The ventral striatum is a part of the brain where positive emotional responses are experienced.
Most of us are aware that the human brain is hard wired to remember negative experiences much better than positive ones. Our survival heritage makes sure we remember in what corner of the jungle the perilous creatures hung out. It turns out that the positive memory seat is weak. The Journal of Neuroscience published a study titled: The Neurodynamics of Affect in the Laboratory Predicts Persistence of Real-World Emotional Responses
What the researchers found was that “Sustained ventral striatum engagement in the laboratory positively predicted the duration of real-world positive emotional responses.” This means that the folks who remembered positive experiences longer were happier.
What excites me about this is that each one of us can use this research to our own benefit. We can work at increasing the pleasure sustaining capacity of our brains and thus open the door to being happier overall.
The practice of lengthening pleasure–savoring.
Try this when you are eating a strawberry…or it could be a peach or any other piece of fruit.
The key is to go slowly and notice the details. Feel the beautiful speckled surface of the strawberry. Smell its fresh scent. Take in the bright ruby color. Do all of this before you take a single bite. Imagine the plant as it was bearing fruit in the sunny field, sending off runners to make more fruit. Then when you are ready, bite into the strawberry. What is the texture of its flesh? What happens in your mouth? Where in the mouth does the taste hit? What do you note? Tartness? Sweetness?
The practice of savoring brings many experiences into high relief, and when we begin to do this over a longer period of time, we are strengthening that part of the brain.
An exercise that will help you is to make a list of 10 experiences that gave you pleasure and/or joy. The list should include a variety of events–big events like the birth of a child and small ones like opening an Amazon box that brought a book you really wanted. Create your list of 10 events that you would like to mine for their pleasure sustaining potential.
Then begin with one of the events, and do a savoring exercise. It is similar to a meditation, but instead of clearing the mind, you will be focusing. Close your eyes and bring the memory of the event back. Bring back all of the details, as many as you can, until the feeling you had wakes up again. Give yourself permission to come back to it several times. If the feeling won’t arise, move on to another experience.
The key is to bring the pleasure of something that you experienced back to life. Return to this experience and practice sustaining the pleasure. You will be building up that part of the brain that is associated with positive emotions out in the real world. When you have successfully done one, try another. One of the bonuses of this exercise, in addition to building up that ventral striatum, is that at other times, when you are blue, irritated, tired, or experiencing some other less that pleasurable feeling, you can pull this out of your back pocket and shift your mood.
Send me an email and let me know how you are doing with this.