Over two hundred years ago, President Abraham Lincoln famously said, "Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be." Is that even possible today in the midst of a global pandemic?
Christian psychiatrist Daniel Amen, M.D. believes each of us can raise the degree of happiness we experience even in the midst of challenging circumstances like the ones we are facing today.
The COVID-19 pandemic sent mental health crises through the roof. Over the last two years, adult depression tripled while depression and anxiety disorders among children more than doubled.
"Americans are the unhappiest they have been since the Great Depression," Dr. Amen told CBN News.
However, he says it doesn't have to be that way. "With the right strategies you can learn to be happier in a short period of time," he said.
After studying more than 200,000 brain scans, Dr. Amen discovered neuroscience techniques that can lead to increased happiness. He then tested them on his patients and found an average 32 percent improvement after one month.
"I was pretty excited about it," he said. "What most people don't know is happiness is a moral obligation. God put us on the earth to be happier. If you ask someone who was raised by an unhappy parent or married to an unhappy spouse whether or not happiness was a moral obligation I can assure you they would say, 'yes.'"
What's Your Brain Type?
In his book, You, Happier: The 7 Neuroscience Secrets of Feeling Good Based On Your Brain Type, Dr. Amen prescribes different happiness strategies based on a person's personality type. He says there are 16 different types, which are combinations of five main ones.
"There are balanced people, almost anything will make them happy, spontaneous people who need novelty, persistent people who need routine and hate surprises. There are sensitive people, they got hurt the worst in the pandemic because they need other people and they need connection. And then there are cautious people who need to feel safe," he said.
Dr. Amen says while he recommends a targeted approach to happiness based on a person's brain type, there are certain things everyone can do to raise their happiness level, regardless of their personality. The first step involves boosting your overall brain health.
Strengthen Your Brain
Believe it or not, our diet plays a major role in how well our brain functions. The types of foods and drinks we consume directly contribute to the way we think and feel through a complex system of neurotransmitters, hormones, and more. Dr. Amen says good brain health begins with minimizing the consumption of junk foods like sugary, processed foods and drinks that are loaded with chemical additives and lack fiber and other nutrients.
Dr. Amen points out the very foods that comfort us while we are eating them, actually make our mood worse in the long run.
"We reach for things that help us feel better now, but not later," he said.
Dr. Amen says much like junk food, some people tend to reach for alcohol to feel better at the moment, but in the long run, boozy beverages are best avoided.
"I'm just not a fan," he said. "People who drink every day have smaller brains."
Dr. Amen says supplements can also help improve brain health. While making recommendations based on personality type, he adds just about everyone can benefit from heavy-hitters like a multivitamin, probiotic, vitamin D, and fish oil as well as lesser-known supplements that really pack a punch.
"My favorite for happiness is saffron," he said. "It's been shown in 24 randomized controlled trials to be equally as effective as antidepressants."
Control Your Thoughts
In addition to improving brain health, another key to boosting happiness levels is learning to control our thoughts. Dr. Amen suggests several techniques to identify thinking patterns that lead to unhappiness and how to reverse them.
"Whenever you feel sad, mad, nervous, or out of control," he explained, "write down what you're thinking and then challenge it. You don't have to believe everything you think."
Dr. Amen recommends the Biblical practice of replacing negative thoughts with positive ones.
"Philippians 4:8: Think on whatever is true, right, lovely, worthy of praise. Let your mind dwell on these things, focusing on what you're grateful for, starting every day with, 'Today is going to be a great day,' pushing your brain to what's right, not just what's wrong," he said. "Notice what you like about other people more than what you don't."
Go on a Media Diet
Dr. Amen recommends limiting time online, pointing to research showing social media increases suicide risk in teenage girls, which he believes could be just the tip of the iceberg.
"I think it's very important for parents to supervise the feeds that go into their children's brains," he said. "And we should supervise them for ourselves."
Just like with social media, Dr. Amen says many people would likely be happier if they cut back on their consumption of negative news stories.
So while genetics and circumstances can play a role in our overall happiness, it appears our choices and habits play even bigger ones.
This story was originally published on Feb. 28, 2022.