Yeah – this is an exercise blog. I am an Exercise Physiologist after all. But more than anything I’d like to think that my training, mentoring, coaching, exercise physiologing (that isn’t a word, by the way) can help my clients and others towards a state of happiness. I understand the effects of exercise on our brain and I understand that happiness is a bit like a spinning wheel, a positive reinforcement cycle. The happier we are, the better the outlook that we tend to have of our lives, the more positive we tend to be in potentially negative situations and so on.
When we are happy in our lives it can be hard to become unhappy – our outlook and perceptions of the things that happen in our lives tend to be subjective. Something happened – that is objective. It did or it didn’t. But how we look at, or view, what happened is really up to us. This is where the subjectivity of a situation comes into being.
If I’m standing in a room with another person and I am in one corner and they are at the opposite corner, we will describe the room differently despite the fact that we are in the same room. Objectively, the room is the same. Subjectively, we see it quite differently.
But back to the topic – happiness. I like to think that one of my jobs is to help my clients live happy lives – or the happiest that they can. I read a lot about happiness and what it takes to make people happy. During the week I read a really great article that highlighted some key findings relating to happiness how we can quantifiably make changes in the way we do things to give ourselves the best chance of being happy.
1. The most important question to ask yourself when you feel down.
Believe it or not – this was news to me – guilt and shame activate the brain’s reward centres. And we all worry. We worry about things that aren’t important and then we wonder why we were worrying in the first place. Why? As it turns out worrying just a little bit actually makes us feel better because worrying makes us feel that we are attempting to correct a problem. However, worry, guilt and shame are awful long term feelings to carry, so what should we do? Ask yourself the most important question – what do I feel grateful about?
Gratitude quite literally increases the amount of dopamine released by your brain. Dopamine is one of the brain’s strongest feel good hormones. What else does gratitude do? Causes the release of serotonin. What does serotonin do? It makes us feel amazing. Anti-depressant medications quite literally work (most of them) by increasing the amount of serotonin available in our brains.
2. Label negative feelings.
Yes. You feel bad – that’s fine. We all do at times. Give that emotion that you are feeling a name. Anger. Sadness. Anxiety. This might sound trivial, but our brain disagrees. In one study:
‘appropriately titled “Putting Feelings into Words” participants viewed pictures of people with emotional facial expressions. Predictably, each participant’s amygdala activated to the emotions in the picture. But when they were asked to name the emotion, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activated and reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity. In other words, consciously recognizing the emotions reduced their impact.’
Suppressing our emotions doesn’t work and can actually backfire. Challenge your emotions, think about them and don’t hide from how you feel. Trying to run from, or hide, your emotions can backfire and make the problem worse. Labelling our emotions is a fundamental tool of mindfulness – this is the basis for things such as meditation.
3. Make a decision
Can you ever recall a time when you have been anxious or worried about something? I’d imagine so. Do you recall how you felt once you had made a decision? It was probably a sense of relief, irrespective of the outcome or how you truly felt about the decision. Neuroscience shows us that the mere act of making a decision and not procrastinating reduces worry and anxiety.
Deciding, however, is difficult. The research shows us that simply making a good enough decision, not the absolute 100% perfect decision, is enough to make us feel happy. In fact, neurological studies show us that trying to find the perfect decision can overwhelm us and give us the perception that we are out of control. The feeling of being out of control is stressful. The act of making a decision leads us to feelings of being in control, which reduces stress and also leads to a feeling of pleasure, interestingly.
To illustrate this point, I have a quirky example, and this will also relate to exercise. In studies done on rats and cocaine (yes, the narcotic), when a rat is made to pull a lever to receive an injection of cocaine it received a higher cerebral spike of dopamine than the rat that was given an injection of cocaine for doing nothing. The point here is that when you make a decision and there is an outcome you feel better than if the outcome happened simply by chance. This is where the exercise example can be used. If you unwillingly head to the gym to train, put in your session and do very well you will absolutely feel better. But not as good as when you willingly and enthusiastically head to the gym for the same session. I think we can all relate to that situation. So, not only do we choose the things we like, we also like the things we choose…
4. Touch people
As part of the human condition, we need to feel love and acceptance of others. When we don’t it is painful. Quite literally. In an intriguing study, subjects played a virtual game that involved throwing a ball to other subjects. When the other subjects in the game stopped sharing the ball and playing nice the person’s brain reacted in the way as if they were feeling pain. Not emotional pain, but real physical pain.
‘as demonstrated in an fMRI experiment, social exclusion activates the same circuitry as physical pain… at one point they stopped sharing, only throwing back and forth to each other, ignoring the participant. This small change was enough to elicit feelings of social exclusion, and it activated the anterior cingulate and insula, just like physical pain would.
Physical touch is incredibly powerful. It releases the hormone oxytocin, the primary hormone released by mother and child in the moments after birth (among other times). Physical touch and sensation will reduce pain. Even something as simple as holding hands can cause a dramatic reduction in pain. But if you can get a hug, get one. The evidence shows that hugging 5 times per day for 4 weeks’ increases happiness enormously. So do not think that there is something wrong with you for seeking physical contact – it is absolutely critical for human happiness.
The take home point of this long essay (I tried to keep it short – I promise)? Being happy is something that you need to work on. It probably does not come easily to any of us. But there are some very simple and solid techniques that you can use to help you find happiness even in the most dire of circumstances. And for my clients, the next time we train, don’t be afraid to give me a hug…
Yours in health!