The Neuroscience of Happiness

The field of neuroscience is rapidly expanding our knowledge of how we can consciously train our brains for flourishing. The concept of Neuroplasticity means that mental activity entails underlying neural activity and repeated neural activity builds neural structure. We can form new neural pathways through repeatedly changing how we think and act.

Of all the objects in the universe, the human brain is the most complex. There are as many neurons in the brains as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

What do we need to do create new connections?

There are actually two different kinds of memory. The first, “explicit” memory refers to your ability to recollect specific things, such as the names of your friends, or where you parked the car. The second kind, “implicit” or “emotional” memory, is less specific. It’s visceral and powerful, and rooted in the ancient, reptilian and early mammalian structures of the brain.  It creates the inner atmosphere of your mind, your felt sense of who you are and what living feels like; as well as your deepest assumptions and expectations about the world.

One of the ancient brain structures, the amygdala, is the switchboard responsible for assigning a feeling tone to the stimuli flowing through the brain, and directing a response (approach, avoid, move on). It is neurologically primed to label experiences as frightening and threatening.  Once it has flagged an event as negative, it immediately stores it and compares it to the record of old painful experiences, and if it finds similarities, it signals alarm. But while implicit memory registers and responds to negative events almost instantaneously, it takes five to twenty seconds even to begin to register positive experiences. 

Implicit memory is much larger than explicit memory and resources are embedded mainly in implicit memory. Therefore, the key target for changing our brain is implicit memory. What matters most is not the explicit recollection of positive events but the implicit emotional residue of positive experiences

The negative brain

  • For survival reasons, the brain is poor at turning positive states into neural traits.
  • It is bad at learning from good experiences compared to how good it is at learning from bad experiences.
  • This design feature of the brain creates a bottleneck that reduces the conversion of positive mental states to positive neural traits.

As our ancestors evolved, avoiding “sticks” was more important for survival than getting “carrots.” Our brains give preferential encoding for implicit memory. basically, we learn faster from pain than pleasure. Most good experiences are wasted on the brain.

There are three stages of brain evolution:

Reptilian: Avoid hazards

Mammalian: Approach rewards

Human: Attach to others

When not threatened, ill, in pain, hungry, upset, or chemically disturbed, most people settle into being:

Calm (the Avoid system)

Contented (the Approach system)

Caring (the Attach system)

Creative – synergy of all three systems

This is the brain in its natural, responsive mode.

We are basically trying to find an undiscovered path that if walked once, makes us happy. The path being the synaptic connections in our brain. And then, because we enjoy it, we go along that path, hundreds and hundreds of times. Slowly a track forms and becomes very clear and easier to walk every time.”

Mother Nature is tilted toward producing gene copies but tilted against personal quality of life. And at the societal level, we have Stone Age brains armed with nuclear weapons. So what can we do? It takes frequent small positive experiences to tip the scales toward happiness.

Our experiences reshape our brains.