If you’re like most people, your everyday life is hectic, stressful, and devoid of much joy. What’s going on here? Well, we’re not prioritizing the right things. Check that – society isn’t. And if society won’t help us, we’ve got to do the whole happiness thing ourselves. We need to do more of what makes us happy – every day. By doing so, we make happy, healthy brains.
We’re going to delve into the brain science of happiness – and tell you about the five habits that produce a happy brain.
Let’s do this.
First, let us discuss potential factors that may influence brain health.
Brain Health Factors
Many things can impact the health of our brains. The most obvious are lifestyle factors, things like physical exercise, food and nutrition, sleep and relaxation, social interaction, and mental fitness. Our overall medical condition can also influence our brain health.
The Cleveland Clinic calls these things the “6 Pillars of Brain Health.” Let’s look at the impact of each.
1 – Physical Exercise
Exercise improves blood flow to the brain, impacting cognitive functions such as learning and memory. Physical activity also helps to promote clearer thinking. Exercise can also boost your mood and improve your sleep!
2 – Food and Nutrition
Everything that we eat and drink affects how the brain functions. It therefore benefits the brain to take in proper nutrition. Among the best foods for the brain: blueberries, dark leafy greens, fatty fish, nuts and seeds, and whole grains.
3 – Mental Fitness
Like the body, the brain needs exercise. “Exercise” in this context means those activities that challenge our level of cognition. These include crossword puzzles, brain training games, reading, Sudoku, etc. Brain fitness is also achievable through continuing education, such as taking classes or learning a new skill.
4 – Sleep and Relaxation
Sleep is critical for brain restoration. Quality sleep improves our mood, consolidates our memories, and sharpens our thinking. It also provides the necessary energy to do what needs to get done. Relaxation is essential for stress relief and physical and mental recuperation.
5 – Social Interaction
Cliché time! Humans are social creatures. It stands to reason, then, that one’s social network is a source of mood support. Social interaction also stimulates our intellect and slows the rate of age-related cognitive decline.
6 – Medical Health
Medical health includes your overall physical and mental health. Physical conditions such as diabetes, head trauma, hypertension, and high cholesterol increase the risk of dementia. It’s essential to get an annual check-up and follow your doctor’s advice to minimize these risks.
5 Habits of Healthy Brains
Without further delay, here are five practices we should try to get healthy brains.
1 – Practicing gratitude
Per a whitepaper [PDF] by the University of California-Berkeley, gratitude is linked to “many benefits…including better physical and psychological health, increased happiness and life satisfaction, decreased materialism, and more.”
Gratitude practice is all about appreciating what you have. Think about this: how often does the regular everyday person sit back and contemplate and be thankful for the people and things in their life? Exactly.
Practicing gratitude is not difficult, and there are many ways of doing so. Some ideas include a gratitude journal, telling someone you love them, noticing the beauty of nature, smiling more, watching inspiring videos, performing an act kindness each day, calling up a loved one, volunteering, helping out a stranger, and more.
Notice that many of the ways mentioned to practice gratitude don’t involve interrupting your daily life. You can perform an act of kindness at work, notice the beauty of nature on your commute, and smile more anywhere!
2 – Nurturing relationships
The second habit of people with healthy brains is that they nurture their relationships. That is, they actively participate in the growth of their personal and professional relationships. There is also evidence that cultivating friendships may deter age-related cognitive decline.
Good friendships also blunt the impact of stressors. That is, a person who has supportive friends has an advantage regarding stress prevention. It turns out the befriended will release fewer stress hormones (e.g., cortisol) during stressful life challenges than the person who has few friends or unsupportive friends.
It also happens that love alters our neurochemical composition for the better. Being in an intimate relationship triggers the release of dopamine, the brain chemical that causes feelings of euphoria. Attraction causes the release of two other brain chemicals, norepinephrine, and serotonin.
3 – Mindful living
This one may just be the most impactful. The amount of scientific research on the benefits of mindfulness is astounding. Most of it shows that people who are adept in mindfulness practice have sharper concentration, are more resilient, less harmful, and much more optimistic.
Scientists, even the skeptical ones, have demonstrated that prolonged mindfulness, with its emphasis on total present-mindedness, significantly reduces the tendency of the brain to seek the future or rehash the past.
Let’s clarify and emphasize this last point.
If you observe your mind, you’ll notice that it is always “tugging” you into the next moment. This wayward mental activity is particularly apparent when we’re at work, commuting, or performing some unpleasant task. This is the brain’s default mode – and is the opposite of mindful living.
Here are some ideas for practicing mindfulness in everyday life:
- Mindful eating: Shut off all T.V, cell phones, and other distractions. While chewing, slow down and pay attention to the taste and texture of the food. If you wish, as an added practice, washing the dishes with complete focus and relaxation.
- Mindful walking: Mindful walking is the practice of feeling the sensations in your feet as you walk (e.g., pressure, solidity, etc.) One may also choose to count their steps, from one to ten and then from ten to one. It’s an excellent practice for promoting both mindfulness and concentration.
- Buddhist-based Mindfulness: The Buddha identified four mindfulness practices in his teachings: mindfulness of the body, feelings, mental activity, and all other phenomena. Though the roots of these practices have their roots in Buddhism, one needn’t be a Buddhist to practice them.
4 – Lifelong learning
The brain is a super-dynamic organ. The most obvious example of this dynamism is the discovery of neuroplasticity, a term used to describe “the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life.”
Although the word neuroplasticity is often used in the context of rehabilitation (and for a good reason), the term also applies to the development of neuronal connection through cognitive functioning.
Michael Merzenich sometimes referred to as the “Father of Neuroplasticity,” describes the implications of brain training on neuroplasticity in no unclear terms: “My mantra: Brainless exercise is a lost opportunity for improvement.”
The best way to grow your brain throughout life is to engage in lifelong learning. It matters not the subject or whether its academic or recreational. What matters is that the task – whatever it may be – requires cognitive effort. Simple puzzles, for example, will provide minimal, if any, benefit.
5 – Seeking out challenges
In his famous book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “Me-hi, Sic-cent-me-hi”) writes:
“Contrary to what we usually believe…the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
These aren’t the meanderings of some old psychologist either. Csikszentmihalyi’s theories have been observed, re-observed, experienced, and taken as fundamental psychological tenets for decades.
So how do we accomplish the happiness that Csikszentmihalyi describes? Here’s his advice:
“The optimal state of inner experience…happens when psychic energy – or attention – is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action.”
In other words, seek out a challenge, ensure that your current skillset meets those that said problem requires (if not, it’s a perfect time for some learning!), and get to it.
The Cleveland Clinic offers a cool, free service called Healthy Brains (app.healthybrains.org), which provides brain health information, as well as tools and resources to help reduce the risk of brain disease.
After filling out some demographic info, you’ll fill out a questionnaire about the six brain health factors mentioned earlier: physical, nutrition, medical, sleep, mental, and social. You’ll be issued a score (0-100) for each element along with a cumulative Brain Health Index (BHI) score.
Based on your results, the Healthy Brains app will provide customized tips for improving each of the six factors. Of course, to get the full benefit of the web-based app, you will need to implement some of these recommendations (which are very helpful and based on the latest scientific evidence).
Please note that you will be required to enter an email address to participate in the activity.