The Happy Brain

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Where’s your brain right now? Are you present and focused? Are you going to have a bad day? A stressful week? Have you thought about it? Are you ready to take on the day? If your thought process is out of order, you can’t go and change your life much less the world’s problems. Figuring “how” and “what” will help your brain-life balance is key to a happy brain. Regardless of what is actually going on, your brain is surprisingly resilient and capable of coping with unforeseen challenges that might at first seem unexplainable and overwhelming. Even when our brains get thrown a curve ball we have the capability to control its impact on our wellbeing. There are two types of control, direct control, which enables us to dictate the outcome or indirect control, which is the ability to at least anticipate outcomes. In this day and age, happiness many times comes down to accurately predicting the future, which in turn greatly reduces uncertainty and the stress on our lives.


In today’s fast paced environment mental disruptions have become an every day occurrence due to our accelerated interactive lifestyle. We face more change, which increases the demand on existing resources and every solution generates a new set of problems. Quantum theory states that all matter is restless and the appearance of stability is actually the result of a dynamic balancing act. We can try to maintain the status quo by balancing life’s disruption but this to requires a change in thinking. The question becomes, how can we attain happiness while experiencing disruption in expectations? By preparing yourself for life’s constantly escalating disruptions and expecting more than you originally anticipated. Like an exercise in gaming, instead of trying to forecast the future, focus on developing mindset that will allow you to quickly respond to life events. Happiness comes down to shifting your attention from what events might occur to how these events will be addressed. Changing the way you think about a given situation will alter your brain’s level of disruption and in turn level of perceived happiness. It follows then that happiness may simply come down to learning how to manage the disruption in our expectations. There are many misconceptions surrounding the state of happiness.  For instance, happiness is associated with accruing more money, hirer education degree, getting married, having a baby, or being promoted. The degree, the marriage and the promotion are powerful motivators as we strive towards happiness yet you soon recognize that these auspicious occasions create problems of their own inhibiting our desire for bliss. What matters is how you view happiness and the expectations tied to the feeling of happiness. Regardless of how conscious or unconscious when you gain a sense of happiness over your life, its actually stems from our ability to match expectations with perceived reality.

Our internal mindset drives our external state and how we react to a given situation. In The Happiness Hypothesis, author and philosopher Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor an elephant and a rider to help us visualize two strong forces in the brain. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is much like the rider and involves the thinking, logic center that likes to assume complete control of our lives. While the elephant is what I would compare to the limbic system and represents our emotions, which are automatic responses to outward triggers on past stored memories. The syncing of these two brain forces connect like this; there is no problem in the brain as long as the elephant wants to go where the rider directs him. Conversely when the elephant decides to venture somewhere else, the elephant will be the winner. Yet, the rider can influence the elephant’s automatic emotional responses in a significant ways over time through awareness and a change in how we think of happiness.

Influencing the brain to change its viewpoint comes down to the compromise between the elephant – PFC, the rider (we referred to as the limbic brain), our goals and desires, our thoughts and behaviors. Change the way you perceive the world around you, along with changing the automatic viewpoint of the world and you will find that what you choose to do repeatedly and over time will harness and refine the internal elephant. In other world “practice make perfect”, changing your perception changes your behavior and redefines your future choices. Happiness tends to stem from external conditions, yet it is governed by our mental pre conceived perceptions, which have been nurtured and reinforced since childhood.

When it comes to choosing happiness, we always have the power to choose what to believe and what needs to change; whether we act on those beliefs and change in order to be happy is a different question. Here is an extreme case in point, in the book The Psychopath Inside by James Fallon, he shifted through thousands of PET scans looking at the brain of serial killers to find the anatomical patterns in the brain that correlated with psychopathic tendencies in the real world. Long story short, after testing family members and friends for similarities, no one had similar PET scans to those of a serial killer. Then on a lark Fallon checked his own PET scan greeted by the unsettling revelation he had the same psychopathic brain picture of a serial killer. Then he underwent a series of genetic tests and got even more bad news. Fallon had all the high-risk alleles (genes) for aggression, violence and low empathy that had been linked with aggressive behavior in serial killers. What these labs helped him finally realized was that he was a “pro-social psychopath,” someone who has difficulty feeling true empathy for others yet has the ability to still keep his behavior roughly within socially acceptable bounds. Of course, there’s also a third ingredient, in addition to genetics and environmental factors that of “free will” which comes down to Fallon taking personal responsibility for his own personal choices. Fallon says now he is more consciously been doing things that are considered ‘the right thing to do,’ and thinking more about other people’s feelings. Bottom line Fallon changes his view of a shockingly negative outcome in order to reach a mental compromise. The question on the table is how can we design our surroundings to stack the deck in favor of the opportunity to be happy. Whether you want to eat better, move better, socialize better, live better and of course be happier, you have to optimize your environment and rethink each moment.

Of course the “moment” is a subjective experience. What provides the notion of happiness to one person may not necessarily meet the expectations of another. This notion of expectations influencing thinking is referred to as Frame of Reference (F.O.R.). In order to understand the concept of happiness you must be able to quantify this state of mind. Happiness is an internalized experience, varying in degrees, from mild satisfaction to a state of euphoria. Psychologists refer to the positive emotional state brought about by generally definitive thoughts and feelings. In contrast to a less than satisfied state of state of mind combined with low moods and negative feelings, described as a negative affect in which individuals tend to take a pessimistic approach to life situation and the unforeseen future.


Happiness signifies an increased state of enjoyment and life satisfaction. How can we ignite the feelings of happiness? Plain and simple, it comes down to frame of reference. Frame of reference (F.O.R) is the mechanisms individuals use to interpret and react to their perceived reality. And our unconscious, psychological security, and the fear of ambiguity and loss of control become key factors in whether we will be happy or unhappy.

Happiness seems to be tied to what we perceive as the status quo (the current state of affair or view of reality). The tangible emotional price of happiness occurs when we face life’s circumstances. Frame of reference effects how we think: Expectations influence perceptions, which influence how we process circumstances, which influence our interpretation of the moment, which influences are reactions and actions, which determine our level of happiness. Which means happiness is no more than a frame of reference exercise.

An individual’s frame of reference leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy or a closed loop of thinking. What that means is happiness comes down to what you expect to see or feel in any given situation. This way of thinking can become a danger or missed opportunity. Why? Because the individuals who focus on only what they believe will bring them happiness, tend to discount and ignore all other potentially beneficial information, which could contribute to another opportunity to be happy. Happiness many times is simply thinking outside the box mindset. If you can break the inertia of established beliefs, you possess the capability (a function of ability and willingness) to influence your state of happiness.



Our ability to find happiness reveals that our own happiness produces a positive impact on the lives of others, and the world around us. As well, our family and friendships directly affect our happiness impacting levels of positive affect (feelings of happiness). And when it comes down to friendships researchers have found that our ability to make friends often affects our self-esteem. It seems people with extrovert personalities tend to enjoy higher levels of happiness than introverts (Argyle and Lu, 1990). Regardless whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert developing rapport and social connections with individuals is key to the development of trust and retention of friends. Anything you can do to build new relationships or strengthen existing relationships should provide you a source of happiness.

Spouse-partner relationships can be of particular influence on happiness levels. A study across 17 countries found that marriage does tend to lead to increased levels of happiness. Cohabiting also boosts happiness but by a lesser degree than marriage. The research emphasizes secondary effects of matrimony, such as the emotional and financial support provided by a partner, which may explain this change rather than the act of marriage itself (Stack and Eshleman, 1998).

The Set Point of Happiness

With happiness comes a responsibility for ones self. Understanding what you believe or assume to be true is the criteria your brains uses to judge ideas, experiences and actions. This is referred to as your frame of reference (F.O.R). Your F.O.R becomes the set of parameters that define your mental schema or perception of life as you live each day. When it comes to happiness understanding your personal and professional frame of reference helps shape your view of reality and your “set point” or mental barometer in the face of diversity. The set point of happiness theory suggests that our level of subjective wellbeing is determined primarily by heredity and by personality traits ingrained in us early in life, and as a result remains relatively constant throughout our lives. Yes there is an actual ‘Set Point’ theory that rests on the assumption we each have a fixed ‘average’ level of happiness around which our day-to-day and moment-to-moment happiness varies. This is expressed in the idea of temperament, mood, reaction, actions and emotion. So the question of set point theory brings up whether it is possible to get any happier, or whether we’re just stuck with the genetic happiness we have been dealt and that some people will always be more naturally cheerful than others.

Genetic studies indicate that there is a significant degree of inheritance in many of our human traits, as much as 50% or so (Lykken and Tellegen, 1996). Which implies that our personal set point may not make up all of our happiness but only a fraction of it. This is where frame of reference becomes key, in the case of happiness, if our ability to change cognitive (the way you think) and environmental (the world around you) factors exists then it is possible to shift our view of life and level of happiness. With all this being said, researchers have found that our level of happiness may change in response to adversity or good fortune yet we almost always return to our set point – baseline level of happiness (referred to as “hedonic set point” by positive psychology) that we have learned to experience. The good news is that your set point can be changed. Like any other behavior when you engaging in a new repetitive practices eventually your brain lays down “new” norm of thought in your neuropathways, yet you can never completely eradicate the old behavior from your memory.  Your new thinking alters your level of perceived happiness, which in turn helps your brain to internalize and reinforce this new thinking and level of happiness. People can only change their level of happiness when they have the capacity to do so. Capacity is a function of ability combined with willingness.

Ability encompasses the necessary education, resources, skills, knowledge, or experiences to accomplish specific behaviors that lead to life satisfaction and happiness. Willingness is the motivation to apply the ability to a specific situation. Ability is having the required resources and knowing what to do while willingness is being motivated to do it.  Ability without willingness is a motivation-deficiency problem. Willingness without ability should be viewed as a skill-deficiency problem inhibiting happiness. In either scenario the desired level of happiness will not be realized. Both the ability and willingness must be present for the desired behaviors to be demonstrated to allow life satisfaction.

SELF-DETERMINED HAPPINESS                                                                       

No one moves through life without being mentally bruised. So stop your “stinken thinken.” Identify dysfunctional thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. When we feel fulfilled (having purpose) we are much less likely to be judgmental, impatient, defensive, or hostile toward others. Happiness tends to generate feelings of satisfaction, appreciation, openness, acceptance and feelings of gratitude and trust. And when you’re in a “state of happiness” it becomes contagious when around others and good things happen. Regardless of your life circumstances, happiness is cultivated through deliberate, intentional practice. The question you must be thinking is “how” does this happen and “what” best practices will I need to implement to raise my threshold of happiness.

Readiness – You really can’t measure readiness before introducing a change initiative, because the actions required to change would introduce the change. Change “readiness” is a highly subjective term-subjective in scope, subjective in degree, and subjective in the mind of the beholder. How ready is ready enough? And whose viewpoint should be used when judging ones readiness. Readiness is the degree of mental alignment between the proposed change and how you think about the change. This requires identifying all the barriers that prevent people from engaging in individual actions.

Commitment – Happiness is rooted in the commitment to be happy. Unless you are committed to attain the desired behavior and pay the emotional and financial price to attain the outcome your level of happiness will falter or fail. Commitment is evident in the investment of time, emotional energy and money to ensure the desired level of happiness, even under stress. Another measure of commitment comes from the rejection of ideas or actions that are inconsistent with your overall strategy for happiness. Commitment consists of three developmental phases: preparation, acceptance, and commitment.

Awareness – become more aware of how you think, what you think and why you think what you think. Ok you can’t control those automatic thoughts that pop into your mind, but you can determine how you express your thoughts. You can question your thinking. Basically have a talk with yourself. Practice detaching from negative paths of thought that tend to create a distressed mindset.

Proactive – Rather than allow your thinking to intrude on your life, set an intention to cultivate a more positive way of approaching each circumstance. Commit to acting in ways that raise your level of happiness. Being conscious allows your brain to override your unconscious intentions that compete with your happy thoughts.

Positive – The notion that thinking positively helps people meet their goals and keeps them healthy, happy, and able to effectively cope with the negative events that occur to them really works. There is power in positive thinking.  Positive thinking comes in different forms such as optimism, a general tendency to expect positive outcomes while self-efficacy is the belief in our ability to carry out actions that produce desired outcomes. When in the grip of crazy unforeseen circumstances, remind yourself that the degree of happiness has more to do with the way you choose to think about a circumstance or event. Yes pessimistic thoughts will manage to creep into our overall thinking yet it doesn’t reflect the whole truth about things. Negative thinking has more to do with ingrained thinking patterns. The challenge is to rethink different interpretations.

Self-fulfilling Change Cycle showed significantly higher results than all other profiles on the direct attempts strategy, suggesting that in order to increase their happiness the self-fulfilling individuals are more prone to directly attempt to smile, get themselves in a happy mood, improve their social skills, and work on their express if happiness through the use of self-control. As Nike say, “just do it,” it seems that the act of pretending to be happy through outward expressions of happiness, helps promote individuals to internalize the idea of happiness.

Invest your resources (time and money) in experiences that you know increase your happy quota. Things like learning something new, finding an adventure, joining a group that enjoy similar activities, or find your dream job.

Become more Resilient. An individual’s baseline level of resilience correlates directly to the success of specific initiatives. By understanding how resilience affects our ability to rebound from disruption, only then can we high levels of disruption to our thought process while displaying minimal dysfunctional behavior. Key aspects of resilient people:

>Physical aspects of resilience include such factors as wellness and fitness.

>Behavioral aspects of resilience include such factors as skill sets related to work and recreation.

>Psychological aspects of resilience include such factors as thinking skills and abilities.

Resilient people prosper during disorder and disruption.

  • Resilience help people regain there mental balance faster.
  • Achieve more of their objectives.
  • Maintain a higher level of happiness and productivity at work and at home.
  • Preserve their physical and emotional health

Keep in mind life is not always fair, predictable, or permanent. How you decide to respond to your feelings, moods, quality of health, and financial circumstances comes down to choices. Life will always present you with dangers and opportunities. Your ability to successfully manage happiness comes down to accepting life challenges and learning how to navigate transitions. Only then will your level of happiness shifts as new expectations are developed allowing success in the new environment.

Are You Happy?

The idea of happiness requires us to know what actually makes us deeply happy. Psychologists have found that people’s ability to predict their future emotional states is not very accurate (Wilson& Gilbert, 2005). It seems people overestimate their emotional reactions to events.


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