Neuroscience and Happiness

Perhaps you have had an MRI to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of a serious medical issue? Through the miracle of this technology, neuroscientists have been able to analyze the patterns in our brain in order to understand what makes us happy.1 Looking to increase the happiness quotient in your life in 5780?

Here’s what neuroscience tells us: 1. The Most Important Question To Ask When You Feel Down – As Jews, there is no surprise here. “. . .guilt and shame activate the brain’s reward center.”2 Is that why participating in Yom Kippur services is so important to so many of us? Apparently, worrying about our problems feels like we are doing something about them, and it feels good! Yet, “guilt, shame and worry are horrible long-term solutions.”

Instead, we should be asking the fundamental Jewish question- “What am I grateful for?” I love that quote from Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, “What could I be grateful for now if I was grateful for something?” What is really amazing, is that, scientifically, you don’t even have to come up with an answer. Apparently our brains respond positively to simply seeking an answer.

2. Label Negative Feelings – In the story of creation, Adam is tasked with the responsibility of naming every creature. Knowing, naming, what we are dealing with, is deeply empowering. I hope that you have never had to wait for a medical diagnosis, yet, if you have, you might have had that experience of a sense of relief in knowing what you are contending with. Knowledge is power. On Yom Kippur, we recite the Viddui, naming all of the ways we have gone astray, and we gather for Yizkor, acknowledging and sharing the pain of loss. Neuroscientific research validates that “consciously recognizing emotions reduced their impact.”

3. Make That Decision – When the Jewish people fled from Egypt, Moses stood at the Red Sea and pleaded with God for help. God’s response was that there is a time for prayer and a time for action, and this was the time to move forward. It was, famously, Nachshon ben Amminadav who courageously plunged into the water and led the people to safety. Turns out that a “good enough” decision can be more than enough! “Neuroscience researcher Alex Korb sums it up nicely: “We don’t just choose the things we like; we also like the things we choose.”

4. Touch People – We are all rightfully cautious of being respectful of people’s boundaries. We are sensitive about unwanted touch. It is a good practice to ask, “Can I give you a hug?”, rather than assuming that everyone is longing to be enveloped in our embrace. Yet, physical touch is so powerful that it can actually reduce pain. “Research shows getting five hugs a day for four weeks increases happiness big time.”

Join us at services for Yom Kippur. If you ask, I am confident that you will leave with enough oxytocin in your brain for a sustaining level of happiness. Ask – What Am I Grateful For? Label Negative Emotions Decide Hug, Hug, Hug You are on your way to a happier new year!

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

[1]Barker, Eric, “New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy,” https://www.theladders.com/careeradvice/neuroscience-4-rituals-happy, May 19, 2017

[2] You can read the article itself for all the scientific references to “the dosomedial prefrontal cortext, amygdala, insula, and the nucleus accumbens.”

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