If we want to feel better about ourselves and turn to healthier behaviors, then it’s helpful to know how we can stimulate our own brain reward centers to help us avoid the negative/unhealthy behaviors we are trying to avoid.
(This is a continuation of the article: How to feel good without losing weight: hack your behavior with this one trick )
Anyone wishing to adopt healthier behaviors and who are frustrated by failing to change ingrained behavior may find it helpful to start strategically using these brain pleasures at specific times in order to help turn our brain’s attention away from what we’re trying avoid.
I’m a big believer that healthy behaviors have to hit those brain reward centers ASAP to help us stick with them. Why? Because healthy behaviors have to compete with so many neutral to unhealthy behaviors that also hit our reward centers quickly.
What’s a brain reward center and why do they matter?
A reward center is a region (or regions) in our brain that light up when certain circuits (neurons activating together) and associated chemicals (neurotransmitters and hormones) interact in our brain, in response to stimuli (experiences), expectations of pleasure, and even the release of pain.
(You can use pleasure center or reward center interchangeably.)
A great example of a reward center is the pleasure we get when eating our favorite foods.
Eating food will usually stimulate our brain pleasure centers through the action of the brain chemical Dopamine. (Dopamine is a very prominent feel-good chemical in the brain.)
And in fact, they say eating refined sugar lights up our brain on MRI scans brighter in more areas than many addictive drugs.
If you believe people are motivated to either seek pleasure and avoid pain (as many, many psychologists do – called the hedonistic theory of behavior) then we can plan to use our own reward/pleasure centers to encourage our own positive behavior…You might say to hack our own behavior.
Many of these seven practices stimulate the brain chemicals dopamine and/or serotonin, or release brain reducing chemicals like endorphins.
Thank you, Captain Obvious?
So, first things first: you’re going to read a few things on this list and say “Well, duh!” — of course this feels good. And you’d be right in saying so…Normal people just do these things and say “that was fun.”
Funny enough, intellectuals and scientists have to spend the time to explain why something that’s natural is natural…which makes intellectuals and scientists seem kind of silly to normal people.
And surprise, surprise – many, many of these brain pleasures are found in the everyday experience of spiritual and religious practice or activities that bring us together in community..
1 – The pleasure of smells and scents
Everyone has had the experience of having a memory or emotional response to a particular scent or family of scents.
The olfactory nerve is tied directly into our brains, so any smell we smell is actually a compound that is causing a chemical reaction that leads directly into our brain, into the hippocampus and amygdala (limbic system). It also influences our taste receptors.
Yankee Candle, the perfume industry, and now essential oil companies have built empires using this fact of physiology.
But aromatherapy has been used for thousands of years for medicinal purposes, including the influence of behavior and mental health.
Smells lead to emotional and motivational changes.
That’s why the use of incense in nearly every major religious ceremony to create a state of focus or awareness is a historical fact.
Studies of plant oils on EEG (measuring brain waves), have shown that certain smells can shift our brain wave patterns into different states, from more alert to subdued and back again.
Some people have gotten wise and realize that they can influence their own mood, anxiety, alertness, and food cravings by manipulating the scents in their environment.
Why fight off the temptation to have a bag of donuts when you can inhale some peppermint oil and feel better that way?
If you want to dig into the science behind why we can rock our brain reward centers with scents, start here: Influences of fragrances on human psychcophysiological activity
Your essential oil addicted auntie may be onto something you need.
2 – The pleasure of being intentionally thankful or donating to a good cause
If you want to start your day with more energy than you’ve had in a long time, send a short, heartfelt email to someone who’s made a positive difference in your life…Even if you haven’t spoken to that person in years.
Writing thankful notes can be incredibly addictive. So can intentionally writing down everything we are thankful for in a given day.
The act of reflecting on the miracle of a glass of clean drinking water has enough power to disrupt even the most negative of moods (as one of my own mentors recently reminded me.)
And so can taking a short amount of time to donate time, money, or talents to a good cause.
New science is uncovering the connections between charity/altruism and intentional gratitude, seeing them as activating the same areas of the brain; areas that make us feel good and energize us.
We can get addicted to a lot of negative things.
We can also get addicted to giving and gratefulness, which is probably why most recovery programs and many religious practices encourage alms giving and acts of penance/reconciliation that include being intentionally grateful for others, including those who trouble us the most.
It sounds almost too simple to work. But many people have rescued themselves from negative thought patterns, behaviors, and even destructive relationships simply by saying “Thank you” and discovering the pleasure of gratitude.
Read more: New thoughts about gratitude, charity, and our brains
3 – The pleasure of humor and laughter
Laughter is linked to joy.
And looking at the experience of many comedians of recent history, there also a link between intelligence, sense of humor, life difficulties, and negative behaviors like addiction.
Humor can be a coping mechanism for many who end up giving into their demons.
But, for every one famous comedian who gives into negative behavior, there may be a thousand (perhaps a million?) everyday people who find a good laugh empowers them to stick with positive behaviors they want.
Especially if they are laughing among friends.
Humor and what makes something funny still isn’t fully understood yet.
But let’s just say the most popular theory is this: when something that defies our expectation about reality happens, a distortion is created that interrupts our pattern of thinking, creating a tension that we have to resolve…and we find this process funny.
It certainly doesn’t sound that fun when you read it like that, but this feeling of funny deep in our brains is deeply rewarding!
So why not use it to our advantage?
EEG studies of people looking at funny pictures has revealed that they are stimulating the same brain centers that handle memories and emotional processing. The “more funny” we would expect something to be, the more it stimulated those centers.
In other words, we have use our very civilized brain cognition together with our “primitive” emotional processing. And this experience feels good and can help us reset negative patterns of thinking.
That phrase “We just laughed and moved on” has some real truth to it.
If a good hearty laugh can shift our brain waves and our mood, then perhaps we can hack our own behavior by intentionally seeking the funny instead of letting someone else set our mood for us.
For example, I know that if I’ve had a slightly frustrating day at the office, I’m much better to deal with when I go home if I’ve take a few minutes to listen to some stand up comedy…Like this bit from Jim Gaffigan.
Read more from a not funny article: Humor drawings evoked spectral and temporal EEG processes
4 – The pleasure of sound and frequency
Let’s state what we all know from personal experience: certain sounds and frequencies, mostly in the form of music can shift our mood almost instantly.
While we know this, it’s probably never occurred to many of us to use music intentionally at certain periods of the day to enhance our mood or productivity, or to disrupt the thought patterns that lead to negative behaviors.
Why does music do this? Here’s just one reason…
“[A 2011] study from The Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital — The Neuro at McGill University also reveals that even the anticipation of pleasurable music induces dopamine release [as is the case with food, drug, and sex cues]. Published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the results suggest why music, which has no obvious survival value, is so significant across human society.”
Some people turn to the happiest songs of the Top 40 from recent and prior years. Others dive deep into the classical works or jazz for feel good feelings.
And others have discovered that stripping music down to repeated tones of certain frequencies (like the sound of the ocean) is powerful enough to create happiness or calm.
After all, plain chanting certain feel-good tones been part of the human experience for a long time.
Solfeggios, Binaural Beats, Isochronic Tones, and the Schumann Resonance are a few keywords to explore if you want to play with power of sound/frequencies on the human brain.
One study: Dopamine modulates the reward experience elicited by music
Read more: Science says listening to this song will reduce stress by 65%.
5 – The pleasure of novelty or learning something new
If you’re familiar with retail therapy, then you’re familiar with feed good effects of novelty. Some people get such amazingly good feelings when they go shopping, that it can lead to spending issues.
Why does this happen?
Because learning and experiencing new things (novelty) will stimulate the feel-good chemistry in our brain, and shopping is one powerful way to hit the novelty button.
But there are other, less costly ways as well. And one effective way is to learn something new…Just for the sheer pleasure of learning something new.
A study in Harvard Business Review looked at employees experiencing work stress and found that coping with stress with “learning breaks” was more effective than encouraging employees to power-through their work or to take a mindless mental break.
When you want to avoid a negative behavior, try on some novelty, by learning something new.
Personally, I have found turning to short documentaries on interesting animals hits that novelty button for me when I’m trying to break out of a stressful mood or thought pattern.
It’s not really information that I need to know. But nonetheless it’s fascinating and feels meaningful, because I’m learning something about the world that I might be able to share with a friend or one of my children.
For example, try watching these wild goats scale nearly flat walls and experience the pleasure of novelty.
Read more:To cope with stress, try learning something new
6 – The pleasure of prayer and meditation
To paraphrase an idea from the study of the brain and religion, whether one believes in a higher power, it’s certain that religious practice has a definite impact on the human brain and its function.
Prayers and meditations of various kinds have been studied for their effect on brain processing, brain wave function, and their effects on mood and other physiology.
For example, certain forms of meditation have been shown to raise feel-good chemicals dopamine and serotonin, suppress anxiety chemicals like noradrenaline, and even activate a chemical process associated with the release of small amount of natural DMT, a natural hallucinogenic.
Depending on the form it takes, those who pray and meditate regularly can expect to experience positive and lasting change in brain function.
From 12 step programs to vision quests, the feel-good effects of seeking the divine have been a powerful way for human beings to disrupt negative thought patterns and behavior and feel empowered for the difficulties of life.
As many religious practices combine the effects of music/sound, with gratitude, and even the positive psychological effects of scent, it makes sense that humans feel the need for spiritual ritual, because it feels good .
Study: The neurobiology of spirituality
7 – The pleasure of going outside
A life stuck inside is a modern problem.
So much of what exists in nature can have a direct effect on our mood and our sense of happiness.
Here’s one example: while we’re all familiar of the reported risk from long term exposure to UV light, the sun stimulates the release of endorphins in the blood stream helping us to feel good in the sun’s rays. (That combined with the isochronic tones of waves means going to the beach will always feel good.)
And trees? They appear to be directly linked to our sense of well being.
“Studies on the positive effects of being near trees have shown an astounding association between better mental and physical health, including lowering blood glucose (HbA1c) and blood pressure in non-insulin dependent diabetic patients.
“An influential case-control study observed that patients with views of a tree through their window (versus view of a brick wall) had significantly shorter recovery times following gallbladder surgery…”
“In Japan, the percentage of forest coverage was significantly inversely associated with the standardized mortality ratios for lung, breast, and uterine cancers in females, and prostate, kidney, and colon cancers in males after adjusting for smoking and socio-economic status.”
Studies have also shown a link between pre-term births and the number of trees in an urban area, and the number of Natural Killer immune cells in the blood stream and exercising in a forest!
Climbing a tree, “forest bathing” or just gazing on a tree may be enough to turn our mood and health around!
Learn more: Urban trees and human health: a scoping review, Sunlight makes pleasure chemical in the body
Time to get strategic about rewarding your brain with pleasure?
The principle behind hacking our own brain reward system is simple: The brain will seek pleasure and reward…so make healthy pleasures easy to access, and make the unhealthy pleasures harder to access.
If we’re wishing to avoid the reward of negative behaviors, then we need to be ready for the potential stimulation of a positive reward. In other words it may be helpful to get strategic about behavior by planning brain pleasure alternatives, especially when we know we’re going to be tempted to give in to old patterns.
If coffee and a cigarette is the reward your brain is expecting for your next work break, then a cup of green tea and 10 minutes of laugh-out-loud stand-up comedy might be at the ready to get you through — not with you relying on will power per se — but by diverting your brain’s reward expectations into a different way of being satisfied.