capacity for compassion by first repeating the phrase, “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.” Now move onto your family and friends, using the pronoun “you” and finally someone who has upset or wronged you.

Pillar Of The Body: Happy Cells, Happy Body


I think we can all agree that the biggest robber of happiness is stress. Although we live in relative safety in our modern world, our brain continues to operate with very ancient software. It sees danger and threats to our survival around each and every corner. The amygdala sounds the alarm when we are fearful and initiates a fight or flight response to dangerous or threatening situations. It also slaps on a ‘remember this!’ sticker in our memory to ensure we avoid the situation in the future. Our hypothalamus initiates the stress response by sending a message to the pituitary gland, which passes it onto the adrenal glands, which in turn releases the stress hormone, cortisol to energize the body for a vigorous response to the perceived danger. Excessive and prolonged stress is associated with loss of appetite and compromised immunity in the short term, through to depression, anxiety, memory loss, and dementia in the long term.


Clearly, anything that reduces our stress and keeps out body healthy will be an important factor in maintaining consistently high levels of happiness. Fortunately, our brain is also a pharmacy for a range of wonderful mood and health-enhancing chemicals; including serotonin, endorphins, dopamine, and oxytocin, to name just a few. On top of everyone’s list of supporting a happy body should certainly be restful sleep, great nutrition, and energizing exercise.


The happiness habits that Marci suggests for the body include:

  1. Nourish the Body: Take the “The Mood Cure” questionnaire to ascertain your current holistic state of wellness.

  2. Energize Your Body: Try the Spring Forest Qigong – you’ll find it on the internet.

  3. Tune Into Your Body’s Wisdom: Sit quietly with eyes closed. Ask the part of the body that’s uncomfortable what it needs to feel better. You may hear an answer in your head.

Pillar Of The Soul: Connect To Your Soul’s Passion


Marci Shimoff noted that all the happy people she interviewed felt deeply connected to their souls and associated universal energies. They didn’t necessarily adhere to any specific religion or belief system, and referred to this higher energy as God, spirit, the divine, the universal or creative intelligence, to name just a few.


Does this mean that there is, or could be a ‘god spot’ in our brain and if so, where might it be located? This is by no means a modern question, but the more recent availability of fMRI’s has opened the door for neuroscientists to explore how our brain participates in experiences considered spiritual, divine, or transcendent. Although the brain comprises only 2% of our adult body weight, it consumes 20% of the body’s energy supplies. Its number one priority is to keep us alive and to ensure there is always sufficient energy to respond to an unexpected crisis, so it maintains efficiency by using the same neural pathways for different functions and tasks.


People who have had a ‘soul experience’ often report feelings of peace, joy, and pleasure. Studies show that activation occurs in the same areas of the brain as do other rewarding and pleasurable experiences, like love, sex, chocolate, and cocaine. The nucleus accumbens, which processes feelings of reward, was highly active, as was the media prefrontal cortex, which is involved in judgment and moral reasoning. The parietal cortex, involved in awareness of self and others, seems to be also activated during spiritual experiences.


Regardless of what it is called or where it is located, there are many and varied ways in which people of different times, cultures, backgrounds, and beliefs create a meaningful connection to the pillar of their soul.


Marci’s suggestions include:

  1. Light Meditation: Relax, breathe, visualize light and warmth filling your body and spend 10 minutes allowing your thoughts to flow unimpeded.

  2. Inner Listening: Sit with pen and paper. Write down a question or issue about which you require guidance and ask your inner voice to respond. Write down whatever comes to mind, whether it seems to make sense or not. Then read what you’ve written.

  3. Inviting Grace: Write a letter to your Higher Power, asking for the perfect people, places, and circumstances to be brought to you. Put it aside and check in over the days, weeks, and months to see how the universe has responded.

The Roof: Live A Life Of Purpose


We are happiest when engaged in activities that have purpose and meaning in our lives. Some of us know exactly where our passions lie; others may need to do some digging around to uncover them. But if you’re looking for that ultimate job, your dream career, or captivating activity you may be looking in the wrong place, because it is our own unique attitude and perspective towards what we are doing that creates the feeling of purpose in our lives.

Once again, we can identify the ventral striatum, which is part of the basal ganglia, a group of structures that are involved in both motivation and voluntary movements, so it is instrumental in helping us to turn our thoughts into actions. Sustained activation has a positive impact even in the absence of direct feedback, indicating that people with a higher sense of purpose are more intrinsically motivated than those seeking tangible rewards. Higher activation in the ventral striatum is also associated with lower levels of cortisol with the result that purposeful people are healthier, happier, and better able to respond to everyday stressors.


Having a purpose in life also slows down the aging process; deterioration of cognitive, memory and processing speed; and reduces the inflammation responsible for so many of our health issues. Brain scans show that purposeful people have physically different brain structurally and are also more open-minded to accept health advice.


Marci suggests the following happiness habits to help us live a life inspired by purpose:

  1. Identify Your Passion: Janet and Chris Attwood designed this exercise as a first step to getting clear about what it is that you want. They describe a three-step process to follow, which you can find online.

  2. Acting From Inspiration: Quiet your mind and ask yourself these three questions, adapted from A Course in Miracles. “What would spirit have me do? Where would spirit have me go? What would spirit have me say, and to whom?”

  3. Call to Serve Visualization: This guided or self-directed meditation is designed to connect you to universal ‘grand design’ and consider, “How am I being called to serve?”

The Garden: Grow Your Garden Of Relationships


Jim Rohan, motivational speaker and self-help guru is credited with saying, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” While you may or may not agree with this statement, research does show that we are heavily impacted by our relationships, and our connections influence our thinking, our self-esteem, and our decisions. Like a garden, we can surround ourselves by beautiful, nurturing plants or we can allow toxic weeds to flourish. Scientists describe this as the phenomenon of emotional contagion. Just as we can catch a cold from sick people, we can also catch the negativity of those around us. It’s better to surround ourselves with positive people and soak up their positivity instead.


We all need positive connections, starting from birth but also throughout our lives. Loving connections stimulate the flow of oxytocin, the bonding hormone. Our brain is actually wired for connection. We have happy hormones that encourage us to seek positive relationships; there are designated reward centers in the ventral striatum and septal areas of the brain that encourage social interactions, and pleasure centers in the nucleus accumbens so that we will repeat the rewarding behavior.


Marci suggests these practices to grow our garden of relationships:

  1. The Appreciation Practice: Take turns to share what you appreciate about another person. Repeat five times, then acknowledge something you appreciate about yourself.

  2. Find or Create a Support Group: Join a group of people you respect and trust. Have a meeting structure that includes sharing wins and accomplishments, goals, and intended actions.

  3. See the World As Your Family: Wherever you go and whatever you do, relate to other people with the care and attention you would give a loved family member. Notice how happy and peaceful you feel as a result.

Conclusion


If you are struggling to be ‘happy for no reason’ it would be fair enough to blame your brain. It takes its role in keeping you alive much more seriously than it does in making you happy. Hundreds of generations of human evolution have convinced it that it is much safer to err on the side of pessimistic negativity than it is to risk being too joyful and optimistic and thereby invite the possibility (however slight and unlikely) of being overtaken by disaster. But thanks to the brain’s neuroplasticity, it is possible to retrain our negativity bias and build an inner home for happiness. Marci’s 21 Ways to Raise Your Happiness Set-Point is a great way to start building life-long ‘glass half full’ happiness habits. Can you think of a better time to raise your happiness set-point than right now?


For more information, go to my Linktree, Facebook, and follow me on my website!


Check out my best-selling book Mindfull Parent: Parenting With the Brain in Mind


 

Elizabeth Noske, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Elizabeth is a unique parenting coach because she:

  • Made all the mistakes you could possibly make as a young mother

  • Finally got her act together and went skydiving, hiking, travelled, SCUBA dived, and played team sports with her children during their middle childhood and teenage years

  • Has formally studied the neuroscience of teaching, learning, and parenting and is passionate about sharing her knowledge, expertise, and insights with as many people as she possibly can

  • Believes that our brain has a mind of its own

  • And the only behavior we can actually change is our own

If you’d like to learn more, schedule a zoom meeting, email at hello@mindfullparent.com, book a call on Schedule Once https://go.oncehub.com/LizzyNoske, and visit her website or join her on her Facebook Page Mindful Parenting | Facebook. Her first book, Mindful Parent: Parenting With the Brain in Mind, is an easy-to-read neuro parenting book, and her Mindful Parent Turnaround Programs will support you through the process of changing your parenting habits.


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