Five Simple Science Based Pathways to Happiness

Do you feel happy?

If your answer to that question is “yes but…,” I would like to invite you to consider some unconventional pathways to happiness. After all, among all the things we search for in this life, you could say that happiness is the one pursuit that is universal! In addition, scientific research clearly substantiates that happiness is linked to unimpeded well-being, peak performance, and professional success.

If you would like to experience more happiness, here are five practices based on secrets from the neuroscience of happy people that you can use:

  1. Question and redefine the important elements of your life.

Our beliefs, definitions, and values come from our familial, societal, and cultural history. These become our models of the world, and they affect our patterns of behavior and habits. For example, maybe we were raised with the belief that “to be successful in the corporate world you have to pay your dues and sacrifice your personal life.” That belief can lead to us working late evenings and weekends, which will eventually lead to complete imbalance between work and life. We can free ourselves from our history and create the future we want by carefully redefining the important terms in our life. For example, we could redefine success as “having a healthy work/life balance.” And what about our definition of happiness? Have you considered that the way we define happiness may determine whether or not we will be able to attain it? If we define happiness in an all or nothing way, for example, “I will be happy when I am a millionaire,” that sets us up for being unhappy until or if we reach that goal.

The practice: To identify definitions that inadvertently take you out of balance, a good practice is to dedicate time to observe and change beliefs that we have adopted from our environment that affect us in a negative way. Take a moment to create a list of your top three causes of stress. Then, in a second column, list the beliefs and values that are related to those elements being stressors. What terms do you need to redefine so that you can get closer to wholeness and balance? When I was a starving student in a Northern England university, I was one of the people who thought happiness was “having a million dollars.” Today I define happiness as “the ratio between expectation and outcome.” That way, I have an ongoing list of variables I can adjust to improve my sense of happiness, which lowers my level of stress.

  1. Quiet your mind.

Does mindfulness seem like a mystical practice that you are not sure you are capable of performing? What if we look at mindfulness in a way that takes the mysticism and mystery out of it? Mindfulness is simply the practice of directing our attention to the present moment. Although simple, this practice is the most robust and scientific evidence-based practice for health, productivity, and happiness. Several decades of studies show tremendous structural and functional benefits in the brains of fellow humans who have a regular mindfulness practice.

The practice: Find a small slot every day (5-10 minutes) to keep your attention only on your breath. When you notice your attention wandering off (to a negative interaction with your spouse, what you will cook for dinner, or anything else), simply notice it and bring your attention back to your breath. Little by little, you will be happy to realize that after all these years, much of your suffering was a byproduct of your thoughts and emotions. You can find my favorite guided meditation here to help you get started:

  1. Nurture your body.

We have decades of data reflecting the incredible benefits of healthy foods and exercise on our cardiovascular health. But did you know that exercise has been proven to have another significant effect? It can make you happier! Exercise has been studied as a treatment for depression for the last thirty years, ever since Professor James Blumenthal (Dept. of Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University) noticed the inadvertent benefit of exercise on reducing symptoms of depression. A more recent review (2013) by the non-profit Colchrane, a leader in gathering and sharing evidence-based medicine resources, concluded that exercise is as effective a treatment for depression as pharmaceutical treatments.

The practice: Take a few moments to plan out your week so you can slowly, but surely, add regular intervals of exercise into your busy schedule. Can you listen to a conference call, your favorite Podcast, or a TED talk while you are taking a walk instead of sitting at your desk? Although at first it may seem like a challenge to fit one more thing into your busy life, I can promise you that if you stick to it for at least three weeks, you can create a new habit for life. The positive impact on your mood of “feel good” chemicals (like glutamate and GABA) released in your brain through exercise will make you so happy you did!

  1. Turn toward what matters.

Whether we turn to neuroscience, psychology, or human experience, the evidence is clear that strong social connections are one of the most important predictors for longevity, health, and happiness! I hear sometimes that we “don’t have time for relationships” in our busy world. As it turns out, having strong relationships that act as a safety net makes us so much happier. Social connections not only flood our system with oxytocin, which reduces fear in our brain, but also create the solid core from which we can conquer the ups and downs of life with increased well-being.

The practice: Add taking the time EVERY DAY to connect with the important people in your life to your to-do list. Ask yourself what you appreciate about them and take the time to let them know. Maybe you can even put a love note in their briefcase.

  1. Cultivate the positive perspective.

Depression is the most common mental disorder in the world affecting more than 300 million people. Prominent scientists around the world have invested a significant amount of time and effort in understanding it. Today, with the insights we have gathered from the way depression affects the brain, we know exactly which parts of our brain we need to affect to build a happy brain that is resilient against depression and anxiety and we know how to do it. For example, we know positive thoughts can build the part of our brains that reduce depression and increase happiness. Best yet, we don’t have to be neuroscientists to benefit from this knowledge.

The practice: Whenever something happens to you that elicits negative emotions, acknowledge the validity of those feelings and redirect your attention to uncovering five positive elements of that experience. For example, if you were just laid off, recognize the legitimate concern about this event. Then focus your attention on how this unforeseen circumstance could perhaps provide you with a much-needed reset space to reconsider your next career move, or with time with your family, and so on and so forth.

FINAL THOUGHTS Beyond the euphoric emotions that we all associate with being happy, there are also many evidence-based benefits to our well-being when we are feeling happy. Being happier not only makes us more open, approachable, hopeful, and optimistic, but also increases our immune function and our ability to calm down in the midst of chaos.There has never been a better time to employ self-compassion and accountability toward nurturing the real sources of happiness in our life.

After all, scientific research has proven that the conventional things we historically go after, fail to make us happier. For example, a relatively recent Princeton University study by Nobel-prize winning economist, Angus Deaton, and psychologist, Daniel Kahneman showed that once one’s income level reaches $75,000 per year, no matter how much more we make, it makes no difference to our degree of happiness!

It appears that beyond the short bursts of primal happiness from having nice material possessions, enjoying a lovely meal, or making love, there is one type of happiness that is internal—one that we carry with us always regardless of the size of our bank account or the type of car we drive.

That kind of happiness hinges upon our ability to maintain a calm nervous system, even when experiences we are having are not pleasant.

Almost six decades of scientific data are illuminating significant clues on how to accomplish having a calm nervous system. We can free ourselves from past limiting beliefs that hold us hostage, redefine the important elements of our life, quiet our minds and nurture our bodies, connect with our loved ones, and focus on the positive, thereby harnessing our incredible nervous system for our health and well-being.

When we establish this sense of internal safety, we will be able to perceive the world and our life as a positive experience.

And that kind of happiness, my friend, is 100% within your control!

A Different Perspective on the Holidays: Is It the Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

Have you noticed how amazing the holidays look in commercials?

We see visions of perfection—“Martha Stewart” tables filled with fabulous, cooked food and matching napkins; people laughing and getting along; crackling fires and soothing music in the background; perfectly decorated homes and the image of the perfect family.

We would all love to be the protagonists in these holiday commercials.

But the truth is, that for many of us, the holidays are not as wonderful as the commercials show.

In real life, in the US alone,

  • Many of our families are devastated by pain from the loss of a loved one—a pain that resurfaces as we approach the first holiday season without them. Heart attacks and cancer claim the lives of a million of our loved ones each year, car accidents a million and a half, and 35,000 of us every year experience the unfathomable grief of losing a loved one to suicide.
  • 6 million of us have to survive the holidays after the devastation of divorce, and an additional number of unmarried couples cope with the aftermath of breakups.
  • Have you considered that over 43 million foreign-born immigrants live in the US? Some of us who are immigrants have families who live thousands of miles away and we don’t have any family close by to sit around our tables.
  • And then there are people who lost their jobs in the last twelve months who live with fear and anxiety about how they will make ends meet.

I am not trying to be negative here, but real life includes all of those situations that impact many of us and it is really not like the “Martha Stewart” holiday commercials.

And here is the craziest thing about this: Although we all carry our fair share of pain and suffering, more times than not, we prefer to hide it from the rest of the world. We are ashamed to admit what is happening in our life and simply choose to write “blessed” on our Facebook wall.

Did you know that research is showing that shame triggers the stress response in the same way that being chased by a mountain lion would?


Let this be a gentle reminder that regardless of our circumstances, our socio-economic status, or any other of our unique characteristics, we all experience our fair share of sadness and loneliness, which can be increased by the conditioned way we view “the holidays.” Have you considered that if we shared our vulnerabilities, instead of keeping them to ourselves, our hearts might feel lighter?

I know we all have endless lists around the holidays—gifts to buy, things to do, places to be. However, I invite you to add a few additional items to your “to do” list this holiday season:

  1. Choose kindness and compassion.

We sometimes get so busy and lost in the never-ending lists of things we have to do, that we forget how simple it is to share kind words and actions and how much of a difference this choice makes in the world. In fact, a significant amount of science has taught us that kindness and compassion are natural anti-depressants. Forget about Prozac. There are so many more things we can do to beat the blues.

—Smile to people you meet! Did you know that a simple smile registers with others more than any other human expression and gives us a sense of connection?

—Give genuine compliments. Do you notice something that is worth acknowledging in another? What if while we are stuck in a long grocery line we use this time to talk about positive things with the people close to us in line?

—Give someone flowers for no reason and wish them happy holidays!

  1. Make time and space for mindfulness.

A decade ago, a Harvard professor and his team developed an app that tracked peoples’ happiness depending on what they were doing when the team randomly checked in with them. They found that 47% of the time their minds had wandered to things outside of the present moment. Can you imagine that we are not actually present for half of our lives? (You can participate yourself by going to

How can we infuse little reminders into our day to anchor us back to the present moment?

—It could be something as simple as committing to noticing when our mind starts wandering and taking a deep breath inviting our mind to come back to the present moment.

—We can start our day by taking a few breaths to savor the fact that we are able to still breathe, and we can set an intention for the day.

—We can spend a few minutes before retiring to sleep to breathe in a sense of gratitude for all the wonderful things we experienced that day, even if the day included a challenging “crucial” conversation with someone at work.

  1. Choose happiness.

No matter how difficult life may be at times, there are still a million things we can find to be happy about.

—Our resilience—how our heart is still beating regardless of the challenges and adversity we have had to face in our lives!

—The beauty of nature and the abundance of oxygen that the trees produce for us every day.

—The people that we have in our lives to love and be loved by.

—The sunshine on our face every day, no matter how much darkness we have to deal with at times.

There is ample evidence that reflects a myriad of benefits of choosing the positive perspective: We cultivate more hope and optimism; we are more open to connection; we experience bolstered immune function and increased positive emotions, as well as an increase in our nervous systems’ “vagal tone,” which is associated with feeling relaxed, healthy, and well.

The holidays can be a wonderful time of the year, as every day of our life can be.

An important component to making our life the most wonderful it can be is to make the choice to accept and share an undeniable part of our humanness: the pain and suffering that is part of life.

Our suffering can lead to abundant love and happiness if we let it guide us in reaching out and touching the hand of a fellow human being who has experienced a loss similar to one that we have experienced; if we choose to be extra kind and extend more compassion and patience and understanding; if we all just step outside of the costumes we wear and expose our vulnerabilities.

Maybe together we can make a better world for all of us to live in.

Because after all, what will “make the bells ring” is the carol that you sing right within your heart.

Do You Have a Good Relationship With Stress?

In the midst of this crazy world we live in, fueled with uncomfortable phenomena, one thing that will never discriminate against us, regardless of our race, sex, or socio-economic status is—stress!

Stress has been described as the epidemic of the century. Prominent scientists around the world have provided us with over five decades of evidence that links stress to more than 90% of today’s disease, regardless of the color of our skin or any other of our unique characteristics.

I have had a tumultuous relationship with stress because I did not make friends with it. I am now living with some significant consequences. I have developed a musculoskeletal condition that graces me with chronic pain and restricts my activities to a great degree. Furthermore, my brain has been sculpted to be over-sensitive to stressors. This means that my amygdala (our nervous system’s alarm system responsible for identifying threats) is probably enlarged and my hippocampus (mainly associated with memory, among other critical functions) has probably experienced some shrinkage. So, you can say that finding a solution to the problematic consequences of not having a good relationship with stress has been a big deal for me.

During my diligent study and experimentation to improve my relationship with stress I came across a bewildering realization:

The dire ramifications of stress are not because stress is such a great villain, but because we don’t fully realize just how much power we have to choose how we relate to stressors and to the critical players involved with our stress response! Could it be that our “untamed” power leads us to the troublesome stress symptoms we experience?

What if we use our power to “befriend” stress?

On first thought, you may think the idea of “befriending stress” is a conundrum. The truth is, we all know how to do it. We go through the process of making friends pretty much every day in life.

In fact, making friends involves a simple two-step process:

  1. We get to know someone better.
  2. We establish safety and trust.

What if we followed the same process to improve our relationship with stress?

This week I want to talk about Step One: Getting to know stress better.

  1. What is stress?

Stress is the pressure we feel when our body goes off-balance (homeostasis) to respond to an environmental demand. In small quantities, stress is not necessarily bad as it motivates us to stretch ourselves to meet life’s demands. Imagine if you were an Olympian training to run for a gold medal. Some stress might be helpful to motivate you. Every day, we are all Olympians having to deal with situations that take us off homeostasis, which is our optimal, internal balance of essential bodily functions like temperature and heart rate. Next time you feel the subtle signs that your stress response is activated (for example, if you notice your heart rate has increased) give yourself sixty seconds to assess if the situation at hand is worthy of the activation of your stress response or not.

2. Is the reason for your stress a truth or a story?

What we don’t realize is that most of the time what triggers our stress response is the subtle, momentary interpretation we give to life situations and not the life situations themselves. For example, public speaking in and of itself does not actually pose any significant threat or danger to an organism. However, the thought of possibly forgetting our words and feeling embarrassed has the power to trigger our stress response, which we can immediately feel by the increase in our heart ratem just the same as if we had encountered a shark while swimming in the ocean. What if we shift our attention to simply recognizing how amazing it is that we are just as powerful as a shark or a bear in activating our fight or flight response, instead of allowing the power of our mind to take us off-balance?

 3. Too much of a good thing can be bad.

There are situations that warrant the appropriate elicitation of our stress response. Maybe we are in a car accident and we have to rush to provide aid for ourselves and our loved ones. A temporary, and infrequent, activation of our stress response with ample time to rest and digest what has happened in-between does not lead to health issues. However, we are now estimated to elicit our stress response over ten times a day. We are over-estimating threats and placing our bodies under a tremendous amount of unnecessary strain that does have significant short and long-term health consequences. What if we acknowledge how efficient we are at identifying threats, but shoot for eliminating one unnecessary stress response activation per week?

 4. Balance and optimal performance go hand in hand.

When we identify a situation as a threat, our thoughts and words trigger our brain to engage multiple systems in our body to address the threat. This diminishes the effectiveness of critical structures in our brain, for example, those that govern thinking; and shuts down other essential functions of our body, for example, our immune and digestive systems. In other words, when we operate under our stress response, our power is momentarily diminished and we enter a state of temporary impairment. Additionally, when we are in this defensive mode we cannot learn as well. What if we use the old advice to “pause and take ten breaths,” and then reconsider if we want to label a situation a threat, considering how powerful our thoughts and words are?

5. There are significant consequences to chronic stress.

When we allow our body systems to be used too often to address imaginary fears, like public humiliation, we are essentially exhausting our body systems by asking them to work overtime. Allostasis is the process that our body uses to regain homeostasis after it has been taken off-balance by a stressor. The total sum of all the things our body has to do to get back to its balanced state is called allostatic load. When our allostatic load is greater than our ability to recover, we enter the overload-level of allostatic load, and significant damage to organs and functions can occur. What if we consciously infuse breaks of calm in between jumping through hoops of stress as a means of boosting our resilience to life’s demands? Even sneaking out to the garden to water the plans, or creating a five minute space at work to listen to a guided meditation could be enough to restore balance in our nervous system.

We seem to frequently judge ourselves for our shortcomings, but we do not acknowledge how powerful we can be in creating not just our reality, but also our health and well-being. Although life’s demands are endless and many of them are outside of our control, what is actually within our control is working on building the resources that help us bounce back when something pushes us off-balance.

We are all drawn to rewarding experiences, and we strive to be happy. Reinstating an internal sense of safety and security is one of the most sustainable forms of happiness.

We know how to install a security system in our home to help us feel safe, but do we know how to reinstate a sense of safety in our neurobiology to improve our relationship with stress?

Join me next week for the second part of ways to improve our relationship with stress—how to establish safety and trust with stress and our nervous systems.

We cannot eliminate the sheer volume of stressors, but we can improve our relationship with our body systems and our stress response as a powerful way to live happier, healthier, and more productive lives.