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Let’s face it, we all strive to reach the elusive state of happiness, and from time to time wonder, how do we get there? We tell our children to be happy. But how do you become happier?

Much is written on the subject of happiness, with motivational websites offering all kinds of tips and secrets. How can you know what really works, and what you should do?

Research by neuroscientists has now confirmed there are four things you can do:

1 | Ask yourself an important question

There are times when worry and anxiety take over. Our brain insists on worrying about something or being anxious. According to neuroscience, when we worry or are anxious, the brain responds because we are actually doing something.

Dr. Alex Korb, author of “The Upward Spiral” says:

In fact, worrying can help calm the limbic system by increasing activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and decreasing activity in the amygdala. That might seem counterintuitive, but it just goes to show that if you’re feeling anxiety, doing something about it — even worrying — is better than doing nothing.

But worry and anxiety are ultimately unpleasant long-term solutions to our problem. So what do scientists suggest we do?

Ask “What am I grateful for?”

Apparently, gratitude is awesome on more than a purely language level. It seems that thinking about things one is grateful for increases dopamine levels (feel-good hormone).

Again, Alex Korb:

The benefits of gratitude start with the dopamine system, because feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine. Additionally, gratitude toward others increases activity in social dopamine circuits, which makes social interactions more enjoyable…

It might seem like there’s nothing to be grateful for. Some days can be that awful. Rest assured, it is the searching for something to be grateful for that activates the response you are after, even if you cannot think of a single thing that inspires gratitude.

How about thinking of, not what, but who you are grateful for? The act of telling someone you are grateful is as good as searching for something to be grateful for.

Remember, children learn by example; start telling them you are grateful they are in your life, and they will soon reciprocate.

2 | Label negative feelings

Sometimes kids feel yuck, but they cannot say what is wrong (some adults have the same problem). Work on trying to get them to label their feelings. Explain the different feelings, including, sadness, anxiousness, and so on. Understanding and putting a label on their feelings will help make them feel better.

Sound silly? It isn’t.

Alex Korb:

…in one MRI study, appropriately titled “Putting Feelings into Words”, participants viewed pictures of people with emotional facial expressions. Predictably, each participant’s amygdala activated to the emotions in the picture. But when they were asked to name the emotion, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activated and reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity. In other words, consciously recognizing the emotions reduced their impact.

Being mindful is about being in touch with your feelings, which includes labeling them. Once children are able to label emotions, they will feel better. It might take a bit of work, particularly for younger children, but it will work. Start today.

3 | Make a decision

You might remember wrestling over a problem for hours and hours, and once you made a decision, you instantly felt better. Apparently, this is no coincidence. Making decisions reduces anxiety and worry.

Research supports this:

Making decisions includes creating intentions and setting goals — all three are part of the same neural circuitry and engage the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, reducing worry and anxiety. Making decisions also helps overcome striatum activity, which usually pulls you toward negative impulses and routines. Finally, making decisions changes your perception of the world — finding solutions to your problems and calming the limbic system.

But what kind of decision do you make? A good enough decision is all that we should aim for. If you aim for perfection, you will only stress and overwhelm your brain, which is not what you want. Settle for the best decision and you will instantly reap the benefits.

Further benefits on decision making include a feeling of empowerment. Once we feel empowered, we feel good and happy.

4 | Touch someone you care about

Physical contact is important. Make sure you give your kids a hug, pat them on the back, or wrap your arms around them. Interactions with peers can also be more personal. There’s nothing wrong with giving your friends a pat on the back or a hug.

When you touch someone, you increase levels of oxytocin, a feel good hormone. It does not have to be full-on hugging. Shaking another person’s hand or a light touch on the shoulder are enough to produce the effect.

Don’t underestimate the power of touch. It is not given enough credit. Obviously, children need to be wary of being touched by strangers or in inappropriate ways by any adults. However, teaching about the importance of touch can also be an effective tool in setting boundaries and explaining about inappropriate touching.

The brain thrives on relationships. Exclusion from relationships has a negative effect on the brain and our happiness levels. It pays to teach our children to try and be kind to others around them and include them in their play.

What are you waiting for? Hug someone today. Remember eight hugs a day keep the blues away.

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