Get Happy: Q and A with Dr. Daniel G. Amen, MD
The author of You, Happier shares his neuroscience-based secrets to feeling good
According to psychiatrist and brain researcher Daniel Amen, MD, a healthy brain is a happy brain — literally. “Brain health (the actual physical functioning of the organ) is the most important foundational requirement of happiness,” Dr. Amen, founder of Amen Clinics, writes in his book You, Happier: The 7 Neuroscience Secrets of Feeling Good Based on Your Brain Type. Happiness, in turn, is associated with lower heart rate, lower blood pressure, better overall heart health, fewer infections, and less pain — happy people even live longer.
Sadly, rates of depression have tripled since 2020, and a recent global report on happiness found that 45 percent of people have not felt true happiness for more than two years. In 2021 Dr. Amen launched an online 30-day happiness challenge that attracted a whopping 32,000 participants. On each day of the challenge, he offered new tips on how to cultivate happiness and boost positivity, and by the end of the program, self-reported happiness levels had increased by 32 percent. This shows that you can develop happiness, notes Dr. Amen. But how?
Here, Dr. Amen discusses his strategies — culled from a growing body of neuroscience research and decades of clinical experience and brain imaging work — for making your brain healthier and happier.
CoveyClub: In the beginning of You, Happier, you ask “Why should we focus on being happy?” I’m going to bounce that question back to you. What are the health benefits of happiness? And how can your happiness affect others?
Dr. Amen: Decades of research has found that happiness is associated with a lower risk for cardiovascular disease, stroke, and hypertension. People who are happy tend to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and have fewer aches and pains. Overall, happier people have longer lives, stronger relationships, and greater success in their careers.
Studies also show that happiness is contagious. When you’re happy, it helps make the people around you happier too.
CoveyClub: Surprisingly, you do not espouse the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” mindset. Why is having some anxiety a good thing?
Dr. Amen: Based on an 80-year-long longevity study detailed in the book The Longevity Project, the “don’t worry, be happy” people are more likely to experience an early death due to accidents or preventable illnesses. Having some anxiety is critical to a happy life. Healthy levels of anxiety are important in terms of decision-making. It’s this anxiety that keeps us from darting into the street without looking both ways, driving after drinking too much alcohol, and investing all our money in dubious pyramid schemes.
CoveyClub: Many of us became news junkies during the pandemic, and around the 2020 election — how does constant exposure to the news and social media affect happiness?
Dr. Amen: Sadly, watching just a couple minutes of negative news in the morning leads to a 27 percent reduction in happiness later that same day. News outlets are notorious for dumping frightening images and stories into our brains, activating the fear circuits in an area of the brain called the amygdala and raising stress hormones. Elevated levels of cortisol shrink parts of the brain associated with mood and memory. According to numerous studies, spending too much time on social media leads to increased depression and anxiety, which is the opposite of happiness.
CoveyClub: Often, people turn to alcohol, marijuana, or comfort foods in times of distress — how do these habits sabotage — rather than boost — happiness?
Dr. Amen: Substances like alcohol and marijuana may momentarily improve your mood, but in the long term, they negatively impact the brain — lowering blood flow, causing premature aging of the brain, and more. Addictions to these substances can hijack the brain’s pleasure centers and ruin your life. It’s similar with comfort foods, especially sweets. The temporary mood boost you get from eating desserts or sugary sodas disappears quickly because high-sugar diets are associated with depression, diabetes, and dementia.
CoveyClub: You claim in You, Happier that a one-size-fits-all approach to happiness doesn’t work, and that you should target your get-happy strategies to your brain type. How do you know your brain type? And can you give an example of how your approach to improving your outlook might differ according to brain type?
Dr. Amen: Our brain-imaging work at Amen Clinics has shown that not all brains are the same. In fact, the brain SPECT imaging we do has helped us identify five primary brain types: Balanced, Spontaneous, Persistent, Sensitive, and Cautious. What makes one person happy might make another very unhappy. For example, people with the Spontaneous brain type tend to be risk-takers who love adventure and novelty. A last-minute, spur-of-the-moment trip to go bungee jumping might make them thrilled. Meanwhile, this same scenario would seem like a nightmare to someone with the Cautious brain type (think risk averse people who are more anxious and who prefer planning). Knowing what makes your brain type happy is the key. You can find your brain type by taking our free quiz at BrainHealthAssessment.com.
CoveyClub: What is clear in your book is that brain health is the most important requirement for happiness, regardless of your brain type. Can you explain why?
Dr. Amen: Your brain is the organ of happiness. It is involved in everything you do, think, and feel. When your brain works right, you work right; but when your brain is troubled, you are much more likely to have trouble in your life. Regardless of your brain type, having a healthy brain helps you make better decisions, which makes you happier, healthier, and more successful in every area of your life.
CoveyClub: What are the building blocks for the neurochemicals of happiness? Are there specific macro and micro nutrients that boost happiness? What are they, and can we get them from the foods we eat or should we consider supplements?
Dr. Amen: Foods and nutrients form the building blocks for the neurochemicals of happiness, which include dopamine, serotonin, and GABA. Foods that support these neurochemicals include those high in tyrosine (almonds, bananas, avocados, eggs, beans, fish, chicken, and dark chocolate) to support dopamine; tryptophan (turkey, chicken, fish, carrots, blueberries, pumpkin seeds, sweet potatoes, and garbanzo beans) to support serotonin; and compounds found in green tea, lentils, berries, grass-fed beef, and wild-caught fish to support GABA.
Nutritional supplements can also help support neurochemicals. Ashwagandha, rhodiola, and panax ginseng have been found to increase dopamine levels, for example. And GABA supplements, probiotics, and L-theanine are some of the nutraceuticals that have been shown to enhance GABA levels.
CoveyClub: You write in your book that “the foods you choose to eat either elevate happiness or steal it.” Which foods boost happiness? Which foods sabotage happiness?
Dr. Amen: Happy foods — the ones that make you feel good now and later — include organic, colorful fruits and vegetables, sustainably raised fish and meat, nuts and seeds, unprocessed foods, and foods that are high in fiber and low-glycemic.
Sad foods are highly processed (chips, hot dogs, frozen pizza), sprayed with pesticides, high glycemic (sugary breakfast cereals), low fiber, artificially colored and sweetened, laden with hormones, tainted with antibiotics, and stored in plastic containers.
CoveyClub: In order to be happy, you claim we must learn to distance ourselves from the noise in our head. How does one do that?
Dr. Amen: You are not your mind. Distancing yourself from the chatter inside your head is essential to feeling happy. An easy technique used in psychology is to give your mind a name. This allows you to separate yourself from your mind, and lets you choose whether or not to listen to your mind. I call my mind Hermie after the pet racoon I had when I was 16 years old. I loved her, but she was a troublemaker. Like my mind, she got me into trouble sometimes.
CoveyClub: Why is it important to notice what you like about others more than what you don’t like? How do we reinforce the behaviors we see in others?
Dr. Amen: It’s simple: If you focus on the negative, you will be more negative. If you pay attention to the positive, you will have a more positive outlook. When you comment or appreciate the things you like in others, it motivates them to continue doing them.
CoveyClub: How can focusing on what you call “micro-moments of happiness” enhance our overall well-being?
Dr Amen: Micro-moments of happiness are the little things in life that bring you joy — a bird chirping, the first bite of a crisp apple, stepping into a warm shower. When you train your brain to pay attention to them, they add up to increased contentment.
CoveyClub: I thought it was interesting that the cerebral cortex — the part of the brain involved in creativity, language and abstract thought — “creates the story of why we’re happy or sad.” Can you expound on that? What else has neuroscience research taught us about where and how happiness is manifested in the brain, and how can we apply that science to our everyday life?
Dr. Amen: At Amen Clinics, we wanted to know more about happiness in the brain, so we had 344 patients, ages 9–89, take a well-respected happiness assessment. Then we looked at the brain SPECT scans of those who scored in the top 50 and bottom 50 on a happiness scale. The brain scans of the happier people revealed overall increased blood flow and activity, meaning the healthier your brain, the happier you are likely to be. Ultimately, this means that our everyday habits are either improving our brain and happiness or draining them.
CoveyClub: I was surprised to learn that poor oral health has been linked to depression and anxiety — and that simply brushing and flossing every day is one step you can take to get happier. What are some other unexpected habits or lifestyle choices that can impact our happiness?
Dr. Amen: One simple habit that can have a positive impact on your happiness level is when you wake up, tell yourself, “Today is going to be a great day.” By doing this, you help your brain look for ways to make it a great day. At the end of the day, ask yourself, “What went well today?” By training your brain to focus on the good things that happened, you set yourself up for a more positive outlook.
CoveyClub: They say fake it until you make it: How does lack of positivity and perceived unhappiness affect our neurological happiness pathways — and how can a change in outlook influence your mood?
Dr. Amen: The mere act of thinking that you aren’t happy is associated with biological changes that can affect happiness. According to research, these thoughts trigger an uptick in levels of proinflammatory cytokines (proteins), and inflammation has been strongly linked to depression. Conversely, thinking that you’re happy or actively thinking about positive moments in your day is associated with reduced inflammation, based on scientific findings. Decreasing inflammation is associated with reduced risk for depression.
CoveyClub: How do toxins in our body sabotage our happiness — and what can we do about it?
Dr. Amen: Exposure to any toxin can damage your brain and your happiness. Toxins are some of the most common causes of depression, anxiety, brain fog, irritability, sleep disorders, confusion, memory loss, and aging. But the root cause of these issues — toxic exposure — often goes undetected.
To protect your brain and strengthen happiness, avoid pesticides, stop using plastic containers, stop smoking, stick with clean personal care products, and check for mold. In addition, fortify your body’s natural detoxification system by drinking more water (to help kidneys flush out toxins), eating high-fiber foods (to help the gut remove toxins), regularly getting a good sweat from exercise or saunas (to help the skin eliminate toxins), and eat more brassicas (to help the liver filter out toxins).
CoveyClub: Are we truly in control of our own happiness? You touch on many lifestyle choices that can boost happiness — from living in the present moment to making healthy connections with other people to living your life with clearly defined values, purpose, and goals. Are there any other steps to increasing happiness that we haven’t discussed that you’d like to mention here?
Dr. Amen: Happiness and mental health are a daily practice. It takes consistent effort on an everyday basis. When you adopt daily brain-healthy lifestyle habits, it will keep you smiling for the long term.
Dr. Amen offers more tips on making brain-healthy lifestyle choices — and on boosting happiness — in his just-released book, Change Your Brain Every Day: Simple Daily Practices to Strengthen Your Mind, Memory, Moods, Focus, Energy, Habits, and Relationships.