Guilt, shame, and worry: they make you happy

Here’s an odd thing I learned from neuroscience yesterday: worry, shame, and guilt make us happy.

Guilt, pride, and shame activate your brain’s reward system: the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, insula, and the nucleus accumbens. Which is why it can feel so appealing to pile on the guilt and shame. If you’re anything at all like me, that’ll be a familiar activity for you. 

Backlit photo of a girl dancing on a beach at sunset

What are you grateful for today?

And as for worrying, well — in the short-term, it makes you feel like you’re at least doing something about your problems, even if it’s only a hefty dose of worrying.

In fact, worrying about something can help to calm your limbic system (you increase activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and decrease it in your amygdala). So if you’re feeling anxious and you’re unable to take any kind of practical action, do a little bit of worrying until you can.

Because it’s better than nothing and will help to relieve your anxiety.

You might be thinking I’ve gone bonkers, telling you to feel guilty and shameful and to worry about stuff.

Of course I haven’t (well, no more than usual) and of course I’m not suggesting you do those things because although they have odd effects in the short-term, they’re horrible long-term life-coping strategies, right?


So here’s one very simple thing you can do. It’s something I do every day: first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

Ask yourself one simple question:

What am I grateful for?

This isn’t some New Age woo-woo shit, either — it affects your brain at the biological level. This is absolutely true.

Gratitude boosts dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that helps you feel happy.

Guess what else boosts dopamine? Wellbutrin (a well-known antidepressant). Prozac. And a whole bunch of other meds.

If only I’d known that a few years ago when I languishing on a cocktail of life-numbing drugs.

Don’t misunderstand me here: serious mental health issues sometimes require drugs. But I do think they’re overprescribed for depression, and I speak from a position of experience. I understand why; GPs have limited understanding and even more limited time. Patients demand instant solutions and a slip of prescription paper makes people feel better, like something is being done. And it means they don’t have to actually do anything themselves, and let me tell you, that’s attractive when you’re in the darkest place in the universe.

Anyway, I’m getting slightly off-topic. What I wanted to share with you was this amazing little secret. Let’s make it not-so-secret, shall we?

Tell everyone you know to practise gratitude. And to do it actively. And even if you’re thinking something like, “Well, what if there really isn’t anything to feel grateful about? What if someone’s life really has collapsed?”

It doesn’t matter. It’s not finding something to be grateful for that matters. It’s the searching that counts.

Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. The more you practise gratitude, the less effort it takes, and the happier you are. Plus, of course, if you express gratitude to the people around you, you’ll have happier relationships, too.

Too simple to be real? Too good to be true? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s got neuroscience behind it, and it certainly isn’t going to do you any harm.

So make gratitude a thing you do every day.

What are you grateful for today?



Vicky Fraser is a copywriter, author, and entrepreneur. She really did run away with the circus… but when she’s not swinging from a trapeze, she’s showing other copywriters and small business owners how to work with better clients, make more money, and stop missing bathtimes, first words, and dinners with angry partners. In fact, she wrote the book on it. Get your copy here.

PS This is blog post number 1 in a little series I’ve put together on happiness. You’ll get posts 2, 3, and 4 later this week.

PPS Want some more great advice? Grab a copy of my book, Business For Superheroes here.  Accodring to Assumpta: I have read dozens of motivational books over the years but this one is different. It just tells you what works and what doesn’t, bits of it made me smile and other bits made me laugh out loud. I never write reviews but this book was worth the effort:) 

Try it out for yourself, here!

0 comments… add one

Leave a Comment