Can happiness be seen in the brain?

Happiness is the ultimate goal for many. While subjective, psychologists have shown that it can be measured. However, the mechanisms behind emotion remain poorly understood. By using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a scientific team was able to locate an area of the brain involved in the experience of happiness. How were researchers able to find happiness in the brain? Read on as we reveal the secret…

The team of Dr. Waturu Sato from the University of Kyoto wanted to know where happiness comes from and identify the brain structures involved in feelings of happiness. They created an experiment, the principles and results of which were published in November 2015 in Scientific Reports. Specifically, the researchers used MRI to analyze the brains of 51 participants (26 women and 25 men; average age: 22.5 years). Participants were then given a series of questionnaires to determine their subjective happiness and the intensity of their emotions (emotional component), as well as their goals in life (cognitive component).

Analysis of the resulting data revealed two major points. First, the participants that claimed to be the happiest showed more gray matter in a specific area on the inside of the parietal lobe in the cerebral cortex, the precuneus. Second, the intensity of positive and negative emotions was associated with this same brain region. Thus, happier people experience positive emotions more intensely, experience greater feelings of purpose in life, and have a larger precuneus.

Despite its limitations (small sample size, a single measure of goals in life, unstudied active brain areas during positive emotions induction), this research indicates that happiness can be located in the brain, which according to Dr. Waturu Sato, “will be useful in designing happiness programs." Various studies on the subject have shown the benefits of meditation, which can increase gray matter in the precuneus. The authors of the study also emphasize the interest of their work in terms of public policy. Indeed, according to the scientists, structural neuro-imaging, in addition to subjective measures, could be useful for evaluating happiness in a more objective manner. This, rather than economic success, may be considered as a better indicator of the health of a population.
Source: Sato, W. et al. The structural neural substrate of subjective happiness. Sci. Rep. 5, 16891; doi: 10.1038/srep16891 (2015)

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