It can be simple or complicated to find and, especially, apply strategies to increase your level of happiness. What we can be sure of, however, is that in this ongoing discussion about what makes us happy, brain health is not a topic that can take a backseat.
God wants us to be happy, says Christian psychiatrist Daniel Amen, noting that we are moving away from fulfilling this “moral obligation”: the number of suicides in the US has increased by 33% in two decades (1999-2018), and cases of depression in adults tripled during the pandemic. Author of a book that prescribes some strategies for the pursuit of happiness—You, Happier: The 7 Neuroscience Secrets of Feeling Good Based On Your Brain Type—Amen is convinced that people can find happiness even in hostile circumstances. The basis of his optimistic conclusions is a study in which he applied to his patients a set of strategies designed to increase their happiness, which ultimately showed that they became 30% happier within a month.
Happiness and personality types
Dr. Amen devised a series of strategies to help patients become happier after conducting his own study, administering the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire (OHQ) to patients, and then scanning their brains. Comparing the results, the psychiatrist noticed an association of low happiness scores with low activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region involved in organisation, planning, impulse control, and empathy.
Over the past three decades, Amen has performed approximately 200,000 brain scans using the SPECT (single-photon emission computerised tomography) technique for diagnosis and treatment. Using this imaging technique, the psychiatrist identified several patterns of brain activity associated with different personality types and prescribed happiness-maximising strategies tailored to each personality type. There are 16 personality types, which are combinations of 5 main types, the doctor says:
- Balanced people, happy in almost any kind of circumstances, who manage to control their impulses and be emotionally stable.
- Spontaneous people, with low activity of the prefrontal cortex, tend to be creative and take risks, while also having a predisposition towards disorganisation and impulsivity.
- Persistent people are strong-willed people, great lovers of routine. Amen says this personality type has been associated with higher activity in the prefrontal cortex, particularly the anterior cingulate cortex, which predisposes to a conflicted attitude.
- The sensitive type is associated with an increased activity of the brain’s limbic centres. People who belong to this category are empathic, sociable, prone to pessimism, mood swings, and depression.
- People with a cautious personality register higher activity in the cortical areas that receive the sensation of fear and tend to avoid risks, to be overwhelmed when they have to solve many tasks, and to develop anxiety disorders.
By knowing our personality type (therefore, how our brain works), we can apply the best strategies to improve our brain function so that we feel happier, Amen says. Fortunately, our brain has the ability to modify its structure and functions, adapting to the stimuli we are exposed to (neuroplasticity)—therefore, by changing our brains, we can change our whole lives, the psychiatrist says.
Beyond happiness-enhancing strategies tailored to each personality type, there are things anyone can do to become happier, says Amen, emphasising that improving brain health is the first step we can take on our way to a happy life.
“Your brain is involved in everything you do and everything you are, and it is the organ of happiness,” says Amen, emphasising that we should treat our brain with more care than the rest of our body, asking ourselves before any decision whether it is beneficial or harmful to our brain.
When brain health crosses paths with what we put on our plates
Our diets directly affect the way we think and feel, says Dr. Amen, who recommends avoiding foods that generate a feeling of well-being, of comfort only when consumed (processed foods, with little fibre, that contain sugar and fat, full of chemical additives, and with few nutrients), but also the use of certain supplements that contribute to brain health. Saffron, for example, has antidepressant and anxiolytic properties and minimal side effects, as shown by several studies.
Many of us associate food with our waistlines, but nutrition plays a significant role in brain health, psychiatrist Uma Naiodoo says. There is a close connection between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract, one that begins in intra-uterine life, and the stomach and intestine come from the same cells in the embryo, Naidoo says. Food influences our gut microbiome, and certain microorganisms in the gut have been associated with higher rates of depression. Even serotonin, also called the hormone of happiness due to its role in mood regulation, is only produced in a small part of the brain (5% of the body’s serotonin), and the rest is produced and stored in the gut.
A high fruit and vegetable intake is a good predictor of mental well-being and high satisfaction, say Australian researchers, who have concluded that the psychological benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption are equivalent to those recorded in the transition from unemployed to employed. The authors of the study argue that, while the benefits of eating healthy foods on physical health are seen several decades later, the effects on our mood are felt much faster, almost immediately.
A major study conducted in 2017 was among the first to highlight the connection between what we eat and our mood. The subjects, patients suffering from depression, were divided into two groups, one that received information and instructions from nutritionists for adopting a Mediterranean diet and the other that received social support, but no dietary guidance. All participants initially consumed processed foods and sweets and had an insufficient intake of fruits and vegetables, but the group that followed the Mediterranean diet made significant changes in their daily diet (white bread was replaced by wholemeal bread, and wholegrains replaced sweets and fast-food products). Three months later, a third of the members of the healthy eating group were no longer depressed, compared to 8% of those in the control group.
The connection between what we eat and mental health, while obvious, has been drawn fairly late, says psychiatrist and professor Drew Ramsey, who routinely quizzes his patients on their diet to discover whether it includes foods which are important to the connection between the brains and the intestine.
While they cannot control their genes or the trauma they’re experiencing at a given moment, people can revise their diet to daily strengthen their mental health, says Ramsey, stressing that while diet plays a significant role, it’s not the only factor with a strong impact on our brain.
Physical exercise has a significant impact on brain health
Physical activity has beneficial effects on brain health, supporting brain functions, increasing blood flow and oxygen levels in the brain, and stimulating neurogenesis in various parts of the brain, including the hippocampus. Neurogenesis (or the production of neurons) increases brain volume and is thought to help protect against the effects of dementia.
Physical exercise is not only a major factor in protecting the brain, but it can even support its rejuvenation process, suggests a study conducted on mice and published in 2020 in the Science journal. The study found that physical activity causes the liver to produce a less studied protein (Gpld1), which appears to rejuvenate the brain. Collaboration with specialists at the UCSF Memory and Aging Center showed high levels of this protein in the blood of the elderly who exercise regularly. If there was a drug on the market that had effects on the brain like those produced by physical exercise, everyone would want to get it, says Professor Saul Villeda, the main author of the study.
Physical exercise could reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, including in the case of people genetically predisposed to developing this condition, according to a study published in 2017 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. Following 93 people who had at least one gene linked to Alzheimer’s disease or at least one parent with the condition, researchers observed that subjects who spent at least 68 minutes a day engaged in physical activity at a moderate level had had better glucose metabolism—an indication of a healthy brain—compared to those who did less physical exercise.
When people get up and exercise, they tend to be happier, according to a study by Cambridge University researchers, who designed a special app for Android phones to help people understand how lifestyle interferes with mood. Subjects reported feeling happier when they had been physically active in the previous 15 minutes, even if it was mostly walking at a slow pace, than when they were sitting or lying down.
Although this study did not establish a causal relationship between physical activity and increased happiness, the results suggest that “people who are generally more active are generally happier and, in the moments when people are more active, they are happier,” says Gillian Sandstrom, co-author of the study.
For many, cognitive changes taking place in the sixth or seventh decade of life are the alarm signal that makes them think for the first time about their brain health, says Elise Caccappolo, professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University Medical Center, emphasising that we can act to strengthen brain health from childhood and that physical exercise is probably the most powerful tool we have at our disposal, along with intellectual activity, and the relationships we develop with others.
What other factors contribute to increasing our happiness?
Our happiness is influenced by (and equally influences) the happiness of our friends, the happiness of our friends’ friends, and even the level of happiness of those who are friends with our friends’ friends. This is one of the conclusions drawn by researchers from Yale University, formulated on the basis of data obtained within the Framingham Heart Study (a research started in 1948, on 5,209 residents of the American city of Framingham and which continues today). Yale researchers also found that our happiness multiplies if we live near other friends or family members who are also happy, and that each happy friend we have increases our chances of happiness by about 9%.
Journaling or other forms of expressive writing help improve mood, strengthen memory, reduce symptoms in cancer patients, and, indirectly, boost happiness, studies show.
In an experiment led by psychology professor James Pennebaker, students were asked to write for 15 minutes a day about major or superficial personal problems. The results showed that writing about their own experiences helped the students to be healthier and to end up in health centres less often. Expressive writing helps people understand and come to terms with who they are, representing a way of correcting the course of life, Pennebaker says.
In 2020, an international team of scientists compiled a list of 68 tips that people generally receive to increase their state of happiness, and then submitted the list to a panel of 18 experts in the science of happiness. The feasible and effective ideas that were found on the experts’ final list were not very original (invest in family and friends, socialise with coworkers and outside of work hours, spend time in nature, practise your religion, be agreeable to others, show generosity, take care of your health, etc.).
Speaking about the contrast between the efficiency and pragmatic nature of these ideas, on the one hand, and their mundane nature, on the other, the author Gretchen Rubin, who has written on the subject of happiness herself, hits the nail on the head: “For many of us, the bigger challenge isn’t knowing what actions would make us happier, but actually doing those things.”