The happiness hack: Fire together, wire together

Neuroplasticity is a catch-all for the brain’s capacity to alter, adapt, and adjust its structure and function throughout a lifetime of experiences that can involve functional changes due to brain damage or structural changes due to learning, writes Nausheen Fazal.
Last Updated : 06 July 2024, 21:05 IST

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For centuries, the pursuit of happiness has been a central theme in philosophy. In recent decades, science has revealed that happiness is not just a fleeting feeling but also a state of being we can cultivate. This journey to joy starts with understanding two powerful tools: neuroplasticity and positive psychology. Simply put, plasticity is the ability to change, mould, or shape. The brain’s remarkable ability to change over time by creating new neurons and neural networks and eliminating unnecessary ones is known as neuroplasticity.

Dr Shivakumar HR, a consultant neurologist at Gleneagles BGS Hospital in Bengaluru, explains, “Neuroplasticity happens by structural changes and functional changes at the neuronal level by strengthening or weakening of existing connections or creation of new connections. As per Hebbian theory, ‘Neurons that fire together, wire together,’ meaning persistent stimulation of a group of neurons enhances brain plasticity.”

Doctors suggest neuroplasticity as a means of improving mental health because it allows the brain to adapt and change over time. This means that even with negative experiences or genetics, a person can develop more positive thoughts and behaviours. Neuroplasticity offers a drug-free and long-lasting way to improve psychological well-being. Engaging in neuro-promoting behaviours can strengthen neural pathways associated with pleasure and change, weakening those associated with negativity.

Sumalatha Vasudeva, a psychologist at Gleneagles BGS Hospital, notes that the potential to discover a sense of inner calmness and joy is inbuilt in all of us but is often untapped due to a fixed mindset and lack of practice. Neuroplasticity enables changes in neural pathways, enhancing the ability to learn, develop, and change. Positive psychology, the study of happiness, complements neuroplasticity by promoting practices that lead to joy and resilience. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a cornerstone of positive psychology, offering practical methods to challenge negative thought patterns. Our brain often falls prey to cognitive distortions like ‘all or nothing’ thinking, hindering happiness. CBT identifies these distortions and replaces negative thoughts with more realistic and empowering ones.

Dr Rohit Pai, a neurologist at KMC Hospital in Mangaluru, explains that every emotion has a biological substrate. Neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin are responsible for happiness. Neuroplasticity allows the rewiring of brain cells, and when paired with happiness-boosting habits, it increases overall well-being.

Numerous books have been written to guide individuals towards a joyful life. For instance, Laurel Mellin’s book Wired for Joy: A Revolutionary Method for Creating Happiness from Within discusses the brain’s flexibility. It asserts that understanding the state of the brain helps us return to a joyful state of mind by providing ideas on how to ascend from a stressed or anxious condition.

Our brains are constant worry machines, either stressing about the future or dwelling in the past. Dr Lokesh B, a consultant neurologist at Aster CMI Hospital, suggests that the brain can be rewired to experience joy through consistent engagement in activities that trigger happiness and strengthen the brain’s happy circuits. Repetitive negative thoughts or stressful situations can strengthen neural networks associated with negativity. By consciously engaging in activities that promote relaxation, we can reduce the dominance of negativity. Consistent effort is required to practice activities like mindfulness meditation and CBT. While neuroplasticity has its limits due to genetics and life experiences, relaxation activities can foster a joyful outlook. Mindfulness, focusing on the present moment without judgement, activates the prefrontal cortex, that’s responsible for emotional regulation and focus, enabling us to see the small pleasures in life.

One of the most common mental illnesses, depression causes negative neuroplasticity in specific brain regions, correlating with symptom severity, negative emotional rumination, and fear in learning, Dr Harsha GT, a consultant psychiatrist at Manipal Hospital, explains that depression is correlated with the atrophy of neurons in brain regions controlling mood and emotion.

“In modern society, depression is one of the most common mental illnesses; however, its pathophysiology is not yet fully understood. A great body of evidence suggests that depression causes negative neuroplasticity in specific regions of the brain which are correlated to symptom severity, negative emotional rumination as well as fear of learning. Depression is correlated with atrophy of neurons in the cortical and limbic brain regions that control mood and emotion. An important finding in patients receiving antidepressant therapy is an increase in functional connectivity in subcortical regions (hippocampus, parahippocampus, insula, orbitofrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex) and neocortical regions (differential prefrontal cortex regions); additionally, this was correlated with a clinical improvement in symptoms of depression,” adds Dr Harish.

Brain stimulation techniques like transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), and vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) are some of the invasive ways of non-pharmacological techniques which have demonstrated similar results, mostly used during antidepressant failures, offers Dr Harish while other non-pharmacological ways include environmental enrichment, CBT, physical exercise, social interaction, and dietary modifications.

Dr Abhilash Bansal, a senior consultant neurosurgeon at SPARSH Hospital, emphasises that physical exercise stimulates endorphin secretion, enhancing mental functions and emotional well-being. Setting realistic targets and achieving them brings a sense of satisfaction and joy. Meditation and yoga promote neuroplasticity and emotional regulation, providing individuals with tools to improve their mental health.

Experts suggest various practices to reinforce joy and happiness, including keeping a gratitude journal, engaging in physical activity, practicing kindness, mindfulness, and regular meditation, playing memory games, intermittent fasting, learning new languages or musical instruments, healthy eating, adequate sleep, and engaging in expressive activities like painting and dancing.

Published 06 July 2024, 21:05 IST

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