How to train your brain to be happy in 3 simple steps

Rewiring our brains to always seek gratitude is the first step in the search for happiness, says social scientist Dr Ali Walker.

Neuroscience tells us happiness comes from strong and lasting relationships, good health, exercise, quality sleep, social connections and strong community ties. So you’d naturally expect our brains to be wired to want those things too.

Turns out it’s not that simple.

As social scientist Dr Ali Walker explains, our wiring is designed to help us survive in an ancient reality.

“This means we tend to avoid risk and threats instead of moving towards new adventures and opportunities,” she says. “We’re wired to suppress emotions and we easily fall into limbo when faced with a multitude of choices.

“If you’re in the wild this works, but for more secure realities, it can be stifling! We stay in bad jobs and relationships, in the same house and same town. We stay working for others rather than going out on our own. We do what we have always done, instead of what makes us happy.”

We can change how we feel

The good news is we can consciously reverse our brain’s direction, to great effect.

Neuroscientist Alex Korb says using gratitude stimulates the same brain chemicals – dopamine and serotonin – as an anti-depressant.

He says familiar brain pathways are like freeways with bright lights and clear signage, while unfamiliar brain pathways are like tracks in nature that need to be walked on in order to make them clearer. It is possible but just takes conscious thought to ‘re-mind’ ourselves.

He suggests using timers each day to remind ourselves to re-set our brains to gratitude.

Putting a name to our emotions

“Our brains are designed to suppress or escape from uncomfortable emotions and conversations but confronting emotions actually makes us happier,” Dr Walker adds.

“A UCLA study in 2007 found that naming emotions lessens their intensity. Use a couple of words to describe the emotion – and preferably use symbolic language or imagery that stimulates the limbic system.”

Decision making is important

She says that because our brains are designed to scan our environment for threats, this can lead to indecision.

“Making decisions – any decisions – can make us happier than no decision at all,” she warns. “The feeling of being in limbo is much more harmful to our brains than making a choice.”

Dr Walker’s three key tips for retraining our brains:

  1. Practice gratitude.
  2. Name emotions.
  3. Make a decision.

Catch up on the full episode of The House of Wellness TV show to see more from Zoe, Ed, and the team.