Visits to therapists skyrocket during the cold winter months.  Research shows that most of us feel more sad, anxious, or irritable during the winter than we do in the summer.  Some develop a serious condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is defined as depression that occurs during the winter months.  SAD is believed to be caused primarily by a lack of sunlight, which can cause problems with serotonin – a neurotransmitter that affects mood. Here is how to be happy in 4 simple steps.

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Wendy Suzuki, a world-renowned neuroscientist at NYU, wrote a book called Healthy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to Activate Your Brain and Do Everything Better.  In her book, Wendy explores the link between our brains and our happiness.

Did you know that the human brain continues to change even during our adult years?  This phenomenon is known as brain plasticity – the ability of the brain to change in response to the environment.  Enriched environments can lead to a thicker cortex, more blood vessels, and higher levels of certain neurotransmitters and growth factors.

In Healthy Brain, Happy Life, Wendy chronicles her journey from a frumpy workaholic to a happy, healthy, well-balanced woman.  Anyone can follow her program to transform his or her life.  Here are the steps Wendy took to change her brain and makeover her life.

Intentional Exercise

It is commonly known that exercise can improve mood by boosting levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, but you have probably never heard of intentional exercise.

Intentional exercise occurs when we make exercise both aerobic and mental (meaning that you are fully engaged in the movements).  Wendy took IntenSati – a group fitness class that combines elements of interval training, martial arts, dance and yoga.  In addition to being an excellent cardio workout, the class also involves “spoken affirmations”.

During the poses, students shout things like “I am strong” and “I am inspired”.  Psychological research has shown that positive affirmations like these can drastically improve mood and reduce stress.  If you do not have access to a class like IntenSati, you can try bringing a positive affirmation like “I am sexy” to your next Zumba class or “I am strong” to your next boot camp course.  (You do not have to shout these things during the class – just think them!)

In addition to improving mood and reducing stress, research has shown that regular exercise can improve memory, increase attention span, and can even reduce symptoms of autism and Alzheimer’s disease.  If you don’t have time to take an exercise class or hit the gym, try these quick four minute exercises to change your brain:

  • Have a pillow fight with your significant other.
  • Do jumping jacks for four minutes.
  • Dance to your favorite song.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Play with your dog, cat, or child.

Mindfulness and Meditation

Meditation can change the brain – expert meditators display better attention and an increase in the size of various brain areas.  Meditation has also been shown to improve mood and attention in people with Social Anxiety Disorder.  Try these quick four minute meditations.

  • Recite one goal or intention for your life.
  • Sit silently for four minutes while focusing on deep breathing.
  • Sit outside for four minutes while focusing on nature and nothing else.

Fulfilling Relationships

The reward center of the brain (the same area that is responsible for addiction) can be activated by exercising, altruism (giving back to others), and falling in love.  To activate this area of your brain, try these free, four minute “brain hacks”:

  • Smile at someone.
  • Send someone a “thank you” text just for being them.
  • Help someone with something or share your knowledge with them.
  • Hug someone you love.
  • Watch your favorite movie with a loved one.

Rich and New Experiences

New experiences can lead to the growth of new brain cells, increased size of certain areas of the brain, and activation of specific regions of the brain.  Novelty also makes events more memorable, and research has shown that people who engage in a variety of experiences are typically happier than those who do not.  Try these simple “brain hacks” to enrich your brain and live a happier life:

  • Try a new food or different type of cuisine – this stimulates growth of new brain cells in the olfactory bulb (a key part of the brain responsible for our sense of smell).
  • Eat a meal in complete darkness to see if the lack of visual input affects your sense of taste.
  • Teach yourself a new dance move to activate your motor cortex.
  • Listen to a song in a different language or in a genre that you never listen to – this will activate your auditory cortex.

A Final Note!

If you want to be happier (and healthier), you can try these easy, four minute “brain hacks” to change your brain and transform your life.  These hacks are simple, fast, and free.

Need a little motivation?  We are giving away a FREE copy of Happy Brain, Healthy Life!  The winner will be selected from a drawing.  To enter:

  • Comment on this blog post. (This gives you TWO entries).
  • Comment on the Facebook post (This gives you ONE entry).
  • Doing both will give you THREE entries!

*UPDATE* Congratulations to Heather Shue, the winner of our drawing!  Enjoy the book!