One of the most rewarding parts about living in the time we do is having the luxury of data. Across a wide range of areas, there are stories we’ve been told since we were kids that we can now either prove or disprove using scientific evidence — and one of those areas is happiness.
Growing up, I’m sure we all heard the phrase, “Don’t worry, be happy.” We’re supposed to simply look past our problems, no matter the stakes or circumstances, and move forward with a smile. Yet, today the science behind this approach suggests that it might do more harm than good.
My guest today has dedicated an enormous part of his career to understanding the neuroscience behind happiness. In this episode, we’ll discuss what people usually get wrong regarding conventional wisdom around happiness, how our thoughts affect happiness, and, most importantly, what we can do to optimize our thoughts and body! We covered a lot of ground during this conversation, so I’m pumped to share this one with you all. Please help me welcome back the one-and-only Dr. Daniel Amen to The School of Greatness!
Physician and psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen has spent decades researching how the brain and body function. His innovations and research breakthroughs have led to insights into how individuals can improve their brains and lives. He is the founder of Amen Clinics, which has the world’s largest database of brain scans for psychiatry, totaling more than 200,000 SPECT scans on patients from 155 countries.
Aside from this accomplishment, he is also the founder of BrainMD, a fast-growing, science-based nutraceutical company, and Amen University, which has trained thousands of medical and mental health professionals on the methods he has developed. In addition, he has produced 16 national public television shows about the brain, and his online videos on the brain and mental health have been viewed over 300 million times worldwide.
As an author, he brought his years of experience to light in the book, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. He reveals easy-to-follow steps for enhancing mental functioning and physical health. It became a New York Times Bestseller and has become an exciting read for anyone who wants to learn about the science of happiness. He also has other books on the New York Times list, including The End of Mental Illness, Healing ADD, and many more. His book, You, Happier – The 7 Neuroscience Secrets of Feeling Good Based on Your Brain Type, was just released this 2022.
Happiness has different meanings depending on the people you ask. For some, it results from brain chemistry, which can be changed through small changes in our habits and practices. This could mean going out and buying something new for ourselves or finally going on a vacation you’ve planned for so long.
Others suggest that, instead of spending money on something you’ll eventually get tired of, it may be essential to focus on what makes you feel good in other ways — like exercise or spending time with friends and family members you care about. After all, isn’t happiness more than just material possessions?
For Dr. Amen, although these may have their merits, there’s a different science behind happiness.
“There have been a lot of books on happiness. Many say that it all starts with gratitude, purpose, or novelty. I think that’s what most of us get wrong about it because, from my long experience in practice, it shows that happiness is determined by your brain type.” – Dr. Daniel Amen
With ten clinics conducting brain imaging for their patients around the country, Amen Clinics have looked at the brains of people with anxiety, depression, temper problems, relationship problems, memory problems, head trauma, and many more. Through this, they’re able to distinguish what ADD, depression, bipolar disorder, and autism look like in the brain. From their work, Dr. Amen has been able to identify five primary types of brains:
A balanced brain is a generally healthy brain. Dr. Amen explained that this type of brain is focused and flexible. It’s positive and relaxed. People with balanced brains are most likely to be happy.
The spontaneous type brain has two sleepy frontal lobes, which means lower inactivity. People who have this type of brain crave dopamine, a neurotransmitter triggered through activities such as eating, drinking, playing, and other behaviors that cause excitement and interest in what’s happening around them. They also need novelty, love surprises, hate routine, and want their life to be unpredictable. Dr. Amen says that, often, many young superstars have a spontaneous brain. It’s the one that affects their motivation in life, tasks, and goals.
According to Dr. Amen, the persistent brain has its front lobes working harder than everybody else. People who possess this feature hate surprises and love routines. They’re accomplishment-oriented, which means they like to finish things on time.
People who have the fourth type of brain are deeply emphatic. People who have this type of brain were damaged the most during this pandemic because they crave connection and relationships. When their relationships are good, they’re delighted. When they’re stressed, they’re miserable.
Are you the type of person who does not want to be late for appointments or will never jump out of an airplane unless the airplane’s on fire? If your answer is yes, you have the fifth type of brain — the cautious type. To make cautious-type brained people happy, they need peace and relaxation, something a good massage offers.
Now that you’ve learned about these types of brains, I challenge you to reflect and think about your brain type. Doing so can help you understand yourself better and take a step to become happier than ever!
Happiness is not simply about our practice and habits. As explained by Dr. Amen, it also has something to do with the structure of our brain. This incredible organ is also responsible for our thoughts, ultimately shaping our happiness. So what should we be aware of about thoughts?
“Our thoughts come from all over the place. They come from our genes, so trauma from a past generation can actually show up in future generations. … Your thoughts can also come from your friends, the news, from the music you listen to — the thing with these thoughts is they lie a lot.” – Dr. Daniel Amen
These words only prove that we are all a work in progress, which means we have to actively do something with our thoughts. Only then can we make positive changes that will dramatically improve our life experience and hence our happiness. Beyond that, our thoughts can also affect our bodies in ways many have never thought of.
“Every time you have a thought, your brain releases chemicals. Good, positive thoughts make your brain release chemicals that help you feel good. Immediately, your hands get warmer, and your muscles become more relaxed. Your breathing becomes slower and deeper, and your heart rate variability increases. When you have a sad, hopeless thought, your body immediately produces chemicals. You feel tense, as manifested in your shallow, lower, and more erratic breathing” – Dr. Daniel Amen
How often have you heard the statement that our minds and bodies are entirely connected? Probably a lot, and Dr. Amen emphasizes that every thought we have impacts every cell in our body.
This is where it’s important to clarify that it’s not the thoughts we have that make us suffer. It’s about the thoughts we attach to. So can we shift the negative thoughts we have? Dr. Amen believes we can do so. He explains,
“Byron Katie developed four steps to question your thoughts. They are simple but effective and can be used by anyone. If you have a negative thought that is making you feel bad about yourself or even if it’s something bothering you, take some time and ask yourself these questions: 1) Are my thoughts true? 2) Can I absolutely know that it’s true? 3) How do I react when I think that thought? 4) Who would I be without that thought?” – Dr. Daniel Amen
When we have a negative thought, our brain responds as if it’s true! It releases bad chemicals that make us feel sad, disappointed, angry, and even bitter and cynical. However, as Dr. Amen suggests, we can turn around our thoughts and change how we feel and what’s happening in our bodies by following Byron Katie’s four questions.
When you ask yourself those questions, you can realize that your thoughts were wrong or not 100% true after all! You’ll stop worrying and get on with your life feeling relaxed, calm, and happy again. Remember, we can’t escape negative thoughts completely — they’re a part of life that comes to everyone from time to time. However, identifying them is always an essential first step in turning them around!
Aside from taking control of our thoughts through Byron Katie’s technique, there is one thing we can all do to immediately improve our health and mental state: Every morning when you wake up, tell yourself it’s going to be a great day and, more importantly, to look for what’s right, rather than what’s wrong.
“I start at the beginning of the day, and I purposefully look for the smallest things that went well. That makes me happy because when we’re busy, great things happen, but we often don’t stop and reflect on them.” – Dr. Daniel Amen
This is what Dr. Daniel Amen calls positivity bias training — it’s when you train your brain to look for what’s right, not for just what’s wrong. He talks more about it in his book, You, Happier – The 7 Neuroscience Secrets of Feeling Good Based on Your Brain Type, so don’t forget to check that one out!
Positivity bias training is also different from toxic positivity, which can be dangerous because it makes us blind to our problems and prevents us from dealing with them head-on. For example, if we’re in an unhealthy relationship, we might try and find things about that person that we like and ignore their negative traits. We start ignoring all of their bad habits until they’re entirely unbearable. Yet, because we’ve been so conditioned by our positive thinking, it becomes challenging to leave them even though we know deep down that it would be better for us in every way. We’ve become so complacent with our misery that we eventually sacrifice our own happiness. If you find yourself in this situation, try following Dr. Amen’s advice — see the good, but never ignore the bad. In this way, you can have a genuine place to start being happy!
Guys, if you want to be happy or just want to have more happiness in your life, this podcast episode is a must-listen! Dr. Daniel Amen’s work is backed by scientific data and research, which makes me believe it will work for anyone. I had Dr. Amen on episodes 104, 1,120, and 1,121, but he is worth revisiting, and his knowledge about maintaining brain health is so invaluable. It’s a beautiful gift from his years of lessons, scans, and case studies, so I acknowledge him for constantly showing up and being of service to many people.
Also, if you want to know more about his latest work, get your copy of You, Happier – The 7 Neuroscience Secrets of Feeling Good Based on Your Brain Type. It’s on youhappier.com where you can get all the bonuses that come with purchasing one today! Also, share what part of this episode resonated with you the most with a friend by tagging Daniel, @doc_amen, and me, @lewishowes, with your key takeaways. Do subscribe over on Apple Podcasts because I really love hearing feedback from you guys.
I hope you enjoyed today’s episode and that it inspired you on your journey toward greatness. If you’re ready to better understand the science behind happiness and what’s holding us back from living more fulfilled lives, then Episode 1,243 is for you!