It’s one of those unfortunate ironies of life: the default mode for your brain seems to be one of negativity and distraction. It seems like we’ve often got to work extra hard to keep things positive and focused. But the good news is that there are ways to train your brain to be focused and happy.
More than just “thinking happy thoughts,” there a tangible, concrete ways to make your brain lean towards laser-sharp focus sessions and positive thought patterns.
You can rewire your brain by encouraging neuroplasticity, increasing BDNF, and implementing healthy practices like gratitude and time-blocking.
Neuroplasticity Of The Brain
Until fairly recently, science taught us that once you reached age 25, your brain was a fixed asset. Scientists believed the brain was fully developed at that point and that it wouldn’t change much from there — except to decline with age.
But now, we know that the brain can change and grow throughout life.
The brain’s ability to rewire, or change, is what’s known as neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity means your brain can reorganize and form new synapses. This can happen in response to new experiences and learning new things. So that means with specific training and exercises, you can change your brain for the better. You can train your brain to be happy. You can train your mind to be more focused. You can rewire your thoughts.
So how do you increase neuroplasticity and rewire your brain for happiness and focus?
What is BDNF?
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, is a protein in the brain that encourages neuroplasticity.
Higher levels of BDNF appear to correlate with better cognitive function and better mental health.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24524285/
And lower levels of BDNF are often associated with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and multiple sclerosis.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4697050/ BDNF is also thought to play a role in depression.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7174655/
What’s interesting about BDNF is that you can influence how much of it circulates in your brain. BDNF does tend to decrease with age naturally, but certain activities flood the brain with BDNF.
How To Increase BDNF
When looking to increase levels of BDNF in the brain — and by extension the ability to focus better and feel happier, you may think there would be exceedingly complicated things to do…but that’s not the case.
Rewiring your brain to be happy doesn’t have to be difficult.
Exercise is brain food. When you get plenty of exercise, you derive amazing benefits for your body and flood your brain with BDNF.
In fact, one study showed an increase in cognitive function and BDNF levels after only 3-5 weeks of aerobic activity.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21722657/
And another showed an increase in hippocampus volume.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21282661/ This is pretty remarkable since the hippocampus typically shrinks as we age.
What’s remarkable is that it doesn’t take much movement to jumpstart your focus, either. A recent review found cognitive benefits after only a few minutes of exercise! And when exercise sessions lasted an hour or so, cognition was improved for up to two hours afterward.https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/tsm2.190
Stress is a BDNF killer.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3310485/ And meditation is a great antidote to stress. Meditation is also a neuroplasticity booster.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5483482/https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7522212/
So, if you’re looking to train your brain to focus, incorporating some meditation into your day is a great idea.
Not getting enough sleep is one of the ways you can deplete your mental state. In fact, a lack of sleep is associated with lower levels of BDNF.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31782101/ Getting those 7-9 hours of shut-eye every night can go a long way towards boosting your mood and keeping your brain sharp.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5725585/
There are also certain supplements with a reputation for increasing BDNF, and making your brain easier to train.
- Turmeric, or one of its active components, curcumin, has been studied for its ability to increase BDNF.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24914461/https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19879308/
- Omega-3 fatty acids (also known as DHA) have earned an excellent reputation as brain-boosting nutrients. Animal studies show they normalize BDNF levels, increase neuroplasticity, and could reduce oxidative damage.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15672635/https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3208643/
- L-Theanine is a supplement that has a well-earned reputation for producing feelings of well-being. Researchers believe this effect is produced by L-theanine’s ability to increase BDNF in the hippocampus.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21861094/
Train Your Brain To Be Focused And Happy
Once you’ve increased your brain’s neuroplasticity by the practical methods outlined above, there are a few other easy ways to train your brain to focus and think happy thoughts.
No matter how dark things may seem, there’s always something to be grateful for. When you train your mind to focus on the positive, no matter the circumstances, your health will thank you for it.
Grateful people are happier, more satisfied with their lives, and less likely to be anxious or depressed. And researchers can even see brain activity on an MRI when study participants imagine situations that they’d feel grateful in.https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01491/full
One of the easiest ways to start incorporating more gratitude into your life is to start small. Train yourself to feel grateful when your coffee’s made just right. Or when your child actually cleans up their toys before bed. When you start to focus on the positive in everyday situations, you’ll quickly look around and realize how very much you have to be grateful for.
Starting a gratitude journal is another popular way to start training your mind to think positively. Start or end each day by writing down a few things you feel particularly grateful for and let your mind focus on how those things really make you feel for a moment. Incorporating these kinds of gratitude habits into your life is a phenomenal way to start feeling happier if you’re truly committed to it.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4380267/pdf/nihms498139.pdf
Try Something Different
Sometimes, getting your brain to focus means working with your natural tendencies instead of against them.
Many people find that when they embrace their struggle to focus, they actually can get more done. For example, trying new ways of working, like the Pomodoro technique, might be just the thing you need to find your focus.
How do you implement the Pomodoro technique? You break up your study or work time into 25-minute blocks. Then you take a five-minute break. Then you work for another 25 minutes. After you’ve done this four times, take a 30-minute break. Then come back and start over if your task isn’t finished. This method works well for times when you just can’t seem to focus. But committing to just 25 minutes at a time makes things feel doable.
Time-blocking your schedule is another simple way to counteract distracted tendencies. This method involves focusing on one specific type of task for a specific block of time each day. When you only allow yourself to work on one thing at a time, focus comes naturally.
The point is to try to mix things up, and find what works for you and your brain…rather than trying to do things the way everyone else does.
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