The power of positive thinking
Why is stress so hard on the body?
When we are stressed, our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that shuts down the thinking center of our brains and activates conflict aversion and protection behaviors. We become more reactive and sensitive. We often perceive even greater judgment and negativity than actually exists. And these effects can last for 26 hours or more, imprinting the interaction on our memories and magnifying the impact it has on our future behavior. Cortisol can be self-inforcing, the more we think about a stressful event, the bigger and longer the impact.
Positive comments produce a chemical reaction too. They spur the production of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that elevates our ability to communicate, collaborate and trust others by activating networks in our prefrontal cortex. But oxytocin metabolizes more quickly than cortisol, so its effects are less dramatic and long-lasting.
In order to counterbalance the effect of stress, a much higher amount of positive events must happen, which in the real world, is not so easy to achieve.
Another factor which makes it harder to achieve happiness, is that every individual has a 'happiness set point'.
A happiness set point is the point on a continuum of happiness with which we are born.
In early research it was concluded that positive events (such as winning the lottery) and negative events (such as an accident) change our happiness levels for a short period of time, until after a while, we return to the baseline, our happiness set point.
Lately though it has been shown that we *can* change our setpoint. This however, is not very easy and requires hard work!
So let's look at the factors that can help influence happiness!
Dopamine motivates us to take action toward goals, desires, and needs, and gives a surge of reinforcing pleasure when achieving them. Procrastination, self-doubt, and lack of enthusiasm are linked with low levels of dopamine.
A way to increase your own dopamin levels is to not set your goals too high, or rather to break down projects into smaller pieces, allowing yourself to achieve goals more often. After each achieved goal, you should also actually celebrate your achievements by e.g. going to a music concert.
It is important to always also have laid out a plan for the next part of the project, before having finished the current one. This ensures a continual flow for experiencing dopamine.
Serotonin flows when you feel significant or important. Loneliness and depression appears when serotonin is absent. It may be one of the reasons why people fall prey to criminal activity. Unhealthy attention-seeking behavior can also be a cry for what serotonin brings. Most antidepressants help to produce more serotonin or make it last for longer.
Reflecting on past significant achievements allows the brain to re-live the experience. Our brain has trouble telling the difference between what’s real and imagined, so it produces serotonin in both cases. It’s another reason why gratitude practices are popular. They remind us that we are valued and have much to value in life. If you need a serotonin boost during a stressful day, take a few moments to reflect on a past achievements and victories.
Even without doing this, the simple act of taking lunch outside and bask in the sun for 20 minutes each day, will increase serotonin levels: UV-rays will make the skin produce vitamin D, which in return affects serotonin production. It is one of the reasons why we are so happy when the sun rays are getting stronger again in spring!