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How to be happy according to science

by Amanda Collins

We all want to be happy. We chase happiness our whole lives. And it seems that everyone from our mothers to TV marketers and taxi drivers has an opinion about how we can find it.

Even science has weighed in on the debate. Increasingly, researchers are looking to the human brain, behaviour patterns and statistics, to uncover the mysteries as to what actually makes us happy.

So in the quest for happiness, what does science have to say?

The science of happiness

A leopard can change its spots

Neuroplasticity: you may have heard this term thrown around a lot lately. It’s a big word, and there’s a lot of technical science behind it, but basically what it means is that our brains are constantly changing, reshaping and re-sculpting.

In fact, whenever you learn something new, you actually change structures in your brain. How incredible is that?!

So what does this mean for happiness?

It means that the thoughts we think will literally change our brains.

For instance, if you tend to focus on the negative: how horrible your life is, all the stress you have, your irritating co-worker, all the things that always go wrong or how much you resent someone, your brain will build negative pathways of thought.

You create a brain that is wired to be negative, and in doing so you will automatically be more negative, you will see things negatively and you will experience life more negatively.

Neuroplasticity does have an upside though, you can change your brain. You can reshape it to be positive.

The more you focus on the positive, the more you focus on being grateful, the more your brain will build positive pathways.

Your brain will actually become more positive. You will see things automatically in a more positive light, and you will lead a more positive life.

how to be happy

Building your brain

Speaking about the subject, Neuropsychologist and expert in the field, Dr Rick Hanson, said that humans naturally have a negative bias.

What this means is that we tend to notice the bad more than the good.

The reason for this negative bias lies in our ancestry and self-protection. In the past, our ancestors had to be ultra-alert to the negative in order to survive predators and threats.

“The brain is like Velcro for the bad but Teflon for the good,” Dr Hanson said, adding that humans tend to hold on to the negative in life, and in doing so, wire our brains for the negative.

“By learning to strengthen the positive connections, you can change your brain to be more positive,” he said, adding “These connections control our reactions, emotions, behaviours, and our overall wellbeing”.

How to rewire your brain

Everything you think and do creates connections in your brain. The more you repeat a thought or an action, the stronger that connection becomes.

To rewire your brain towards the positive you need to do specific tasks over and over again. Similar to physical exercise, this rewiring requires repetition to create the new positive pathways and make sure they are fixed in the brain.

The science of happiness

Rewiring exercises

Practice positivity every single day

Every time you have a negative thought come up, you need to replace it with a positive thought.

One example: “I can’t believe I have to wait so long to get served” could be changed to “I am so lucky I can afford to be able to buy my groceries at this store.”

With enough repetition your brain will go on autopilot and positivity will be its natural default.

Building a positive brain requires deliberate action over time. It will not happen overnight. But with time and persistence, you will create those positive pathways.

You need to practice positivity every day. Every time you strike a negative thought, or situation, stop and give yourself a positive thought, or think about the situation in a positive light.

Find three positives every day

At the end of every single day, get out your pen and paper, or computer, and jot down three things that you are genuinely thankful for.

Do this for two months, you will be surprised at what a big difference this makes.

When something positive happens recognise it

Whenever something positive happens, stop and take 30 seconds to really think about it and soak it in. What happened? How did it make you feel? Notice any physical sensations, like is there a particular smell in the room? What is the temperature? Take a mental snapshot of the moment.

Tell someone they’re awesome

Every day, pick someone to compliment. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, it could just be an email to a colleague who you think is doing a great job, or a hug and a compliment for your child. You may want to thank people for things they’ve done for you in the past.

how to be happy according to science


Science is backing up the impressive claims of meditation. According to Dr Hanson, meditation not only thickens areas of the brain and makes people more resilient, but it can also help to stop brain thinning which is a part of the ageing process.

Not a bad reason to find some daily zen. Find a 10 minute guided meditation here.

Brain chemistry

There are certain chemicals in our brain which play a big role in our happiness levels. A lack of these, can lead to a drop in joy.

1. Dopamine
This little brain chemical helps us to feel pleasure, euphoria, bliss, motivation and concentration.

When there is a lack of dopamine, generally people feel flat, have a lack of interest in life, don’t sleep well, have mood swings, and overall just don’t feel happy.

Keeping your dopamine in check

There are a few things you can do to make sure your dopamine levels remain healthy and these include:

  • Ditch excessive sugar and caffeine: Both sugar and caffeine disrupt dopamine levels in your brain. You get a massive rush of dopamine straight after eating sugar or drinking coffee. This rush leads to depleted dopamine levels in the long run, and may cause moodiness and sugar cravings.
  • For those of you that love sugary treats, you may want to consider taking a supplement like chromium to help curb your cravings.
  • Eat bananas, almonds and eggs: These foods contain high levels of the amino acid tyrosine which the body uses to create dopamine.
  • Sleep: Getting too much or too little sleep can affect the dopamine levels in your brain. Aim for a solid 7–8 hours of sleep every night.

how to be happy at work

2. Serotonin
Nicknamed the “happy molecule” this chemical works with sleep, mood and appetite. Serotonin helps us to feel happy and self-confident. When our serotonin levels are low, we can feel depressed and anxious.

How to increase serotonin:

  • Eat: walnuts, bananas, pineapple, kiwifruit, tomatoes and plums and drink green tea. All of these will help boost serotonin levels.

This brain chemical is associated with calm. Known by the nickname, the “anti-anxiety molecule”, GABA slows down neuron firing and gives people a sense of peace. Deficiencies in GABA can lead to low moods, anxiety, insomnia and addictions.

Increasing GABA:

  • Supplementing diets with a combination of magnesium, taurine, L-theanine, kava root, valerian, passionflower and lemon balm may boost GABA levels.
  • You may also want to try a GABA supplement (made from the bacteria Lactohacillus hilgardii).

If you think you may have an imbalance with any of the above brain chemicals, visit your GP and speak to them about your concerns before you start supplementing with foods, vitamins and amino acids.

Experience over possessions

Researchers at San Francisco State University found that people get more happiness from experiences, like an outing to the park or a day out on a boat, than they do from purchasing possessions.

Boiled down, the study found that while people get an initial rush of joy from buying things, like a couch or a car, this joy fades over time as the item just becomes part of daily life. Experiences, however, retain their joy as memories.

Another reason experiences won out, according to researchers, is that often they involve two or more people, so they have an element of social bonding and connectedness.

So the moral of the story here is, if you want to be happier, buy less possessions and go out and have more experiences.

how to be happy with family

Happiness into the future

The science of happiness is a growing field, and undoubtedly over the next decade and beyond, science will continue to investigate what makes us happy, and how we can work towards a happy, fulfilled life.

In the meantime, it is interesting to note that some of the staples that people have been talking about for many years, and which have often been dismissed as silly or eccentric, like positive thinking, meditation and community, actually have science to back up their happiness inducing claims!

Interested in mental health?

The Diploma of Counselling from Open Colleges is designed to give you a thorough understanding of the principals of mental health. Enrol today, and start tomorrow.

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