“A disciplined mind leads to happiness, and an undisciplined mind leads to suffering.”
— His Holiness the Dalai Lama XIV
THE SCIENCE OF THE HAPPY MIND By Conscious Contributor Dr. Jay Kumar
Happy International Day of Happiness! Today is a powerful reminder of how we are all united in our universal quest for happiness. Regardless of your race, faith, politics, or social status, seeking happiness transcends the human condition. While the pursuit of happiness has been a hallmark of timeless spiritual wisdom, only recently is more research in brain science and behavioral psychology revealing a profound truth—we are wired for happiness. Sadly, most of us unwittingly engage in actions and favor behaviors that sabotage our innate ability for leading a life of sustainable happiness and authentic health. I want to show you otherwise!
My name is Dr. Jay Kumar, and I am honored to be Conscious Good’s Contributor on the Mind. I specialize in brain science and contemplative studies, am a professor of the popular Happiness course at Chapman University for the past six years, and recently co-found the Applied Brain Science Research Institute (ABSRI) based in Southern California. When asked what inspires me the most about what I do, my greatest joy and purpose in life are to guide you on the road to happiness.
We are living in an exciting time in history when science and spirituality converge to reveal findings into the mysteries of our mind, the potential of our brain, and the awakening of our collective consciousness. We will explore these areas in the context of empirical scientific knowledge and experiential spiritual wisdom.
So what does brain science have to say about happiness? Apparently, quite a lot! In this debut newsletter, I share with you three findings about the “science and soul” of happiness from my own teachings from the Happiness course that apply to your life.
Your Brain Can Change – It was only a couple of decades ago that scientists simply assumed that the human brain was fixed and unalterable after reaching adulthood. One revolutionary discovery—neuroplasticity—affirms that your brain is not fixed. Rather, your brain is dynamic, plastic, and highly adaptable to your environment. While the mechanisms behind neuroplasticity herald in hope for people who experience brain trauma or suffer from dementia, there’s one other powerful aspect of neuroplasticity to help you in your daily life.
Your brain can literally restructure itself based on experience and behavior. Brain science and behavioral psychology state that your thoughts, feelings, actions, and attitudes can physically alter your brain structure, for better or worse. When you consciously change your thoughts and shift the focus of your attention, you physically change your brain—and your life.
Staying committed to practicing meditation, yoga, and gratitude on a daily basis or engaging in volunteer work, hobbies, and healthy relationships positively alter your brain, boost health, and enhance happiness. While it might not be possible to “teach an old dog new tricks,” it is certainly possible to “teach an old brain new tricks.
Gratitude Is Good – Among all the emotions we are capable of expressing, brain scans show that gratitude appears to be the one that most easily and instantly makes you feel happy! Why is that? Expressing gratitude helps you build your “empathy muscles.” Gratitude is what I call a “pro-social” emotion. By that, I mean gratitude has a powerful social benefit. Practicing gratitude helps you to feel more connected to others. Just saying the simple words “Thank you” can lift you out of your own individual concerns and serve to remind you of the joy and happiness that others bring in your life. Expressing gratitude not only benefits the recipient of your appreciation, but yourself.
Try this on your own. Every day for the next week, I want you to say “thank you” or express appreciation to three different people you encounter. It could be your mail person, your barista at the coffee shop, the security guard in your office building, or anyone who in some way helps you get through your day more easily. After you do this, notice if you observe feeling happier. I guarantee you will!
The Need to Be Needed – More findings in social neuroscience and evolutionary psychology assert that the greatest factor to your happiness is from knowing that you are part of a tribe—that you belong and that others value your presence in the world! More so than desiring a big home, a fancy car, the latest fashion, or more Twitter likes, we crave human connection. Feeling needed turns out to be the greatest source of your happiness.
One predominant focus of our research at ABSRI is to understand why humans are social beings and how the brain evolved into a social organ. It’s a powerful concept to be explored throughout future newsletters. So powerful is the evolutionary drive for social connection and belonging to a tribe that we’ve recently discovered how both social and physical pain are processed in shared regions of your brain. Put in another way, overlapping regions of your brain experience the physical pain from broken bones just as strongly as the social pain from broken bonds. Likewise, the experience of social connection provides the same euphoric sensation as eating chocolate. You are a social being whose greatest source of happiness comes from not how much you possess, but how much you belong.
Some great ways that I find of cultivating this sense of belonging is to engage in activities that promote authentic connection and community. Whether it’s going for a hike with a friend you haven’t seen in a while, volunteering at the homeless shelter, or simply cooking dinner together as a family, these are all activities that are behind the science of a happy mind.
As you celebrate this International Day of Happiness, your path to leading a life of happiness comes from practice and persistence, from discipline and dedication. All the research coming out of brain science affirms precisely the opening quote from His Holiness the Dalai Lama—happiness is the result of a disciplined mind. I share with you a nugget of wisdom that I express to my university students on the very first day of the Happiness course: “Happiness isn’t a promise. Happiness is a practice!” It’s the practice of happiness that creates real change for both you and the world.
I invite you to learn more about applying the science of happiness into your own life in my popular book Brain, Body & Being: Five Secrets for Achieving Authentic Health & Happiness.
In Health & Happiness,
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