There is power in positive thinking–and the power comes from you. and what you can do to have more “happy” neuro-chemicals.
SEROTONIN & POSITIVE THINKING
As far back as 2007 scientists* measured how positive thoughts change brain serotonin levels which is another key neurotransmitter in happiness. Professional actors were used since they could keep up an intense emotional state. Using a PET scan researchers found that focusing on happy memories resulted in increased uptake of the serotonin building blocks. Focusing on sad memories resulted in lower uptake. This supports the since replicated conclusion that we, by choosing to focus on happy thoughts, can self-regulate our brain’s neurotransmitters and change our brain’s chemical balance to support happiness.
DOPAMINE & MEDITATION
Another study shows why meditation makes monks among the happiest people on earth,
Dopamine is also crucial for happiness and relaxation, Researchers examined the changes in dopamine during meditation using positron emission tomography (PET) scanning on meditators. The dopamine increased significantly in an area called the basal ganglia during meditation. This is the first evidence that by focusing our thoughts, we can alter how the neurons in our brain fire, and increase dopamine release.
No prescription needed, no side-effects from medications. Your only cost is a bit of practice focusing on positive memories and thoughts or, if you are more ambitious, a bit of your time to learn to meditate.
I never thought of myself as a perfectionist because I never have done anything “perfectly”.
Are you a perfectionist? Do you, too, think you need to do your best and are hard on yourself because your best isn’t perfect?
I now have the “perfect” excuse to not be perfect. I can blame evolution.
What a relief.
Everyone has on average 400 flaws in their DNA*
“As life evolved, new abilities and new forms of life were not started anew, but grew out of what was there already. What existed just changed a bit, and those changes gave a new ability, a new advantage. Since new life was built on what already existed, the perfect solution to a new environment wasn’t always available, only what could easily develop from what already existed.”
What was workable, what was good enough, survived. Good enough meant it allowed the plant or animal to survive. And to be better than other solutions. But not necessarily perfect. So we are not perfect, and we do not need to be. We need to be good enough.
“The research gives an insight into the “flaws that make us all different, sometimes with different expertise and different abilities, but also different predispositions in diseases,” said Prof David Cooper of Cardiff University, the other lead researcher of the study.”
“Not all human genomes have perfect sequences,” he added. “The human genome is packed with pervasive, architectural flaws.”
How life evolved means we are not perfect, nothing is perfect, and we do not have to be perfect because perfect isn’t what life is about. Life is about good enough.
*The evidence comes from the 1,000 Genomes project, which is mapping normal human genetic differences, from tiny changes in DNA to major mutations.
We’re excited to let you know that we are compiling all the Happiness Hacks we’ve posted. Here’s a “hack” that that surprised us.
Mowing my lawn always makes me feel good. I’ve figured it was because I love being outside and mowing was good exercise. However, it’s a pretty small lawn and I don’t get a lot of exercise. I was surprised to read about research done at The University of Queensland in Australia finding that the smell of freshly cut grass increases feel-good neurochemistry in the brain.*
Their studies convinced the researchers cut grass smell was as powerful as well-known scents like:
lavender, cinnamon, vanilla, citrus, baby powder, pine, rose, rosemary, sunscreen and peppermint
They isolated the chemicals to create cut-grass aroma and have bottled it. You can buy cut grass smell!
. . . or you could mow your lawn. Use a push-mower to get a twofer – aerobic exercise & happy aroma.
After all, your nose is very close to your brain . . . and connected to your happiness!
*University of Queens land researchers found that the scent of cut grass works directly on the amygdala and hypo-campus and makes you happier and less stressed. They created a spray with the scent of cut grass called SerenaScent
Scientists recommend eating chocolate for tired people.
Few know that the feeling of chronic fatigue is the fact that the body makes negligibly small amount of the hormone serotonin, responsible for feelings of joy and happiness.
American scientists conducted a study and found out which product can best produce serotonin and help to cope with chronic fatigue:
Everyone knows that chocolate improves mood, because it improves the production of serotonin.
It turns out, “. . . it is bitter chocolate – just 50 grams of this delicacy, is capable of preventing physical and emotional exhaustion, and to help cope with fatigue.”
To establish the production of serotonin in your body, people need to eat every day half tiles of dark chocolate for two months.
I hate to say “I told you so” but I told you so – Walking is good for you. It’s my preferred form of exercise. Peggy and judy have found lots of studies on the benefits of walking. They asked me to promote it since I’m an expert walker:
Walking (preferably with me)
Gives you a creative lift. A study at Stanford showed a 60% increase in creative output. Researches called the kind of creativity “divergent thinking”, thinking out of the box, looking at many different possibilities. Walking lets out minds wander and this puts us in a good mental state for generating new ideas. (My Human Judy is already a “divergent thinker” . . . to a fault. Her brain hasn’t ever been able to walk a straight line)
Boosts your mood. In one study scientists saw increased energy, good mood, attentiveness and confidence with 12 minutes of walking compared to 12 minutes of sitting. (I like my human to be attentive and obedient)
Walking in nature also reduced repetitive negative thoughts (ruminating).
Improves memory. (You’ll remember that walking helps you)
Just 10 minutes of walking may relieve anxiety and improve mood as well as a workout lasting 45 minutes. (I prefer long walks but I’m all for anything that gets my human in a better mood)
If it’s raining or snowing or blowing you can use a treadmill for a walking workout.
Walking on a treadmill gives you the most benefit if you vary the speed and incline so that your heart rate is raised and lowered. Sort of like walking up and down hills, going fast some times, slow some times. Setting a high incline makes you use more energy to walk, and you can get a good cardiovascular workout without as much strain on your knees (For those of us who have 4 knees that’s important)
Interval training is a way to get the most from a workout. So whether you are outside on a trail or inside on a treadmill here’s how to do intervals. Start with a warm up warm up 5 minutes, then do an incline or speed for 3 minutes a few minutes, then back to level then 1 minute level at a walk, and repeat for about 20 minutes total. (I do interval training with Judy – I run, stop, raise my leg, run some more, stop, sniff, saunter, stop, raise my leg, run, stop, sniff, trot . . .)
Another protocol I often follow, and you can too, is to go as hard as I can for 1 minute, then sniff and walk until I recover, then go again.
Finding your target zone
My target zone is most often a tree or a post. For humans it may be different and here’s how you do it:
Find an online calculator for your target heart rate zone, or use this:
For vigorous exercise, use 70 to 85 percent of your heart rate reserve or HHR
Here is Mayo Clinics formula:
- “Subtract your age from 220 to get your maximum heart rate.
- Calculate your resting heart rate by counting your heart beats per minute when you are at rest, such as first thing in the morning. (For the average adult It’s somewhere between 60 and 100 beats per minute.)
- Calculate your heart rate reserve (HRR) – subtract your resting heart rate from your maximum heart rate.
- Multiply your HRR by 0.7 (70 percent). Add your resting heart rate to this number.
- Multiply your HRR by 0.85 (85 percent). Add your resting heart rate to this number.
- These two numbers are your training zone heart rate for vigorous intensity exercise. Your heart rate during exercise should be between these two numbers.”
For example, I’m 6 dogs years old.
Multiply that by 0.7, then add my resting heart rate,
Multiply my heart rate reserve (HHR) by 85% so 82×0.85=69.7 then add resting heart rate so 69.7+65=134.7 which is the high end of my target heart rate or training zone . . .
(I’ve computed my target zone to be 6 trees a minute.)
Freddie Parker Westerfield, CDWE
Canine Dog Walking Expert
Scientists used to think that the brain didn’t change after childhood. While it is true that our ability to learn new things is greater in our early years, it turns out our brains reorganize, physically change, and alter the function of different parts through our lives.
Each time we learn a new skill, make a new memory, rethink, respond, react, interact our brains change. Your brain is changing right now reading this post.
Why is this important?
Exercising and strengthening our brains is as important as keeping our bodies strong and limber. The way you keep your brain in good shape spends on what you pay attention to, what you think, what you feel, and how you react to your environment. You can change your brain with purpose by understanding how neuroplasticity works.
Two Main Ways You Can Drive Neuroplasticity
“Neurons that fire together, wire together.”*
Donald Hebb developed the idea that when two neurons fire at the same time repeatedly, chemical changes occur in both, so that they connect more strongly. Because neuroplasticity follows this rule, it’s fundamentally reversible. Neurons that fire together wire together, but when neurons “fire apart” their connection becomes weaker. That means your brain works on a “use it or lose it” principle. Information and behaviors that you do not use weaken and may be completely lost. This is called called “synaptic pruning.”
“It is almost just as easy to drive changes that can impair one’s memory or slow down one’s mental or physical control as it is to improve one’s memory or speed up the brain’s actions.”**
Brain change comes from external experiences
What we practice or are exposed to becomes part of our brain wiring.
Everything that happens in our life wires our brains. What we repeatedly do becomes wired – everything from muscle patterns (remember when you first learned to walk, ride a bike?), to skills (learning a native language – when’s the last time you thought about how to form a sentence?) to smiling or frowning (do you have to concentrate on each of your facial muscles to express a feeling?).
To keep our brains growing, functioning well and avoiding decline, we need to give it challenges such as learning new skills, exploring new places, changing routines and interacting with people.
Brain change comes from internal experiences
Mental & emotional exercise changes our brains too. What we think and imagine can change our brains for the better or worse. Where we focus our attention directs the synaptic connections, the brains wiring, and develops and strengthens connections.
We can purposefully and actively create the connections we want. Thoughts and images we replay in our minds create stronger connections. Make neuro-connections by thinking of things in sequence, create positive mental images, do crossword puzzles. (You already do this whenever you study for a test, read a book, rehearse what to say, worry about your future, ruminate on the past.)
Here are some proven ways to positively impact our brains:
Practicing mindfulness is learning to control your thoughts and develop ability to focus where we choose.
By decreasing stress, anxiety and depression meditation helps encourage neurogenesis (development new brain cells). This can happen in just a few weeks.
Neurons fire whether something is real or imagined. Imagining doing something is not very different from doing it in terms of brain wiring. Athletes use this to “practice” by imagining a perfect performance over and over. It helps them actually perform better. Research has validated that the practice influences physical changes from muscle strength to brain pathways.
Now that you’ve finished reading, give yourself a pat on the brain for all the new neuro-connections it has just made for you.
*neuro-scientist Carla Shatz
**Dr. Michael Merzenich, author of Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life