Happy vs. Sad Brain: Create a Happier You With Science
Are you happy, or are you sad? We often think of these things as opposites that cancel out one another, but brain science tells a different story. Happiness and depression actually stimulate different parts of the brain. That is how we can experience those bittersweet emotions at the same time. Chronic depression can actually change the shape and structure of the brain. The good news is that you can reverse the negative changes and learn how to be more happy every day.
Your Brain on Depression
When you’re depressed or under stress, your body releases high levels of cortisol. This stress hormone can negatively affect how you think and inhibit the release of new neurons from the hippocampus. Chronic depression can lead to a shrinkage of the hippocampus, which can also lead to memory problems.
The prefrontal cortex is also affected by cortisol. This area of the brain helps you regulate emotions, form memories and make decisions. This region of the brain seems to shrink from excess cortisol. The third part of the brain that depression affects is the amygdala, the center of fear generation. The amygdala gets larger and forms more connections when excess cortisol is present.
Your Brain on Happiness
An area of the brain that has been under-researched, the precuneus, is usually very well-developed in happy people. This small area between the two halves of your brain is largely responsible for how intensely you feel happiness and sadness, and it seems to activate during periods of mindfulness. Research also shows a correlation between happiness and health. When you learn how to think positive, you can see benefits in your mental and physical health.
Reprogram Your Brain
Doing activities that influence the different parts of the brain can affect your personal happiness or depression. One exciting finding is that meditation actually increases the mass of the precuneus. This could increase the intensity of happiness you feel, which is virtually absent in a depressed person.
Another way to increase your happiness is with hugs and other types of physical touch. Human touch releases oxytocin. This hormone calms the amygdala, that place where fear and anxiety come from. Getting more hugs can actually make you feel calmer.
New research is not so much about exacting chemicals in the brain but about patterns of brain activity. Simple things like taking a moment to slow your breathing or asking for a hug can help you be happier and healthier.