Have you ever had a day when it feels like your brain doesn’t want to be happy? It might be because, believe it or not, guilt and shame activate the brain’s reward center. Yikes! That means some powerful neuroscience is in order to create an upward spiral of happiness in your life.

Despite their differences, pride, shame, and guilt all activate similar neural circuits. Thank goodness, pride is the most powerful of these emotions (except in one area of the brain, where guilt and shame win out.) That’s one of the reasons we practice boasting, bragging and feeling proud at heartspark.

In the short term, worrying makes your brain feel a little better — because at least you’re doing something about your problems. But guilt, shame, and worry are horrible, long-term solutions. So what do neuroscientists say you should do? Here’s their 4-part prescription for happiness.


Ask yourself this question: What am I grateful for?

Gratitude is awesome, but does it really affect your brain at the biological level? Yes, it does.

Do you know what the antidepressant Wellbutrin does? Boosts the neurotransmitter dopamine. So does gratitude. Know what Prozac does? Boosts the neurotransmitter serotonin. So does gratitude.

I know, sometimes it feels like there’s nothing to be grateful for. Guess what? It doesn’t matter. You don’t have to find anything. It’s the searching that counts.

But what happens when bad feelings completely overtake you? When you’re really in the dumps and don’t know how to deal with it? There’s an easy answer . . .


Label negative feelings

You feel awful. OK, give that awfulness a name. Sad? Anxious? Angry? It’s that simple.

In one study, participants viewed pictures of people with emotional facial expressions. Predictably, their amygdala mirrored the emotions in the picture. But when they were asked to name the emotion, it reduced the impact.

Trying not to feel something doesn’t help and in some cases even backfires or makes it worse. Labeling, on the other hand, makes a big difference. Here’s the bottom line: describe an emotion in just a word or two, and it helps reduce the emotion.

Maybe you’re not feeling awful but you probably have things going on in your life that are causing you some stress. Here’s another ritual to beat them:


Make a decision

Ever make a decision and then your brain finally feels at rest? That’s not random. Science shows that making decisions reduces worry and anxiety — as well as helping you solve problems.

But deciding can be hard. So what kind of decisions should you make?

Make a “good enough” decision. Don’t sweat making the absolute 100% best decision. We all know being a perfectionist can be stressful. And brain studies back this up.

Trying to be perfect overwhelms your brain with emotions and makes you feel out of control.
In contrast, recognizing that good enough is good enough activates more prefrontal areas, which helps you feel more in control . . . and a feeling of control reduces stress. But here’s what’s really fascinating: Deciding also boosts pleasure. Doubly good!

OK, you’re being grateful, labeling negative emotions and making more decisions. Great, but this is feeling a bit lonely for a happiness prescription. Let’s get some other people in here.


Touch people

No, not indiscriminately; that can get you in trouble. But we need to feel love and acceptance from others. When we don’t, it’s painful. And I don’t mean “awkward” or “disappointing.” I mean actually painful.

Neuroscientists did a study where people played a ball-tossing video game. The other players tossed the ball to you and you tossed it back to them. Actually, there were no other players; that was all done by the computer program.

But the subjects were told the characters were controlled by real people. So what happened when the “other players” stopped playing nice and didn’t share the ball?

Subjects’ brains responded the same way as if they experienced physical pain. Rejection doesn’t just hurt like a broken heart; your brain feels it like a broken leg.

One of the primary ways to release oxytocin (your brain’s love potion) is through touching. Obviously, it’s not always appropriate to touch most people, but even handshakes and pats on the back count. Touching is incredibly powerful. It makes you more persuasive, increases team performance, improves your flirting — it even boosts math skills.

So hug someone today. And do not accept little, quick hugs. Go for 12 to 15 seconds. Tell them your neuroscientist recommended five long hugs a day for four weeks as part of your prescription for happiness.

If this sounds like the type of conversation you would like to join into, and you live in the greater Portland metropolitan area, come on over to a heartspark Connections. Consider yourself personally invited!