Can we retrain our brains to be happier?

The human brain is surprisingly more adaptable than doctors and scientists once believed, says Steve Anderson, 85MA, 87PhD, an associate professor of neurology at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. It’s possible to rewire neural connections in a more positive direction by making changes in our environment, behaviors, and patterns of thinking.

Just a few decades ago, the conventional view held that the brain was incapable of developing new neurons or substantially restructuring itself after childhood. Thanks to what Anderson calls “big-picture discoveries,” neuroscientists now know that the adult brain can indeed produce these extra cells—and, more importantly, continuously reorganize the network systems that link them together and enable functions like memory, problem-solving, and emotions.

Intellectual stimulation and social interaction—the kinds of positive experiences that often feel good anyway—actually can strengthen neural networks and cause new connections between neurons to form. Adds Anderson, “Our brains are constantly being shaped by our experiences. Every new fact we learn leaves a physical imprint on our brain.”

So do thoughts. Studies on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy show that people can learn how to observe, identify, and redirect their negative thoughts, replacing them with more upbeat ideas.

Some parts of the brain are more “plastic” or adaptable to change. So, areas that underlie vision typically can’t compensate if damaged, whereas those involved with language skills are much more resilient. While anger, fear, and happiness may seem nebulous compared to physical functions like sight and speech, scientists have successfully tracked their paths in the brain. Experts now know that such emotions exist in multiple areas, in well-defined but distributed networks of neurons.

How can those networks be altered to increase emotional well-being? The answers can be surprisingly simple.

  • Exercise your body. Physical exercise like walking, swimming, and biking profoundly boosts brain capacity and performance. Anderson is part of the UI’s multi-disciplinary Aging Mind and Brain Initiative, which is studying how regular exercise increases the size of key brain areas, changes the patterns and speed of neural activity, improves specific functions, and releases a flow of “happiness” hormones like serotonin and dopamine.
  • Exercise your brain. Do a puzzle, learn to play a musical instrument, have a good conversation—do anything to give your imagination and cognitive skills a workout. “Your brain loves a challenge,” explains Anderson. “That’s why the worst thing anyone can do is sit in front of a TV for hours. Apart from the lack of physical exercise, their brains are literally zoning out.”
  • Make lifestyle changes. Other proven ways to improve mental and emotional well-being likely sound familiar: get enough sleep, build strong social networks, avoid excessive stress, and make a habit of positive thinking. Practicing some form of meditation—whether formal or just taking a few minutes each day to sit quietly and observe your breathing—is also key.

Such simple changes can be hard to apply consistently, though—and to be effective, they have to be permanent. But, as Anderson says, “If people knew the profound effect of their behaviors on their brain health, they’d take action.”