As we have mentioned on other occasions, our brain is not designed to be happy, but for survival and reproduction. However, we can learn to be happy. And yes, a greater degree of happiness or, at least, of well-being and satisfaction can be achieved if we are comfortable with what we have and what we achieve.
However, it is not always easy for us to achieve what we set out to do. How many times have you promised yourself that this year you are going to go to the gym or you are going to start eating well and, after a short time, you have stopped? And doesn’t it make you unhappy not being able to carry out your goals? Well, neuroscience can help you be a sculptor of your own brain, achieve your good resolutions for September and be a little happier. First, let’s see how the brain works. In this way we will understand what he needs, what we must do to ally with him and why it is true that there is (almost) nothing impossible. Jonathan Benito tells us about it in his book Redefine Impossible (Ed. Planeta).
Designed for survival, but also for what you want
As we said, the purpose of the brain is to guarantee the survival of the body it inhabits, that is, you. But the incredible thing is that they have a great capacity to model themselves and adapt. The word neuroplasticity will sound familiar to you, right? The brain, an organ weighing just 1kg, is the most sophisticated and complex device on Earth due to its plasticity, imagination, capacity for abstraction and adaptation to different contexts.
It is composed of a very complex and delicate microarchitecture made up of hundreds of billions of cells: specifically neurons and glia cells. Neurons are the cells with the greatest role in the management of information, intellect and various cognitive processes, and their number (approximately the population of the Earth multiplied by 15) and functions give the brain its overwhelming complexity and unlimited potential, points out Jonathan Benito in this manual to be happier and understand the brain.
Our brain is constantly transforming, for example, every time we learn something. Taking advantage of the plasticity of our brain in a conscious way allows us to reprogram it to take it out of the comfort zone and put its full potential to work to be as happy as possible, or, in other words, to redefine the impossible, says Benito.
The 3 keys to being happier by allying ourselves with our brain
Since our brain is plastic, that it can adapt to situations and that we can model it if we set our minds to it, we have to find a way to ally ourselves with it, that is, to know what factors it needs so that it can develop. Benito talks about the triad of success. That is, 3 rules to take advantage of the plastic potential of the brain:
1. Have clear goals
It is essential that we are very clear about our priorities. The Neuroscience professor and researcher at the Autonomous University of Madrid reminds us of Maslow’s pyramid. It shows the hierarchy of human needs, ranging from the most basic (such as having access to food and shelter) to the highest (such as self-fulfilment), passing through those of security, social connection, esteem and recognition.
The latter have nothing to do with survival and reproduction, so the brain is not programmed to satisfy them and define higher goals. Having clear goals is key because they are linked to motivation.
Exercise to define our goals, which will help us to be happier. To define them, the author proposes the exercise of the wheel of life, which consists of drawing different spokes that represent each of the aspects of life (personal relationships, work, leisure…). These are scored from 1 to 10, giving us a visual image of how we feel in the present. By reflecting on what it would take to reach the maximum score in each category, our goals and purposes are laid bare.
2. Have determination
Perseverance is essential to allow time for the phenomena associated with neuronal plasticity to develop in the brain. Jonathan Benito reminds us of the need to be realistic: there will be hard times, but if you anticipate that you are going to fall, you will get up just as many times. It is essential to have patience and treat oneself with care and rationality.
3. Have a positive attitude
The predisposition that we show towards life is the one that shows life with us, so it can block us or give us wings. In this section we highlight the fascinating neurophysiological role of the placebo effects (produced when the positive expectations of a patient trigger the release of a set of endogenous substances such as endorphins that are beneficial for the organism) and nocebo (when the negative expectations are in harmful substances such as cortisol).
The effect of the self-fulfilling prophecy is also highlighted: the expectations we have and others have about our performance influence it, either positively (Pygmalion effect) or negatively (Golem effect). In the words of the author: “Science confirms that we do not live up to the capacities with which we are born, but to the beliefs that we forge”.
Other aspects that help make your brain happy and you happy
In addition to these 3 keys to being happy, the neuroscientist provides us with other keys that are also useful:
- Avoid stress: although its function is to be a survival mechanism, in the long term it is extremely harmful: it generates cortisol, which reduces the immune system and causes diseases, premature aging and cell death in the hippocampus. Therefore, avoiding it is essential. Taking small breaks, listening to music or exercising are really effective.
- Practice exercise and spend two hours a week in nature: Walking three and a half hours a week already makes a palpable difference, even more so when combined with spending time in nature. Dedicating two hours a week to walk in natural environments, such as forests, beaches or parks, is a great stimulus for the generation of new neurons.
- Take care of our social relationships: Chronic social isolation is very negative and there is increasing evidence to suggest that an enriched social environment, which is defined by various sensory stimuli, social interaction and cognitive challenges, contributes to developing neurogenesis, that is, the creation of new neurons . Relationships must be physical. Social networks do not replace social contact.
- Diet is important: Reducing the amount of food we eat can be very beneficial: our brain takes around 10 minutes to let us know that it is full, so stopping eating earlier than we are used to helps us avoid unnecessary caloric intake. A varied diet rich in Omega-3 (found in fish or supplements), flavonoids (in chocolate and blueberries), and zinc (dark chocolate) is another very effective method of increasing neurogenesis.
- Good sleep is necessary: Respecting our sleep cycle by getting enough sleep (normally an average of 7 or 8 hours), going to sleep every day at the same time and avoiding interruptions is an important factor in increasing the number of our neurons.
- Meditate: Practicing it for ten minutes a day leads to experiencing benefits for cognitive ability after just two weeks. It helps against depression, anxiety and even hypertension, and promotes psychological well-being and emotional intelligence.
- Consider your second brain: We are talking about the microbiota, the set of microorganisms, especially the digestive system, which has a great impact on emotional well-being and even on brain physiology and architecture: the health of the intestine and brain go hand in hand. The more bacterial species and the greater the balance, the better. To achieve this, the use of probiotics is of great help, both in foods such as yogurt and in supplements, and not abusing antibiotics.
- And don’t forget to set small goals: In conclusion, you should keep in mind that long-term projects are not worth the brain. Your goal has to be realistic and as short-term as possible. I mean, it won’t help you to say ‘I’m going to the gym this year.’ What you have to do is tell your brain ‘this week I’m going to try to go to the gym at least one day’. Or ‘I’m going to write a book’. On the other hand, it will help you to say ‘I am going to write this week two mornings for half an hour’. With short and achievable goals little by little you will achieve everything you set out to do and you will be much happier.