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Neuroscientist Alex Korb Discusses 5 Things That Will Make You Happy: Music, Smiling, Goals, Sleep, and Walking

Original Title: "Neuroscience Discovers 5 Things That Make You Happy"

Brain basic math meme Neuroscience Discovers 5 Things That Will Make You Happy


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Essentially: Being happy means making your brain happy.


So what’s going to make you happy? Let’s get more specific: what’s going to make your brain happy? And let’s focus on things that are simple and easy to do instead of stuff like winning the lottery.

Neuroscience has answers. I’ve discussed this subject before and it was so popular I decided to call an expert to get even more dead simple ways to start your brain feeling joy.

Alex Korb is a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at UCLA and author of The Upward Spiral.


Here’s what you can learn from Alex about how neuroscience can bring happiness:

  • Listen to music from the happiest time in your life: Let’s hope you had good taste when you were happiest.
  • Smile and wear those sunglasses: You don’t have to wear them indoors. That would be dumb.
  • Think about your goals: It changes how you see the world and releases happy chemicals in your noggin.
  • Get your sleep: Depressed people don’t sleep well. And people who don’t sleep well get depressed.
  • Beat procrastination by reducing stress and doing a simple thing to get started: Listen to those happy-era tunes and then assemble all the materials you need to get cranking.

And what’s that #1 thing that Alex says can start an upward spiral of happiness? It’s dead simple:

Go for a walk outside every morning, preferably with a friend.

Yup, that’s it. How can something so incredibly simple be so powerful? Here’s Alex:

I think the simplest way to kick start an upward spiral is to go for a walk outside every morning, and if possible, do it with a friend. The walk engages the exercise system and when you’re walking outside the sunlight you’re exposed to has benefits on the sleep systems and can impact the serotonin system. If you do it everyday, then it starts getting ingrained in the dorsal striatum and becomes a good habit. If you can do it with a friend, that’s even better because you get the social connection.

Right now: share this post with a friend and ask them to join you for a walk tomorrow morning. That’s it. (And wear your sunglasses.)

Go outside. Put one foot in front of the other. Smile with a friend. And you’re on your way to neuroscientific happiness.

Looks like it really is the simple things in life that bring us joy.

2) Smile — And Wear Sunglasses

The brain isn’t always very smart. Sometimes your mind is getting all this random info and it isn’t sure how to feel. So it looks around for clues. This is called “biofeedback.” Here’s Alex:

Biofeedback is just the idea that your brain is always sensing what is happening in your body and it reviews that information to decide how it should feel about the world.

You feel happy and that makes you smile. But it works both ways: when you smile, your brain can detect this and say, “I’m smiling. That must mean I’m happy.”

So happiness makes you smile, but smiling can also produce happiness. Feeling down? Smile anyway. “Fake it until you make it” can work. Here’s Alex:

That’s part of the “fake it until you make it” strategy because when your brain senses, “Oh, I’m frowning,” then it assumes, “Oh, I must not be feeling positive emotions.” Whereas when it notices you flexing those muscles on the side of the mouth it thinks, “I must be smiling. Oh, we must be happy.” When you start to change the emotions that you’re showing on your face, that changes how your brain interprets a lot of ambiguous stimuli. Since most stimuli that we experience is ambiguous, if you start to push the probability in the positive direction then that’s going to have a really beneficial effect.

In fact, research shows smiling gives the brain as much pleasure as 2000 bars of chocolate, or $25,000.

And so what’s this about sunglasses? Bright light makes you squint. Squinting looks a lot like being worried. So guess what biofeedback that produces? Yup. Your brain can misinterpret that as being unhappy.

Sunglasses kill the squint and can help tell your brain, “Hey, everything is okay.” Here’s Alex:

When you’re looking at bright lights you have this natural reaction to squint. But that often has the unintended effect of you flexing this particular muscle, the “corrugator supercilii.” Putting on sunglasses means you don’t have to squint and therefore you’re not contracting this muscle and it stops making your brain think, “Oh my God, I must be worried about something.” It’s really just a simple little interruption of that feedback loop.

4) Get Good Sleep

We all know depression messes up how people sleep. But what’s interesting is it’s actually a two way street: bad sleep also causes depression. Here’s Alex:

They took all these people with insomnia and followed them for a few years and it turned out that the people with chronic insomnia were much more likely to develop depression. Depression causes sleep problems but sleep problems are also more likely to lead to depression.

So how do you improve your sleep? Alex has a number of suggestions:

Get bright sunlight in the middle of the day. At night, try and stay in a dimly lit environment. Having a comfortable place to sleep and having a bedtime ritual so that your brain can prepare to go to sleep are also good. Trying to go to sleep at the same time every night and keeping a gratitude journal can also improve your sleep.

(To learn everything you need to know about having the best night’s sleep ever, click here.)

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