Depending on your day, it can be hard to focus on happiness, sometimes. By definition, happiness is a state of well-being, joy, or contentment. It can be a sense of satisfaction after completing a job or a task. Or the positive feeling you get after helping others. Because happiness means different things to different people, it often feels like an elusive emotion that is difficult to attain.
Neurologically, happiness is the release of chemicals in your brain. Specifically, dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins all contribute to the feelings associated as happiness. This means there are things you can do every day to help increase the release of these chemicals. In turn, this will elevate your overall feeling of happiness.
1: Engage in physical activities
The fact is, physical activities—aerobic or anaerobic—have multiple positive effects on the brain. It improves blood flow, and a well-oxygenated brain functions better. Exercise also helps the brain produce endorphins, a neurochemical that not only helps elevate mood but helps decrease pain as well. In addition, not only does exercise release dopamine, regular exercise can increase the amount of dopamine receptors in your brain.
Over time, exercise changes the brain’s structure by growing new neurons, specifically in the hippocampus. This is the region of the brain associated with emotions, learning, and memory. Restructuring the hippocampus helps stabilize your moods and leave you feeling emotionally balanced throughout the day. When you feel better, it’s easier to focus on happiness.
The good news is that you can gain these benefits by doing as little as ten minutes of exercise a day. If getting exercise is a new habit, start small. Doing things like taking the stairs whenever possible or parking at the end of a parking lot instead of upfront are great examples of starting small. Maybe walk around the block or in the park during your breaks or after work. Of course, if it’s too cold or you prefer to stay indoors, you can jump rope, do jumping jacks, practice yoga, do push-ups, or any other activities that elevate the heart rate while you move around.
2: Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is when you center yourself in the present moment, so that you can assess your actions and thoughts without judgment. This sounds more complicated than it is. You can meditate, do deep-breathing exercises, say affirmations, focus on your body, and avoid multitasking for short, deliberate periods of time either daily or weekly.
When you engage in mindfulness for at least five minutes a day, it helps rewire your brain. Meditation in particular helps shrink the amygdala, the region of the brain that is tied directly with your sympathetic nervous system and triggers your fight-or-flight response. Stress increases the amygdala which makes you more susceptible to reacting to situations with fear or anxiety. By shrinking the amygdala, you become more open to reacting to the same situations with a calmer outlook.
Practicing mindfulness also reduces the levels of cortisol in your brain. Cortisol is the stress hormone that can disrupt your sleep patterns, cause your moods to become volatile, and decrease your productivity. Mindfulness increases dopamine and serotonin, which lower cortisol levels. It also increases your brain’s production of melatonin, which stabilizes your sleep schedule.
3: Sleep better
Getting seven to eight hours of sleep daily helps keep the brain functioning effectively. If you don’t get enough quality sleep, it can lead to sleep deprivation, and a sleep-deprived brain affects your cognitive functionality, making it difficult to pay attention, make decisions, and think critically. This then works to diminish your focus and eradicate your productivity.
To sleep better and enjoy the benefits of a good night’s sleep, avoid using phones or other devices in bed. Screens emit blue light, which is the same wavelength as sunlight. This sends a signal to your brain that it’s still daytime, raising cortisol and inhibiting the production of melatonin. Without melatonin, it’s difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep, and your overall sleep-wake cycle will be disrupted leaving you groggy and tired in the morning.
Other ways to help ensure you’re getting the right amount of quality sleep, is by setting up your bedroom to be sleep-friendly. Keeping your bedroom clutter-free helps your brain relax so you can fall asleep faster. You can put up curtains to keep light out or use a sleep mask to help block light that could wake you up. To alleviate noise, you can listen to calming sounds or use ear buds. All of these are small ways that can help you fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and get more deep sleep to rejuvenate your body and brain.
4: Practice gratitude
Gratitude helps you appreciate the value and importance of the people in your lives and the things you have. When you reflect on these things, it helps raise your feeling of satisfaction. This is more than simply being thankful. Gratitude is also engaging in behaviors of giving and generosity.
When you feel gratitude, your brain activates your ventral and dorsal prefrontal cortex. These areas are responsible for your emotional responses, and enhance things like bonding and morality. It also is a key element in your reward system, helping to strengthen your habits. Every time you’re grateful, your reward system is activated, which motivates you to engage in this behavior again.
You can actively practice gratitude in multiple ways. Keeping a gratitude journal, where you write down what you’re grateful for every day keeps you focused on the more positive aspects of your lives. You can also make more of an effort to express gratitude to people in your life on a regular basis. Making the commitment to say thank you or otherwise show your appreciation to one person a day is an easy way to practice gratitude daily.
5: Build and embrace self-love
Self-love is when you not only believe in yourself, it’s also when you make your well-being a top priority. And it goes beyond simply saying you have confidence in yourself or believing in yourself. Building self-love means you take actions to support your physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual growth.
One of the most important things you can do is practice self-care. This means taking time to nurture yourself throughout the week. Doing things like taking a relaxing bath, getting a massage, practicing meditation, or engaging in creative endeavors or hobbies can help relax and restore your well-being.
Other ways to build self-love is to create boundaries and uphold them. These can be to maintain your work-life balance and protect your emotional well-being in all relationships. You can remind yourself of your value, pay attention to what you’re afraid of, and work on overcoming those obstacles, stop comparing yourself to others, and allow yourself to make mistakes. By taking the time to take care of yourself, you’re giving your brain the rest and resources it needs to be emotionally balanced and physically rejuvenated.
The path to happiness is attainable for everyone. By creating daily habits that promote neurochemical responses in your brain you can help promote your emotional well-being every day. A healthy brain is a happy brain, and that allows you to reach your truly limitless potential in the New Year and beyond.
For more on how to focus on happiness, watch this episode: