Scott Smith: Happiness and optimism can change our brain for the better
Psychologists have long believed that the mind and body are deeply connected and that thoughts can change our biology and that our biology can change our thoughts. Now there is some exciting new research suggesting that this is true. Establishing that the way we think and feel changes the way our brain and body functions proves that we have the ability to influence our own mental and physical health through our thoughts.
Research found that rats who were rewarded began to anticipate getting the reward and that this led to greater neuronal growth in the “happiness” centers of the brain. This suggests that being happy and having positive thoughts and expectations will help our brain grow more in those areas that support being happy and having positive thoughts — making it more likely for us to continue being happy and having positive thoughts in the future.
This means that making the effort to practice being more positive and optimistic can literally change your central nervous system at a neurological level to support being happier and more positive! This confirms the age-old concept and years of research suggesting that the content of our thoughts — being optimistic and positive — contributes greatly to our physical and mental health!
The challenge is that human beings have a negativity bias by nature. In order to survive, the brain has a natural tendency to focus on what is wrong or threatening in our environment, rather than luxuriate in all of the good that exists. After all, for the most part, good and happy things will not harm us — so why pay too much attention to them. On the other hand, making sure that something doesn’t sneak up and “get us” is much more in line with long-term survival.
There is even some evidence that negative events get stored in the memory by a different system than positive or innocuous events. Since positive events won’t harm us and we will have another chance to create them in the future — the brain doesn’t deem them as important as events that have the power to eliminate us. That is why negative events are stored much more quickly and deeply than positive events.
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We have known for some time that negative experiences can also change our brain and result in a fearful and cautious view of the world. This natural negativity is sometimes more pronounced in people who have faced trauma early in life. Their brains have already learned first-hand that the world has harmful things in it and that leaves it set on high alert, scanning for more potential threats. These individuals can still change their brains for the better, but it takes more effort and time.
This is the basis of anxiety — which is essentially a hard-wired, fifty-thousand-year-old alarm system that triggers too easily and too often for some people. The good news of this research is that it shows we have the ability to re-program our brain and to turn down our alarm system. We can overcome the negativity bias by the content of our thoughts. By practicing positive thinking and optimism we are able to create a “positivity bias” that allows us to naturally search for the good in situations, rather than the converse.
Cognitive psychology has demonstrated the substantial influence that positive thinking and optimism has upon mood, health and ultimately behavior. People who view themselves and others positively are more inclined to be happy and productive individuals. They also live longer and have less depression, anxiety, illness, and disease. Optimism and belief that a positive outcome is attainable may be one of the most powerful predictors of living life well.
Cognitive therapy is a mental health approach that helps people to learn how to think more accurately, and thus more positively. Positive thinking is not wearing “rose colored glasses” and pretending that there aren’t bad things that can happen. It’s about being accurate about all the good things that exist in life as well. Rather than being stuck focusing on the negative possibilities, cognitive therapy helps us to recognize the good and balance out our risk more objectively. This allows us to change our brains for the better and to live a better life!
Scott E. Smith, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in Arnold, Annapolis, and Crofton MD