What Does Your Brain Type Have To Do With Happiness? A Neuroscientist Explains
Similar to the quest for the Holy Grail, people have been searching for the elusive keys to happiness since the beginning of time. In more recent decades, scientists have joined the search to root out hard data on what makes people happy. Do a quick search for "happiness" on the scientific research repository PubMed1 and you'll get over 20,500 results. According to most findings, happiness is believed to be based on a combination of genetics (40%), life events (10%), and mindset and habits (50%).
The good news here? You don't have to win the genetic lottery to be happy. Your ability to take charge of your own happiness through your daily habits and mindset is higher than you may think. But there's one foundational piece of the happiness puzzle that I believe researchers have missed. It's the fact that happiness doesn't mean the same thing to everyone. In my book, You, Happier: The 7 Neuroscience Secrets of Feeling Good Based on Your Brain Type, I reveal that happiness depends on your brain type.
What are brain types?
Not all brains are the same. That's one of the most important lessons I have learned from using brain SPECT imaging in our clinical psychiatric practice for over 30 years. SPECT (single-photon emission computed tomography) is a functional brain-imaging technology that measures blood flow and activity patterns in the brain. Other brain-imaging tools, including CT or MRI scans, only look at the brain's anatomy or structure. SPECT looks at how the brain functions and basically reveals three things: areas with healthy activity, areas that are underactive, and areas that are overactive.
Our brain-imaging database has grown to over 200,000 scans. Based on analyses of these scans, our team at Amen Clinics has detected activity patterns that correlate to psychiatric issues. We have also found brain activity patterns that relate to personality types and have identified five primary brain types: balanced, spontaneous, persistent, sensitive, and cautious:
Balanced Brain Type
People who have what I call the Balanced Brain Type tend to have healthy brains with full, even, symmetrical activity. If you have this type, you're likely to be focused, flexible, organized, and emotionally stable. You show up on time for meetings, follow through on promises, and prefer to follow the rules. Balanced types tend to be generally happy.
Spontaneous Brain Type
When there is lower activity in the front part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, we call it the Spontaneous Brain Type. This type tends to be creative and adventurous, but you may also be impulsive, disorganized, and have a short attention span.
Trying new things, surprises, bungee jumping, or going on a road trip at the last minute make you happy. Sameness, boredom, and having to wait in line make you unhappy. These types also have a vulnerability toward ADHD.
Persistent Brain Type
SPECT scans show that people with the Persistent Brain type have increased activity in an area called the anterior cingulate gyrus. Strong-willed and stubborn, this type doggedly follows through on tasks.
Happiness boosts for the Persistent Brain Type include routine, familiarity, and being in charge. Getting told no or having the rules changed are happiness stealers for this type. This type has a tendency to get stuck on worries and is at increased risk of OCD.
Sensitive Brain Type
Increased activity in the limbic system, or emotional centers of the brain, is a pattern associated with the Sensitive Brain Type. If you have this type, you tend to feel things deeply, are empathic, and may be vulnerable to moodiness, negativity, or depression.
For this type, listening to calming music, walking in nature, having a deep conversation with one close friend, and practicing mindfulness can enhance feelings of joy and contentment. On the flip side, loud noises, bright lights, small talk at parties, and feeling isolated bring you down.
Cautious Brain Type
When the amygdala and basal ganglia are more active than average, we call it the Cautious Brain Type. With this type, you tend to be prepared, motivated, thorough, and reliable but may be vulnerable to anxiety.
Finishing an assignment on time (or early), making a pros-and-cons list before a big decision, and feeling safe and secure make you happy. Chaotic environments, having too much to do, or watching distressing news diminishes your happiness.
Knowing your brain type is the key to finding the happiness strategies that work best for you. In my book, I provide strategies based on neuroscience to help each brain type increase their happiness quotient.
Daniel Amen, MD, is a clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist, physician, professor and 10-time New York Times bestselling author. He is a double board-certified child and adult psychiatrist and founder of Amen Clinics, Inc., which has eight clinics across the country with one of the highest published success rates for treating complex psychiatric issues with the world’s largest database of functional brain scans relating to behavior, with more than 160,000 scans on patients from 121 countries. Amen is the lead researcher for the largest brain imaging and rehabilitation study for professional football players that demonstrates high levels of brain damage in players with solutions for significant recovery as a result of his extensive work. His research on post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury was recognized by Discover magazine’s Year in Science issue as one of the “100 Top Stories of 2015.” Amen has authored and co-authored more than 70 professional articles, seven scientific book chapters and 40-plus books, including the No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, “The Daniel Plan” and “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.” His most recent book, “Change Your Brain, Change Your Grades,” includes editorial contributions from his teenage daughter, Chloe Amen, and niece, Alizé Castellanos.