Saturday, March 07, 2015

Happiness is Biochemical

Rebecca Dutton
Home After a Stroke
December 26, 2013

"Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and like Teflon for positive ones," says Rick Hanson (1, p. 41).  When we briefly notice positive experiences they slip away the way a fried egg slides out of a Teflon-coated pan.  On the other hand, the stone age brain we inherited is wired to quickly detect and store negative experiences that may be threats.

To protect us, our brains developed superfast pathways that fire without our conscious awareness, like the reflex that yanks our hand away from something hot.  A brain scan study found that an area of the brain called the amygdala lit up faster when people saw fearful faces than when they saw neutral or happy faces (2).  Subjects remembered more fearful faces than neutral or happy faces when shown the photos a second time 24 hours later.  When information is tagged as negative the amygdala tells the brain to immediately send that information to long-term memory (1).  It is good to remember that a fearful face could mean danger.  However, playing negative experiences over and in our heads is not always helpful.

My goal for being happier is not to turn into a bubbly person who does not feel angry or sad.
My goal is to balance the good and bad.  Surprisingly being happy does not require a positive attitude.  It requires concrete action.  Meditation has a positive affect on mood (3,4), but meditation requires disciple and time.  Simpler actions can change the brain.

Take 10 seconds to enjoy a happy moment (1).  I am talking about noticing a happy event I did not plan, like the parking spot I got that was close to the entrance of a crowded grocery store the day before Christmas.  Lately I have been enjoying a shower.  Sub-freezing temperatures have finally arrived so a warm shower rehydrates my dry skin and relaxes my cold muscles.  I have been standing still for 10 seconds after I get out of the shower to enjoy this luxurious feeing.  When you are happy the brain releases dopamine which helps us focus on the happy experience and build a more richly detailed positive memory.  Multiple brief episodes of happiness add up.

Get more sleep.  Sleep depravation produced only a 19% loss of negative information, but it produced a 59% loss of positive information (5).  Sleep deprived subjects recalled more negative words (e.g. cancer) than positive words 24 hours after they saw the list.  This difference occurs because of the different way these two types of information are stored.  Negative information goes immediately into long-term memory.  Positive information stays in short-term memory until the hippocampus sends it to long-term memory as we sleep.  Less sleep = fewer positive memories.

  1. Hanson R, Mendius R. Buddha's Brain. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications; 2009.
  2. Yang E, Zald D, Blake R. Fearful expressions gain preferential access to awareness during continuous flash suppression. Emotion. 2007;5:227-250
  3. Davidson R. Well-being and affective style: neural substrates and biobehavioral correlates. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 2004;359:1395-1411.
  4. Holzel B, Lazar S, Gars T, Schuman-Olivier Z, Vago, D, Ott U. How does mindfulness meditation work?  Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science.2011;6:537-539.
  5. Walker M, Stickgold R. Sleep, memory, and plasticity. Amer Rev Psychol. 2006;57:139-166.

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