Emotions are habits – so pick up a good one

Part 3 of Your Brain and the Art of Happiness

All emotions if practised regularly grow in size. The Dalai Lama continually suggests that we cultivate the positive and like any good habit – you start off small but the end benefits are great. A positive state of mind is not only good for you but it also benefits everyone you come into contact with. 

Practise makes perfect 

No matter how difficult it is you must reduce your negative states of mind and increase your positive ones. The Dali Lama suggests that the occurrence of wholesome actions as against unwholesome actions is not a matter of morality or religion. It is the difference between happiness and unhappiness. Through self-training you can develop a good heart that lessens the chances that you will act in an unproductive way. 

The nature of happiness 

Don’t confuse happiness with pleasure. Pleasure is of the senses and seems like happiness but lacks meaning. Happiness in contrast rests on meaning and is often felt despite negative external conditions. It is stable and persistent. While pleasures are a bonus in live – happiness is a must! 

Happiness is not an overnight success 

Happiness is something to be developed over time. Make a decision to apply the same effort and determination that you might devote to worldly success to studying and practicing happiness. Systematic seeking after the causes and ways of happiness can be one of life’s most important decisions – like deciding to get married or embarking on a career. The alternative is drifting in an out of happiness by chance, vulnerable to unexpected attacks of unhappiness.

 The ups and downs of happiness

 The student of happiness will experience ups and downs but will be better equipped to get back to a positive state more quickly. Over time you must try to cancel out negative emotions particularly anger and hatred and replace them with tolerance and patience. The Dali Lama’s approach of cancelling out negative thoughts with positive ones has been validated by the rise of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which gets people to replace distorted modes of thinking such as ‘my life is a mess’ with more accurate ones such as ‘this part of my life is not good but a lot else is.’

 The nature of individual unhappiness

 The Dalai Lama admits that people are complex but that the western way is always to find the causes of things which he suggests can lead to a kind of agony if we don’t find an answer. We will not necessarily understand why life plays out the way it does within the scope of our lifetime. This view partly comes from his belief in reincarnation and karma but can be appreciated separately to Buddhist doctrine.

How does this philosophy fit with findings from neuroscience?

So  how does this philosophy fit with findings from neuroscience – the scientific study of the brain? I suggest that it is precisely because we may not understand everything about our existence – it is all the more important to be good to other beings and to leave the world a slightly better place. With this simple command we can unite science with humanity and know we can’t go wrong.

  

 

Your brain and the art of happiness

Last month during his visit to Ireland, the Dalai Lama addressed a capacity crowd at the University of Limerick. He spoke at length about compassion and happiness,  emphasising that we all possess the ability to achieve happiness and a meaningful life.

As a neuroscientist and educator I have had a keen interest in this area over the past 30 years and I have tried to include something of the flavour of what the Dalai Lama teaches in my own research in neuroscience – the scientific study of the brain.

In his book The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama points to four basic principles of happiness:

1. The purpose of life is happiness.
2. Happiness is determined more by the state of one’s mind than by one’s external conditions, circumstances, or events—at least once one’s basic survival needs are met.
3. Happiness can be achieved through the systematic training of our hearts and minds, through reshaping our attitudes and outlook.
4. The key to happiness is in our own hands.

Perhaps the most surprising finding is that the achievement of happiness is scientific and requires discipline. It’s no surprise to me then that the Dalai Lama in Limerick spoke of the need for more neuroscientific research into emotions and the health benefits of cultivating a more compassionate and loving outlook in life.

Over the coming week I will explore these teachings in more detail and look at ways in which we can apply them to help our brains break free from the trap of unhappiness.

How to increase serotonin in the brain without drugs

Aerobic exercise has been shown to elevate mood

As a follow-on to my last post on depression, I would like to direct you to an article I have stumbled upon from the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience (1) published in 2007.

Its primary focus is on individuals with a serotonin-related susceptibility to depression, and nonpharmacologic methods of increasing serotonin to prevent depression in those with such a susceptibility.

Nonpharmacologic methods of raising brain serotonin may not only improve mood and social functioning of healthy people — a worthwhile objective even without additional considerations — but would also make it possible to test the idea that increases in brain serotonin may help protect against the onset of various mental and physical disorders.

The article discusses four possible strategies that are worth further investigation:

1. Altering Thought Patterns

The idea that alterations in thought, either self-induced or due to psychotherapy, can alter brain metabolism is not new. Numerous studies have demonstrated changes in blood flow in such circumstances. However, reports related to specific transmitters are much less common. In one recent study, meditation was reported to increase release of dopamine.The study by Perreau-Linck and colleagues (2) is the first to report that self-induced changes in mood can influence serotonin synthesis.

2. Exposure to Bright Light

Bright light is, of course, a standard treatment for seasonal depression, but a few studies also suggest that it is an effective treatment for nonseasonal depression and also reduces depressed mood in women with premenstrual dysphoric disorder and in pregnant women suffering from depression.

3. Exercise

A third strategy that may raise brain serotonin is exercise. A comprehensive review of the relation between exercise and mood concluded that antidepressant and anxiolytic effects have been clearly demonstrated.

4. Diet

According to some evidence, tryptophan, which increases brain serotonin  is an effective antidepressant in mild-to-moderate depression. Further, in healthy people with high trait irritability, it increases agreeableness, decreases quarrelsomeness and improves mood. However, the idea, common in popular culture, that a high-protein food such as turkey will raise brain tryptophan and serotonin is, unfortunately, false. Another popular myth that is widespread on the Internet is that bananas improve mood because of their serotonin content. Although it is true that bananas contain serotonin, it does not cross the blood–brain barrier.

To read this article in full please click here.

1. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2007 November; 32(6): 394–399.

2. Perreau-Linck E, Beauregard M, Gravel P, et al. In vivo measurements of brain trapping of α-[11C]methyl-L-tryptophan during acute changes in mood states. J Psychiatry Neurosci 2007;32:430-4.