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When making decisions, we need to take life seriously, but when we can’t influence outcomes, taking a big picture view is healthier.

A comprehensive guide to achieving satisfaction

Each and every one of us strive to achieve satisfaction. We put a lot of time and effort in our work. It’s so complex and ambiguous. Ask people to describe satisfaction and you will either get unhelpful, cliche responses or a 2AM-dorm-room-philosophy-discussion. /hea

Our brain, though, attempts to achieve satisfaction.

Tough. Strong.

It’s a natural computer for pattern analysis, checking for what works and what doesn’t, generalizing knowledge, creating forecasts and recording reviews.

However, we still make wrong turns, we grow poor behaviours, and we don’t really realise what happy streets are anymore. We go through a downward spiral that’s no pleasure and that’s just as badly wanted by the community as another true crime podcast is needed.

The positive news is that, once we can move through the abstract term and worry of the tangible steps to get there, we really have a lot of power over our satisfaction. Studies demonstrate that 40 percent of our satisfaction is beyond our influence. (Think back to school if that doesn’t seem like a lot; 40 percent is the gap between an A and an F.)

So, we will develop healthier behaviours and build an upward trajectory of pleasure by doing the right things. This is really backed up by a really serious pinky swear from you. Don’t believe me though. Let’s get the details from a professional …

Alex Korb is a UCLA neuroscientist in the psychiatry department and the author of The Upward Spiral Workbook. In order to maximally maximise smile efficiency, we’ll break down some of what Alex suggests and learn what your grey matter really requires.

Let’s get down to it …

Unhelpful Ideas Challenge

That sounds a little strange, but the language is fairly intentional. We get a bit more concentrated on what is “real” and not what is “helpful” while we feel depressed.

A whole bunch of stuff is real. The cancer is actual. “One day you’re going to die” is real. If satisfaction is your goal, is an unnecessary amount of time worrying about it helpful?

We believe happiness is about wealth or passion or accomplishment, but the fact is that your happiness is more decided by the thoughts in your mind and the vast majority of the time that’s what your focus is. You can’t monitor what thoughts come up now, so you can determine what’s beneficial and try not to pay any more focus to the unhelpful thoughts than they warrant.

And the other major thing about ideas that we have is only treating them too literally. They’re ideas. Opportunities. Yet it’s not gospel. Thoughts are also the voice of the lower brain. Before you consider acting on stupid worries and anxieties, you ought to have your prefrontal cortex on the case and analyse them rigorously.

So listen to your feelings, but do not trust them actually. Don’t run for them until the Department of Quality Management in your head has signed off.

From The Workbook on the Upward Spiral:

Yet your words, the whisperings of your limbic system and your striatum, are only thoughts. Thoughts are things that you have, but not who you are. You are not a limbic organ of yours. You’re not a striatum of theirs. It will be something we revisit in this book to recognize, accept, and reframe unhelpful feelings. Taking these small measures allows the prefrontal cortex to come back in charge of a runaway limbic mechanism (Ochsner et al., 2004)

All that is well and dandy, so how can we recognise unhelpful ideas?

Luckily, the regular suspects were rounded up by Alex:

1) Black and White Thinking: 

There is just 100% good and 100% bad in superhero films. Frankly, often, if life was that simple, it would be great, but it’s not. And when it comes to your mood, if you know there are heaps amounts of complexity to most things, you’ll be much happier.

2) Unreasonable Expectations: 

Did I suggest that this blog post would automatically and permanently make you happy? Oh, no. But if you assume that, just imagine who’s going to be disappointed? You. You. (And me, honestly.) Cynicism is evil, but it is important to have a little scepticism. A perfect way to ensure all about existence sucks is constantly unreasonable aspirations.

3) Selective Attention: 

If the subconscious looks for the bad at all moments, believe me, you can locate it. The best aspect of pleasure is insight. You could read this article and think, “This is so much to do, Oh my goodness!” Or you might say, “Oh, I have so many ways to maximise my satisfaction!” “Same reality, different outlook. And they contain very distinct emotions.

4) Disqualifying the Positive: 

We move into problem-solving mode often and work only on what is broken. But if you sit in this picture the entire time, it’s a one-way ride to Zoloft’s planet. There are many positive things going on and you ought to enjoy them. “Nobody has ever claimed” it’s a safe idea to take anything for granted. “Life might still be worse, but it’s not. Offer it, because it’s due.

5) Forecasting the future: 

“This is never going to succeed” or “They’re going to assume I ‘m crazy.” The future is unclear to you. So don’t behave as you are. (But if you ever do, please give me the lottery numbers for tomorrow. Thank you.)

7) Feelings “should”: 

This is a major one. I recommend deleting from your vocabulary the term “can”. “But she’s meant to …” Usually, it’s only an insistence that the universe can adapt to your will, and it’s a perfect way to raise anger. (Click here for more about the intrinsic horrors of “should”.)

Create a list of the most popular habits of unhelpful thinking. (It may be nice and humbling to have a buddy assist you.) It is powerful to mark these suggestions. Offer them dumb names.

And when they hijack the brain next time, fight them. Don’t beat up on yourself. Only play a game to capture yourself in the act, mark the concept, and then suggest more useful ways to look at the problem. This is an absurdly heavy habit to get into.

(Check out my bestselling book here to read more on how you can lead a happy life.)

Okay, let’s get your head out of there. There’s just so much going on inside. Outside of that, a large portion of life really takes place, believe it or not. And the brain can’t handle life as a competitive sport if you want to maximise satisfaction. You’re going to need …





Do More Stuff

The hallmark of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) is to work with unhelpful thinking habits and it is the single most validated tool for improving mood and reversing depression. Yet “Behavioral Activation Treatment” is another very potent scientific method.

And, really, that’s a very fancy word in psychology for “do more things.”

From The Workbook on the Upward Spiral:

Your behaviours have repercussions for the operation and chemistry of main neuronal circuits, whether deliberate or accidental. A reality you should take advantage of in order to produce an upward spiral. One of the most efficient therapies for depression is abused by this idea: behavioural activation therapy. The aim of behavioural activation is to modify unhelpful habits that lead to stress and to introduce more helpful ones. This form of technique has been shown to change the function of the medial prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, and dorsal striatum, respectively, in the emotion control, motivation, and habit circuits in the brain (Dichter et al., 2009).

We correctly equate sadness with lethargy and pleasure with electricity. But it’s a street in two directions. A loop with reviews. You’re less likely to get bogged down ruminating if you’re busy and doing stuff. And if you’re idle, focusing on the negative can be simple.

But you need to get out there and reach those major, audacious long-term targets to be satisfied, don’t you?

Incorrect. This is a basic error that we produce. Huge targets are fine, but the analysis reinforces the cliche: it’s the little material. Lots of small good stuff are easier for satisfaction than bagging an elephant sometimes.

Arrange your schedule and make sure you have a lot of small good stuff going your way, and to take the time to enjoy them. And adding more things is the only way to make sure it happens.

Will you like nice karma?

Well, karma simply translates as ‘action’ for the non-Sanskrit speakers among us. To make positive stuff coming back your way, you have to do good things.

And what sort of things do you need to do more of? Alex ‘s got a list of items the subconscious likes:

Enjoyable stuff:  News flash will contribute to enjoyment by doing fun activities.

Achievement stuff:  In a single battle, defeat your targets and sound like a victorious hero.

Important stuff: When was the last time you served on a voluntary basis? Why was anyone really helping?

Physical things:  Exercising. Not only can it help you be safe, but it’s like a miracle for your brain to expand.

Social stuff:  To intimidate individuals, we use solitary confinement, don’t we?

Be accurate. Personally, adapt the do-more-of-this-list to you.

What are you enjoying but not doing as much as you like? What makes you feel intelligent, accomplished, and effective?

Place the stuff on your calendar now. Not metaphorically speaking. For the next week, plan them. Only like now. Yeah, C’mon. Oh, Chop, chop. To keep you responsible, have a mate interested and you will make two brains happier.

(Click here to learn the 4-step morning routine which will keep you happy all day.)

Excuse me for repeating myself, but since it is the single biggest contributor to satisfaction, one of the above five items to do merits special consideration …

Get social

When you study the happiest people around you and analyse what they have in common, what happens? Researchers have done just that.

There was a clear answer to what distinguished these individuals from everybody else. And it wasn’t about money, smart people, age , gender , race.

Those relationships were strong.

Be clear about who your support network is, if you want to keep your brain happy. Understand who matters and nurture those interactions. So who is that inner circle of yours?

Aaaaaaaand this is where your mind goes blank, so Alex has a few questions to assist you:

Who appreciates you or thinks of you highly, whether you agree with them or not? If needed, who is there to help you out?

For emotional support, who can you call , text or visit? Who ‘s great at offering advice or helping you make choices?

With whom do you enjoy spending time? With whom can you perform activities?

Write down the names. Yeah, and now.

This right here is critical Defcon-1 type stuff, bubba. Compose a list.

I’m not going to stop you if you want to use coloured markers and put glitter on the list and title it “MY BEST FRIENDS IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD” “Relation” may be a noun, but it is a verb for you and me.

With those people, you want to check in. Periodically. What kind of check-ins do you like in your brain? Science has responses. From The Workbook on the Upward Spiral:

Talking to the individual in real life or meeting up for an activity is the best thing to do (Sherman, Michikyan, & Greenfield, 2013). Talking on the phone is the next best thing, which is better than texts or emails. In ways that texting can not match, seeing someone and hearing their voice activates your mirror neuron system. Go down your list now and begin sending some texts. If possible, schedule activities or hang-outs.

And touch them when you see people.

Don’t go all Kevin Spacey on individuals, but research shows that physical contact is much more important than you think. Do you want to make this easier and even more powerful logistically? Be part of a group that regularly meets.

From The Workbook on the Upward Spiral: Groups can not only help you feel better, but they can also make you feel that you control your life more (Greenaway et al., 2015). Joining a group helps reduce depression symptoms and can, in the first place, even prevent them (Cruwys et al., 2013). And, unfortunately, it also works the other way: you can increase your risk of depression if you leave a supportive group (Seymour-Smith, Cruwys, Haslam, & Brodribb, 2017).

And I want to keep it real, so let’s cover things as well on the less-happy-cheery side: not all social time is a good time. Some individuals are jerks.

Breaking social ties with toxic individuals is another way to boost your happiness.

From The Workbook on the Upward Spiral: Research demonstrates that breaking social ties can sometimes be beneficial (Dingle, Stark, Cruwys, & Best, 2015). Our habits, including our social and emotional habits, are reinforced by other individuals.

So if you don’t like those habits or feelings that trigger people, change the people with whom you surround yourself. Think like a bonsai tree about your social life. You need to water it and fertilise it, but to keep it healthy, you also need to trim it.

Some things aren’t easy to change now.

You’ve probably been trying for years to enhance some areas of your life and have shown as much progress in an art appreciation class as a blind man. So how can we work on breaking bad habits with our brains?

Gently Slay Unhelpful Habits I’ve posted a lot about the science of breaking bad habits and creating good ones already.

But what are the bits of neuroscience-y here that are often ignored when we try to improve habits?

Sentiments. Often, there is a mechanical discussion of habit-making and breaking. And it’s not very mechanical in your brain.

You often get critical of yourself when you try to quit bad habits, which leads to bad feelings that make you cave and go back to your old ways.

The “error region” of the brain is now activated by self-criticism to help us regulate our behaviour. But it can easily contribute to bad moods as well.

So let’s have a different network activated …

Try self-reassurance instead of self-criticism. From The Workbook on the Upward Spiral: Self-criticism is one way to activate the prefrontal cortex to attempt to regulate the limbic system and is linked to the anterior cingulate activation, the brain’s error region (Longe et al . , 2010).

But, especially if you feel down and unmotivated, this pattern of thinking can get in the way of making positive changes. By contrast , self-reassurance uses the components of the PFC that regulate the emotional limbic system more directly. The insula, the part of the brain that feels things and is connected to empathy, is also activated.

Therefore, self-reassurance assists in making positive changes.

So you can either empathically feel your feelings and begin to make a change or, through old coping habits, avoid feeling them and stay on the same course.

The selection is up to you. How are we doing that?

Ironically, think less of your mistakes and more of the qualities that you like best about yourself. Feeling good about yourself gives you the energy and trust to continue to improve. From The Workbook on the Upward Spiral: Research has shown that if you focus not on your worst characteristics, but on your best ones, habits can be easier to change (Epton, Harris, Kane, van Koningsbruggen, & Sheeran, 2015). Think about what you most like about yourself: what are your qualities that you wouldn’t want to change?

The nucleus accumbens is rewarding and activates this type of focus (Dutcher et al., 2016). It won’t make you better by beating yourself up. You’ll like yourself.

(Click here to learn how to have a long, awesome life.)

All right, now is the part where you thank me for everything I’ve done for you. Huh? Me?

Egotistical? Louise, Jeez.

No, you’ll benefit from this, not me …

Further Gratitude

Remember when I said perspective is the bulk of happiness? That one is questioned by a lot of people. (I am right and they are wrong, for the record.)

The best example is gratitude. It feels fine. Really nice. But that’s what we forget. We’re taking stuff for granted. Think about what in life matters most to you. Loved ones, home, career, fitness. Imagine losing all of them now. Going full-Bible-Job-Story.


When making decisions, we need to take life seriously, but when we can't influence outcomes, taking a big picture view is healthier.

Don’t just think about it now, just feel it for a second. Losing all the stuff that means so much …

All right, that’s enough. Back to reality: Nothing was lost to you. But in that situation, there are other people. You’re not one of those. Feeling lucky? Should you.

Have you just gained something? Really not. Did you have anything to achieve? Hey, nope. Nothing, except your perspective, really changed. You looked around and realised just how good it was for you. That’s all that’s needed. You didn’t have anything to buy, do or accomplish. All you had to do was appreciate what you had and be grateful to get a boost from it.

From The Workbook on the Upward Spiral:

Gratitude can reduce symptoms of depression as well as general stress, and leads to an increased perception of social support (Wood, Maltby, Gillett, Linley, & Joseph, 2008). Self-esteem and psychological well-being are improved by this (Lin, 2015). Your physical health and the quality of your sleep can even be improved (Hill, Allemand, & Roberts, 2013; Wood, Joseph, Lloyd, & Atkins, 2009). Gratitude has so many advantages because a broad range of brain regions and chemicals are affected by it. Importantly, gratitude, specifically the brain stem region where dopamine is produced, has the power to activate the dopamine system (Zahn et al., 2009).

Oh, and that gratitude thing, if you express it to other people, is even nicer. (It’s great to contemplate doomsday scenarios alone in your head, but saying “thank you” to others is less likely to make you cry and wet yourself.)

From The Workbook on the Upward Spiral:

Our sense of connection with others is increased by gratitude. Gratitude studies have shown that it activates the same prefrontal medial regions that we use to understand other people’s perspectives and to act compassionately (Fox, Kaplan, Damasio, & Damasio, 2015). Part of the reason that gratitude can help you feel more connected to others is that you need to recognise what you need by recognising what you are grateful for. And in acknowledging what you need, you also become aware of others’ needs. In addition, the oxytocin system mediates many of the advantages of gratitude to others (vanOyen Witviliet, et al . , 2018). This is an upward spiral, as gratitude facilitates connection with others and gratitude is facilitated by connection with others.

Write a letter of thanks, then. (Or email, or text.) If you feel awkward, you don’t even have to send it. It’s going to make you feel good. In fact, for months, this has actually shown an effect on the brain.

From The Workbook on the Upward Spiral:

One study asked participants to write letters of gratitude and found that even several months later, it altered gratitude-related activity in their anterior cingulate cortex (Kini et al . , 2016). The anterior cingulate region generally responds to stimuli that are self-relevant. Therefore, positive aspects of your life suddenly become more relevant to you as you practise being grateful. You’re not going to have to look so hard for them, because your brain will be looking for you automatically.

But if you do send that letter, that’s better. It will enhance your relationship. It’ll make two individuals happy. Heck, it’s also going to make me happy, so that’s three for the price of one.

(Click here to learn how to deal with passive-aggressive individuals.)

All right, we learned a lot. Now is the part where we round it all up and I usually mention one more attractive thing so that you read to the bottom actually.

Yes, there’s going to be something enticing.

You ought to read to the bottom, then.

Summing up.

How neuroscience can make you happy is here:

Challenge Unhelpful Thoughts: Don’t ask yourself if it’s true, ask if it’s helpful anytime you’re lost in negative thinking.

Do More Stuff: When it comes to happiness, more little good things beat a few great big things. So you do more stuff to get more results. Action = karma.

Be Social: An island is no man. (You are, at the very least, an archipelago.)

Slay Unhelpful Habits: The first step to building a better one is to think about what you like about yourself.

More Gratty-todd: To feel happier, you don’t need to buy anything or do anything. You just have to appreciate what you’ve already got.

Does something awful ever happen and you just laugh? As if it wasn’t your life for a second; it’s a comedy you’re watching, and the worst thing imaginable has just happened to that poor protagonist?

This is a wonderful habit to develop. Years later, when we remember those awful moments, what are we going to do? We laugh often. It’s the funny, embarrassing stories we’re telling.

So now, laugh. Your brain loves humour and pain relieves it. When making decisions, we need to take life seriously, but when we can’t influence outcomes, taking a big picture view is healthier. Then, think about how great a tale this is going to be down the line.

From The Workbook on the Upward Spiral:



Humor is rewarding and enjoyable and thus activates the nucleus accumbens rich in dopamine along with the dopamine producing brain stem region (Mobbs, Greicius, Abdel-Azim, Menon, & Reiss, 2003). Furthermore, humour activates both the prefrontal cortex’s motivational components and the amygdala (Bartolo, Benuzzi, Nocetti, Baraldi, & Nichelli, 2006). This helps to maintain the important balance that is so vital for long-term well-being between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system.

Does all of this seem to be a lot to do? Gotcha — that’s the wrong view, remember? “Try instead,” Look at how many ways to be happier there are! “It’s more like that now.

You don’t have to do everything. And right now, you don’t have to do it.

But you are on your way to a life that is happier.

As Arthur Ashe said, “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can,” to achieve greatness.

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