Epilepsy Talk

New Neuroscience Reveals 3 Rituals That Will Make You Happy | April 12, 2020

UCLA neuroscience researcher Alex Korb has some insights that can create an upward spiral of happiness in your life.

Here’s what you and I can learn from the people who really have answers:

The Most Important Questions to Ask When You Feel Down

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like your brain wants you to be happy. You may feel guilty or shameful. Why?

Believe it or not, guilt and shame activate the brain’s reward center.

Despite their differences, pride, shame, and guilt all activate similar neural circuits, including the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, insula, and the nucleus accumbens.

Interestingly, pride is the most powerful of these emotions at triggering activity in these regions — except in the nucleus accumbens, where guilt and shame win out.

This explains why it can be so appealing to heap guilt and shame on ourselves — they’re activating the brain’s reward center.

And you worry a lot too. Why? In the short term, worrying makes your brain feel a little better — at least you’re doing something about your problems.

In fact, worrying can help calm the limbic system by increasing activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and decreasing activity in the amygdala.

That might seem counterintuitive, but it just goes to show that if you’re feeling anxiety, doing something about it — even worrying — is better than doing nothing.

But guilt, shame and worry are horrible long-term solutions. So what do neuroscientists say you should do? Ask yourself this question:

1) What am I grateful for?

Yeah, your gratitude is awesome… but does it really affect your brain at the biological level? Yup.

You know what the antidepressant Wellbutrin does? Boosts the neurotransmitter dopamine.

So does gratitude.

The benefits of gratitude start with the dopamine system, because feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine.

Additionally, gratitude toward others increases activity in social dopamine circuits, which makes social interactions more enjoyable…

Know what Prozac does? Boosts the neurotransmitter serotonin.

So does gratitude.

One powerful effect of gratitude is that it can boost serotonin.

Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life.

This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex.

I know, sometimes life lands a really mean punch in the gut and it feels like there’s nothing to be grateful for.

Guess what?

It doesn’t matter. You don’t have to find anything. It’s the searching that counts.

It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place.

Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence.

One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex.

These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient.

With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.

And gratitude doesn’t just make your brain happy — it can also create a positive feedback in your relationships.

So express that gratitude to the people you care about.

2) Label negative feelings

You feel awful. Okay, give that awfulness a name. Sad? Anxious? Angry?

Boom. It’s that simple. Sound stupid? Your noggin disagrees.

In one fMRI study, appropriately titled “Putting Feelings into Words” participants viewed pictures of people with emotional facial expressions.

Predictably, each participant’s amygdala activated to the emotions in the picture.

But when they were asked to name the emotion, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activated and reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity.

In other words, consciously recognizing the emotions reduced their impact.

Suppressing emotions doesn’t work and can backfire on you.

A study found that people who tried to suppress a negative emotional experience failed to do so.

While they thought they looked fine outwardly, inwardly their limbic system was just as aroused as without suppression, and in some cases, even more aroused.

Kevin Ochsner, at Columbia, repeated these findings using an fMRI.

Trying not to feel something doesn’t work, and in some cases even backfires.

But labeling, on the other hand, makes a big difference.

Strategies For Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long: 

To reduce arousal, you need to use just a few words to describe an emotion, and ideally use symbolic language.

Which means using indirect metaphors, metrics, and simplifications of your experience.

This requires you to activate your prefrontal cortex, which reduces the arousal in the limbic system.

Here’s the bottom line: describe an emotion in just a word or two, and it helps reduce the emotion.

Ancient methods were way ahead of us on this one.

Mediation has employed this for centuries. Labeling is a fundamental tool of mindfulness.

In fact, labeling affects the brain so powerfully it works with other people too.

Labeling emotions is one of the primary tools used by FBI hostage negotiators.

Okay, hopefully you’re not reading this and labeling your current emotional state as “Bored.”

Maybe you’re not feeling awful but you probably have things going on in your life that are causing you some stress.

Here’s a simple way to beat them…

3) Make That Decision

Ever make a decision and then your brain finally feels at rest? That’s no random occurrence.

Brain science shows that making decisions reduces worry and anxiety — as well as helping you solve problems.

Making decisions includes creating intentions and setting goals — all three are part of the same neural circuitry and engage the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, reducing worry and anxiety.

Making decisions also helps overcome striatum activity, which usually pulls you toward negative impulses and routines.

Finally, making decisions changes your perception of the world — finding solutions to your problems and calming the limbic system.

But deciding can be hard. I agree. So what kind of decisions should you make?

Neuroscience has an answer…

Make a “good enough” decision. Don’t sweat making the absolute 100% best decision.

We all know being a perfectionist can be stressful. And brain studies back this up.

Trying to be perfect overwhelms your brain with emotions and makes you feel out of control.

Trying for the best, instead of good enough, brings too much emotional ventromedial prefrontal activity into the decision-making process.

In contrast, recognizing that good enough is good enough activates more dorsolateral prefrontal areas, which helps you feel more in control.

As Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz said in an interview with him: “Good enough is almost always good enough.”

So when you make a decision, your brain feels you have control.

And, as I’ve talked about before, a feeling of control reduces stress. But here’s what’s really fascinating: Deciding also boosts pleasure.

Actively choosing caused changes in attention circuits and in how the participants felt about the action, and it increased rewarding dopamine activity.

Want proof? No problem. Let’s talk about cocaine.

You give 2 rats injections of cocaine. Rat A had to pull a lever first.

Rat B didn’t have to do anything. Any difference? Yup: Rat A gets a bigger boost of dopamine.

So they both got the same injections of cocaine at the same time, but rat A had to actively press the lever, and Rat B didn’t have to do anything.

And you guessed it — rat A released more dopamine in its nucleus accumbens.

So what’s the lesson here? Next time you buy cocaine… whoops, wrong lesson.

Point is, when you make a decision on a goal and then achieve it, you feel better than when good stuff just happens by chance.

And this answers the eternal mystery of why dragging your butt to the gym can be so hard.

If you go because you feel you have to or you should, well, it’s not really a voluntary decision.

Your brain doesn’t get the pleasure boost. It just feels stress. And that’s no way to build a good exercise habit.

Interestingly, if they are forced to exercise, they don’t get the same benefits, because without choice, the exercise itself is a source of stress.

So make more decisions.

Neuroscience researcher Alex Korb sumps it up nicely: “We don’t just choose the things we like; we also like the things we choose.”

Okay, you’re being grateful, labeling negative emotions and making more decisions. Great.

But this is feeling kinda lonely for a happiness prescription. Let’s get some other people in here.

What’s something you can do with others that neuroscience says is a path to mucho happiness?

And something that’s stupidly simple so you don’t get lazy and skip it? Brain docs have an answer for you…

The Most Important Question To Ask When You Feel Down

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like your brain wants you to be happy. You may feel guilty or shameful.


Believe it or not, guilt and shame activate the brain’s reward center.

Okay, I don’t want to strain your brain with too much info.

Let’s round it up and learn the quickest and easiest way to start that upward spiral of neuroscience-inspired happiness…

Sum Up

Here’s what brain research says will make you happy:

Ask “What am I grateful for?” No answers? Doesn’t matter. Just searching helps.

Label those negative emotions. Give it a name and your brain isn’t so bothered by it.

Decide. Go for “good enough” instead of “best decision ever made on Earth.”

So what’s the dead simple way to start that upward spiral of happiness?

Just send someone a thank you email. If you feel awkward about it, you can send them this post to tell them why.

This really can start an upward spiral of happiness in your life.

UCLA neuroscience researcher Alex Korb explains:

“Everything is interconnected.

Gratitude improves sleep.

Sleep reduces pain.

Reduced pain improves your mood.

Improved mood reduces anxiety, which improves focus and planning.

Focus and planning help with decision making.

Decision making further reduces anxiety and improves enjoyment.

Enjoyment gives you more to be grateful for, which keeps that loop of the upward spiral going.

Enjoyment also makes it more likely you’ll exercise and be social, which, in turn, will make you happier.”

So thank you for reading this. And pass it on.

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Resource:  https://www.bakadesuyo.com/2015/09/make-you-happy-2/



Posted in Tips
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  1. How about hugging a sweet, furry kitty or two! 😂

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by catsissie — April 12, 2020 @ 11:49 AM

  2. This is just right, Phylis! Thanks.

    Under Item 2), though, “Medication has employed this for centuries.” You meant “meditation”, maybe?

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by HoDo — April 12, 2020 @ 2:04 PM

    • OMG. How embarrassing. Thanks. I just changed it, HoDo.

      I owe you one! 🙂


      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — April 12, 2020 @ 2:09 PM

      • At one place where I worked, they gave me a badge that read, “I pick nits.” And nothing is owed, it’s an easy slip to have made. In fact reinforces the thought that perfection isn’t needed.

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by HoDo — April 12, 2020 @ 2:17 PM

      • Picking “nits” is a good thing.

        Thanks for picking my “nit”. 🙂

        That was much needed!


        Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — April 12, 2020 @ 2:30 PM

    • Lol 😂 me and meditation can’t seem to sit still together long enough!! 😂😂😂😂😂. Funny because me and 2000 piece puzzles could!! Lol 😂

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Kathy S.B — April 18, 2020 @ 10:59 PM

      • Meditation, no. 3D puzzles. no. I just don’t have the concentration. 😦

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — April 18, 2020 @ 11:24 PM

      • You maybe amazed at how much a “SIMPLE PUZZLE” can bring people and or a family together!! Lol 😂 they ALL SAY THE SAMETHING AS WELL!! Then they all VERY SLOWLY make their way to the table or I catch my husband at the table early in the morning!! 😂😂. I thought a 3D Puzzle would be NO PROBLEM!! Until I got one. Lol that’s when and how I began to realize MAYBE EVEN I’M OCD!!!!!!! Lol 😂 😂😂😂😂

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by Kathy S.B — April 18, 2020 @ 11:49 PM

  3. Gratitude for me starts with waking up, waking up in a bed, waking up in my own bed, thinking a gratitudinous thought. Mind is working. Body rolls over. I didn’t have to wake up perfectly or think perfectly or roll over perfectly (just carefully).

    To those of you who decline to draw pictures of your seizing or calm brains, or of your emotions, consider. A picture of an emotion can help when naming is hard. A picture of a brain under stress can lead you to emotions. Not perfect pictures. (End of sermonette.)

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by HoDo — April 12, 2020 @ 2:14 PM

    • A good sermonette. And not to sound trite: A picture is worth a thousand words.


      Gratitude is the Attitude… https://epilepsytalk.com/2016/11/24/gratitude-is-the-attitude/

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — April 12, 2020 @ 2:34 PM

    • You know HoDo I like building and doing physical work but for some reason if I were to have to sit down and actually draw a picture or “blueprint” of what I’m planning on building my brain goes “HUH”?! I just always learnt by listening and watching then trying myself. I know that may sound weird, but I built our fence and my husband actually backed into it!! Lol it hurt the car more than the fence!!!!! 😂😂😂😂😂

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Kathy S.B — April 19, 2020 @ 12:00 AM

  4. So TEXTING & E-MAILS are the only ways to tell or say something to someone ? What ever happened to using a REAL telephone, even one with a rotor dial to it ? Those phones you could not walk a mile or drive 100 away from the phone setting it is on, as it had a cord connected to the jack into the wall & it stayed there. With phone like we USE to have, you only were focused on the person on the other end of the line. Today’s world a phone is used for everything else but talking to someone who may need to hear your voice & BOOST their dopamine. instead of them taking drugs that depletes it. But when bad drugs like KEPPRA are taken 7 days a week, nothing much will change low dopamine & serotonin levels. Lobelia can help both, even my neurologist tells me that now.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by James D — April 12, 2020 @ 4:06 PM

    • I agree. The funny part to this situation we are all in is we have to “social distance”. Normally I have absolutely no problems distancing, but the minute I am told “YOU HAVE TO (anything)” a part of me goes “OH REALLY?!” Lol 😂. My mother inlaw lives next door to us and normally we’re almost always together as a family. But the minute we were made to stay home I think her and my children ALL TURNED I TO “REBELS”!! I chuckled and told them (YES ALL OF A SUDDEN I FELT VERY WISE!! Lol) “when we were little we used to dream of seeing the person we were talking to on the other side of the phone!! Now you can people!!!!! It’s called “FACETIME” 😘”. If I had FaceTime with some of you I would “FaceTime you 😃”.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Kathy S.B — April 18, 2020 @ 11:09 PM

  5. Good point James.

    In today’s day of texting, no one even thinks of the telephone.

    And while we’re at it, what about letter writing???


    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — April 12, 2020 @ 4:16 PM

  6. There’s something to be said for online anonymity, which allows us freedoms we didn’t have with telephones. I cherish my snail mail friends, and some telephoning. But my heart also lifts at a text from someone whose (seemingly) only method of communication is by text.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by HoDo — April 12, 2020 @ 4:21 PM

  7. I for one, am not for anonymity. I like to know who I’m communicating with.

    (Sorry if I’m offending anyone.)

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — April 12, 2020 @ 4:42 PM

    • Well, we sort of ARE anonymous here, aren’t we? I mean, you actually know very little about me. I don’t even have a facebook page.

      Liked by 2 people

      Comment by HoDo — April 12, 2020 @ 4:58 PM

      • Lol I have one (my husband and children demanded I “COME INTO THE NEW MILLENNIUM!!) and made me my own Facebook account 😂. However I very rarely use it or since I got my IWATCH I rarely use my cellphone now as well!!

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by Kathy S.B — April 18, 2020 @ 11:13 PM

      • I’m on 12 epilepsy Facebook pages (plus there’s one for Epilepsy Talk).

        And, I’m tethered to my cell phone.

        It basically has my life, communications and all the news that I read. Which is a lot!

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — April 18, 2020 @ 11:26 PM

      • HOLY 12 EPILEPSY FB PAGES!!!!!!! It’s funny because I primarily get on to check my email and your “EPILEPSY TALK” articles. But somehow after having my IWATCH I forget to grab my cellphone as well and end up forgetting about both of them sometimes.

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by Kathy S.B — April 18, 2020 @ 11:54 PM

      • I may just have to log in and try and find one of your groups or even yourself!! Lol if I could remember my password lol 😂. If you had an iPhone I’d message you that way too!! Just so I could actually see your being 😊🦅💕. After I got my Major concussions I found/find it easier to listen. However I do appreciate and enjoy learning from your group as well 😊

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by Kathy S.B — April 19, 2020 @ 12:17 AM

      • I DO have an iPhone. But I think unless you call me from Facebook, the costs are prohibitive. (I made that mistake calling the U.K. last night.)

        I think it’s country code (1) 610-517-7576.

        You can find my private page on Phylis Feiner Johnson.

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — April 19, 2020 @ 10:13 AM

      • Goodevening Phylis 😊. THANK YOU 😃. I’ll try that and see how it goes then 😊. Wow do I ever need the “Hair Salon” to OPEN SOON!!!!! Or I’m going to cut my OWN HAIR!! Lol 😂

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by Kathy S.B — April 19, 2020 @ 1:54 PM

  8. Exactly. But I’d still like to know who you are.


    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — April 12, 2020 @ 5:00 PM

    • So would I, Phylis. So would I. My psycho-therapist and I have gotten to, “You are not your brain,” and somewhat beyond that. Right now, however, due to a plethora (or, as we grateful people say, a bouquet) of personal and medical issues, there is no true answer or picture I could give you. No perfect picture? A blur. Yet, as you say, it’s the process that counts. Thank you.

      Liked by 2 people

      Comment by HoDo — April 12, 2020 @ 6:35 PM

  9. The process is much more meaningful than perfect. I think I understand.


    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — April 12, 2020 @ 7:14 PM

  10. Lol 😂 in all honesty I can’t sit still long enough for “mediation”. Better to be honest than sorry.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Kathy S.B — April 18, 2020 @ 11:15 PM

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    About the author

    Phylis Feiner Johnson

    Phylis Feiner Johnson

    I've been a professional copywriter for over 35 years. I also had epilepsy for decades. My mission is advocacy; to increase education, awareness and funding for epilepsy research. Together, we can make a huge difference. If not changing the world, at least helping each other, with wisdom, compassion and sharing.

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