The Happy Brain

Happiness isn’t stored in the brain like a gold bullion in a treasure chest, just waiting for someone with the right key to turn up and spend it, The human brain never has been, and never will be, as simple, straightforward and consistent as that. It turns out there are plenty of things that do stimulate our brain in just the right way to make us happy, but each of these comes with caveats and limitations.

– Dean Burnett, The Happy Brain

I recently read a book called The Happy Brain by Dean Burnett, which was all about ‘The Science of Where Happiness Comes From, and Why’, and I can honestly say it’s one of the most interesting books I have read. Not that I have read a lot of non-fiction, but I have always loved learning, whether that be through school or watching videos, or now, reading books. The book looks at the inner workings of the brain and how it responds to different aspects of our lives, such as our homes, work, friendships and relationships, sex, etc. in order to achieve happiness. I would consider myself a happy person, and I always seem to find myself surrounded by people who just aren’t happy, and it made me wonder what specifically makes me happier than others. I didn’t really know why I was happy, I just was, and I was wondering whether this book would answer a few of those questions for me, or at least suggest some possible reasons. I would say it did to a certain extent, but happiness is not one-dimensional and it is not as simple as we may wish it were. It is different for every person and an incredibly complex notion. This book gives a very interesting scientific perspective on happiness, but different types and forms of happiness can be found in all areas of the brain, so there really isn’t a single thing to pinpoint.

However, it certainly did give some ideas towards the questions about what makes a person happy. I’m not going to recount the entire book, if you’re interested I suggest you read it because, well, I’m no scientist. But here are 20 things I learned and/or found interesting that I wanted to recount.

  1. The fear of novel/unfamiliar things more comes from the fear of not being able to get away from them.
  2. Interactions with nature and biodiversity has a positive impact on the brain. Our brains attention system is very active when around groups of people and things to focus on, which can be very stressful for the brain. When around nature and greenery, our attention and brains can wander more, giving our brains a break from directed attention and allowing us to rest and restore. Rich, green environments, biologically are full of resources and life, which the brain responds very positively to. 
  3. The same brain regions that are used to process our sense of self and personality are also used in recognising our possessions and property. So our possessions, especially ones we have a particular attachment or connection to, are recognised by the brain as an extension of ourself and our personality.
  4. The psychological theory of ‘place identity’ states that people give such meaning and significance and have formed such an emotional bond to certain places, that they consider them to have influenced their sense of self and would deem those places a ‘part of them’. Essentially, you learn to identify with a certain place or a certain type of place, so finding other places, say a new home, that has similar characteristics with those you identify with can bring immediate sensations of comfort and happiness.
  5. Physical activity has many positive effects on the brain. Firstly, your brain works better with more physical activity due to the fact exercise strengthens and improves the heart, ultimately resulting in increased supply of blood and nutrients to the brain, improving its performance. Not only that, exercise also releases endorphins which are named the ‘happiness chemical’. 
  6. The brain doesn’t like effort that amounts to nothing and our perception of things is altered to avoid unnecessary effort. A negative frame of mind means the brain views certain activities as more difficult, scary or unpleasant. A hill may seem steeper, a small spider may seem ginormous to someone who has a fear. Basically, if the brain decides it doesn’t approve of something, our perception of it is altered to discourage us from it. I think this explains why, if you’re having a bad day and you’re in a negative mindset about it, everything that happens seems to go badly and even small things go wrong, even if usually you wouldn’t see it as a big deal at all.
  7. The brain uses our emotions to construct a representation of a situation before us. 
  8. It is suggested that our brains hold two images of ourselves. Our ‘ought’ self and out ‘ideal self’. Our ideal self, as the name states, is an ideal version of ourselves we wish to work towards and one day embody. A goal, basically. Our ‘ought’ self represents what the brain thinks we ‘ought’ to be doing in this current moment in order to work towards achieving the goal presented by our ideal self. These two images we hold of ourselves work together in helping us achieve happiness, because if what we are doing is something that is a step towards our ideal self, we are going to be much happier than if what we’re doing has nothing to do with our goals.
  9. ‘Happiness’ is an all-encompassing word to describe different types of happiness. Satisfaction or contentment is one, while productive, motivation, upbeat and cheerful happiness is another. The latter takes a lot of effort for the brain and can prove to be exhausting if this is exhibited by a person at all times. This can actually be detrimental if someone is trying to keep this up as the brain can prioritise it over other things, which can have a negative effect.
  10. We don’t need to be happy all the time. We are supposed to be while doing things we enjoy or when good things happen, but insisting on perpetual happiness prevents us from experiencing a much wider range of emotions, all of which we are meant to feel. It is unbalanced for the body and brain to only ever feel one emotion. Constant happiness is work, and is also entirely unnatural for the brain. 
  11. Humans enjoy positive social interactions and are compelled to seek them out and forming and maintaining successful relationships is a good source of happiness. It is important to the brain that we conform and belong and to be accepted by those around us. However, who is accepting us is more important than how many. 
  12. We often use little information we have to create an image of someone we may fancy that is considerably more attractive and flattering, as the brain perceives the situation as potentially rewarding, colouring our perception of said person accordingly. However, the brain creates an optimistic bias for this person or anything else we like or love, which also shuts down our fault finding flaws. So a person we love or like really can appear flawless to us even if others see otherwise. 
  13. Our brain creates a mental model of how it thinks the world works formed from our experiences, memories, attitudes, beliefs, priorities etc.
  14. A romantic relationship isn’t static, because life isn’t. Life keeps happening, we have to continue living and dealing with different things, so we continue to change, as can a relationship, which is why some of them just won’t last forever. Sometimes people just go in different directions. 
  15. The things we assume will make us happy (and can do so) can also make us incredibly unhappy if we focus on them too much, rendering happiness often self-defeating. 
  16. We are thirty times more likely to laugh in a crowd than alone.
  17. Humour and laughter evolved for many reasons. One theory is that laughter is a way of signalling approachability, safety or friendliness to those around us, making people more inclined to interact with us than if we were silent and brooding. Ultimately, laughter encourages interactions. Humour and laughter also creates a way to express conflict in a safe and socially acceptable way, allowing us to laugh about a situation that may otherwise be tense. Basically, humour provides positive reinforcement in social situations and makes us more attractive to others, as well as spreads positivity within a group and encourages and rewards harmony. We are thirty times more likely to laugh in a group than on our own because.. well.. thats what it’s for!
  18. Our brain often suppresses and downplays past experiences that were perhaps regrettable, in order to preserve or ensure happiness, as dwelling on flaws and mistakes is very damaging for our confidence and wellbeing. 
  19. The brain only properly absorbs and retains information that is truly interesting and rewarding for us. So if it isn’t something that contributes to our aspirations or passions, the brain views it as unnecessary intangible information with few emotional or stimulating elements. Basically the brain needs to like what it is experiencing in order to retain it as a memory. 
  20. Humans have an embedded sense of social hierarchy, and while we have a need (or rather a fundamental wish) to be liked, we also want to be admired and looked up to. We have a deeply embedded, instinctive need to be better than others, which is one of the darker sides of happiness.