The Neuroscience of Happiness

I wanted to share some ah-ha's I experienced while listening to a TED Talk by Shaun Anchor, author of Happiness Advantage.  What  l love about Anchor’s message is that our cultural orientation around fixing what’s wrong is being invalidated by science.  So, if we’re depressed, we go see a so-called 'expert' who diagnoses what’s wrong and treats the problem. That way of looking at things may apply well in engineering or technology, but it doesn’t really pan out too well for us humans in our quest for happiness.  And, most importantly, neuroscience is actually demonstrating this to be true.


We live in a cultural paradigm rooted in doing and having in order to be happy:  by working harder, working elsewhere, getting that raise, finding that partner, etc. we will be happier.  We all have experienced the fallacy of this way of thinking.  We’ve all succeeded in one way or another but eventually discover that we don’t, in fact, experience the happiness that we thought the job or the paycheck would bring us.

Anchor demonstrates that research now shows that “90% of long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world, but by the way your brain processes this world.  If we change it, if we change our formula for happiness and success, we can change the way we affect reality.”  Another way of saying this is that if happiness is where you come from, you don’t need to go out and look for it; in fact, it comes to you.

Dopamine: The Happiness Neurotransmitter

From a scientific standpoint, when we’re happy, the neurotransmitter, dopamine is released in the brain.  By the way, research has shown that acupuncture's main effects in the body are to release dopamine.  Dopamine not only affects an overall sense of wellbeing, but it increases our capacity to learn, be creative, and experience increased levels of vibrancy.  In fact, “Your brain at positive is 31% more productive than your brain at negative, neutral, or stressed.”

Practicing Happiness

The good news is that it doesn’t take a whole lot to develop the knack of optimism, positivity, and happiness. Anchor sites research that has found that the brain can be rewired within 21 days doing the following three practices:

  1. 3 Gratitudes:  Writing three things you’re grateful for.  This results in the brain “starting to scan the world not for the negative, but for the positive.”
  2. Journaling about one positive experience you’ve had over the last 24 hours. “This exercise teaches your brain that your behavior matters.”
  3. Meditation “allows your brain to get over the cultural ADHD that we’ve been creating by trying to do multiple things at once, allowing us to focus on the task at hand.”
  4. Random acts of kindness: Praising someone in your social support network.

What’s exciting about Anchor’s message is that science is demonstrating what yogis, meditators, and mystics have been saying forever, happiness is right here and right now, and it doesn’t take much to recognize it, just simple daily practice.  My hunch and hope is that as scientific findings start to show up in mainstream media, we’ll all experience a cultural paradigm shift from trying to fix what’s wrong with ourselves and one another to appreciating each of our unique gifts.