The mind isn’t technically a muscle, far from it, but it’s a useful way to conceptualise it in order to start thinking along the lines of creating positive change on a cellular level. In this post we’re going to discuss how we can rewire our mind for happiness, and by extension, find positivity, calm, focus and attention - and it all begins with neuroplasticity.
The Neuroscience of Change
Neuroplasticity is the mind’s ability to change the brain. It’s only recently that scientists have extensively studied and confirmed that our mental machinations (our thoughts and schemes, the way we think etc) do actually alter the physical structure of our brain matter. Pretty incredible when you think about it!
There are two main ways to ‘rewire’ the brain’s thought processes and associations: Mindfulness meditation and CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), and we’ll be discussing the former in this blog post particularly in relation to boosting our happiness levels - p.s. If you haven’t already read our piece on mindful eating, you can find that here.
It’s also worth noting that a regular gratitude practice, exercise (we love endorphins), and acceptance are all ways in which we can alter our minds and our thought patterns, and they’re all simple and efficient (and free!) to implement in the short term.
In order to discuss how we rewire our minds for happiness, we need to talk about serotonin (our happy hormone), dopamine (a neurotransmitter that plays a role in pleasure, motivation and learning) and inflammation.
Inflammation, Serotonin and Dopamine
It’s fair to say that life in lockdown has not been easy for all of us, and whilst it’s true that for many people their quality of life has actually improved, for others the stress and anxiety that comes with the constant worry about catching Covid-19, relatives that are at risk, entertaining or homeschooling kids all day or struggling to do your office job the kitchen table, has made life pretty tough over the last few months. Anxiety, stress and negative thought patterns can develop, and it can be hard to dig our way out of them when every day brings the same routine.
Sources vary when it comes to putting a time frame on how long neuroplasticity takes to come into full effect, and range from anything between 3-4 weeks and ‘it depends’ based on age, sex, gender, circumstances and health conditions1. It’s fair to assume that if you were going to work with a CBT therapist you might expect to see some concrete results in a defined period of time, but that meditation and self-practices like journaling and positive affirmations might take you a little longer. But in the grand context of life, what’s a few weeks or months, if it’s going to make a huge difference in your happiness levels in the long term? Time to get meditating!
Depression, Anxiety and Meditation
Negative thought patterns and depression are linked to the compromised receptivity to certain neurotransmitters and hormones when we’re stressed, namely serotonin and dopamine. This essentially means that the hormones we secrete might not hit their target in the brain as accurately as we might like. Moreover, most people with depression have high levels of glucocorticoids - the steroid hormones that are made when we get stressed or anxious and have the effect of inhibiting any process in the brain that is not ultimately geared towards immediate survival (that old ‘fight or flight’ mechanism again). Not only this but inflammation, something that so many of us cope with on a daily basis now due to the nature of our modern lifestyles, also causes depression and anxiety. It’s been said that depression is essentially an inflammatory condition.
How does Meditation and Mindfulness work?
Meditation and mindfulness practices place us firmly back inside our bodies and allow us to find internal security rather than needing to get all our calming and happy signals from the outside world. It also acts to calm inflammation by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), our ‘rest and digest’ state. When we activate our PNS we’re far more likely to produce dopamine and serotonin (our happy hormone) in the right quantities and with the correct physiological response.
Jill Lavender, co-founder of The London Meditation Centre says that meditation “creates a natural, endogenous response in your physiology, so rather than ‘fight-or-flight’, it activates the biochemistry of ‘stay-in-play’. Dopamine and serotonin are released, and all the things that are the opposite of cortisol and epinephrine and what your adrenal glands are producing. What the deep rest of meditation is doing is it’s allowing for the system to move away from that stress state and in doing so release the stress that has been building up in the system2.”
How meditation can boost your happiness by promoting deep rest
The truly fascinating thing about meditation3 is that its been proven to promote a deeper state of rest than sleep. Scientists gathered this evidence by looking at the body’s metabolic rate, which is generally taken to be the most accurate measure of your body’s activity levels because activity requires oxygen - so the lower your metabolic rate, the less oxygen you’re using and therefore the more rest you’re getting.
In 1970, Dr Robert Keith Wallace found that oxygen consumption decreased during Transcendental Meditation by 20% after just 5 minutes. In a later paper in the American Journal of Physiology, he found that during a period of 7 hours sleeping, oxygen consumption decreased by 15% thus leading to the conclusion that meditation promotes a deeper resting state than sleep.
Now we all know how grouchy we can get when we’re tired and exhausted! The good news is that you don’t need to take a long nap during the day to regain your equilibrium and positive mental attitude, just 20 minutes of Transcendental or Vedic meditation will do the trick.
Oprah meditates. Need we say more?
Jokes aside, there are many high profile celebrities and CEOs that swear by meditation for their health. Former Yahoo executive-turned-Linkedin CEO, Jeff Weiner, blocks out time in his calendar each day to practice his meditation, Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post has been meditating since she was a teenager, and everyone’s favourite podcaster, Joe Rogan, says that meditation allows him to focus on various different projects with a cool head.
If you’re keen to give a taught meditation practice a go during lockdown then have a Google, many T M, Vedic and Beeja Meditation specialists have taken their coaching online. Or if you’re new to the meditation and mindfulness game, you could start out with some simple mindfulness exercises using the Calm or Headspace apps for more of a guided meditation experience.
It's time for some serious zen!