How You Can Actually Rewire Your Brain to Be Happy

There are evidence-based tricks to make yourself feel better

More than a year into a pandemic prioritizing your own wellness may feel like an impossible task. Data from a Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed about 4 in 10 adults report symptoms of anxiety or depression. It's the new normal.

But can we actually teach ourselves to feel better? One class taught by a professor of psychology at Yale tried to do exactly that.

Watch LX News special mental health coverage all this week. Tune in to LX News every morning at 8am EST/7C/7P  and every night at 8pm EST/7C/7P as we spotlight the crisis in America.

Prior to the pandemic, Laurie Santos taught 'Psych 157: Psychology and the Good Life' for one semester in 2018. According to the New York Times, it became the most popular course in the school’s history. That same year the course was made available to the public for free on Coursera called “The Science of Well-Being.” As the pandemic started to spread, enrollment numbers saw dramatic increases. In total, more than 3.3 million people have signed up according to Coursera.

“You know, we're so worried about our physical health, we can sometimes put our mental health on the back burner, but the research really shows that that's not a great strategy,” Santos says. “We often think that focusing on our happiness is not really the thing to pay attention to during a pandemic.” Santos explains that evidence shows our happiness impacts everything from our performance at work to the function of our immune system.

More From NBCLX

Taking Care of Your Brain: How Diet, Exercise, Stress, Sleep All Play a Role

Tips for Managing Anxiety While Cooped Up at Home

Santos says countless people send cards and write thank you notes about how the class has changed their lives.

“The research shows there’s a ton you can do,” she says “Most of our happiness comes from our mind. These are the things that are completely under your control, even if you feel like you’re in a rut or having a tough time.”

In the 1990s, neuroscientists made a surprising discovery. Up until then, the belief was that adult human brain cells don’t reproduce and have a fixed number. But research started to show exercise, among other things, could create new neurons.

Neuroscientists like Tracey Shors at Rutgers University have spent decades researching how changes in habits could create measurable changes in the brain.

Shors created the MAP program that combines physical exercise and mindfulness techniques to create positive change in the brain. Shors’ program combines 20 minutes of sitting meditation with 10 minutes of walking meditation, followed by 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. It is designed to be effective and efficient at creating positive change.

“I think it’s important to realize that our brain is basically who we are,” Shors says. “It’s a physical being, and I think if you can kind of grasp that for what it is, you can be more determined to keep it healthy.” She explains if people committed to keeping their physical brain in shape the way they do their bodies, they would see results. Studies have shown the MAP program reduces signs of depression, anxiety, and signs of trauma, and can increase self-esteem and quality of life.

Emma Million, a post-doctoral fellow at Columbia and former student of Dr. Shors, believes information like the MAP research could be highly beneficial to people who are dealing with anxiety and trauma.

“It was really important to her and also to myself that the people who could benefit the most have access to this information,” Million said, “so rather than it existing in academic circles and purely scientific conferences, we wanted to reach it out to the general public because everyone can benefit from these practices.”

Research like this aims to take neuroscience out of the lab and into the world. Pushkin Media and Laurie Santos also explore research that is accessible and easily applied in the podcast The Happiness Lab.

Santos explains there are a few behaviors that research shows can improve well-being

Expressing Gratitude

Santos explains the research shows that focusing on what your grateful for can make a big difference. “The simple act of noticing the blessings that you have in life can end up changing your mind in really interesting ways” Santos explains that gratitude can help with self-regulation during stress. One way to focus on what you’re grateful for is through a journal. End your day by writing down three to five things you’re grateful for.

Social Connection

While the pandemic may have made socializing harder, committing to doing it safely can have big benefits, Santos says. “Every available study of happy people suggests that happier people are more social, they spend more time with friends and family members, they just are around other people more often.” Research suggests that taking the time to schedule a socially distant walk or connect via video chat could improve happiness.

Being Present

Taking the time to try and focus on the present moment can make you feel better, whether it’s through a meditation practice or just taking the time to notice small things. Santos says the key here is to focus on being nonjudgemental. “The research shows that baby steps here can be incredibly important,” she says.