What happens in our Brain when we experience happiness

Katharina Graf, M.Sc student clinical psychology

Take a few moments to listen to your inner self. Are you truly happy? What factors determine your mood? And how exactly can you tell if you are happy?

Being happy is the overarching goal of most of us. But what does happiness mean? To get to the bottom of this question, it is worth looking into the most complex part of the human body: The brain. Researchers examining the functional neuroanatomy of pleasure, are convinced that pleasure is one of the major components of happiness. Darwin already suggested positive as well as negative emotions to be adaptive responses to the environment (Kringelbach & Berridge, 2010).

Especially positive affect is recognized as having a large impact on cognitive and emotional resources in daily life. This includes an increase in mindfulness, in positive and accepting feelings toward oneself and others, as well as in perceived mastery and competence regarding one’s life. Practicing so-called loving-kindness meditation evidentially enables people to self-generate positive emotions and in doing so enhance general happiness in the long run. On top of that, the practice of loving-kindness meditation leads to an augment in everyday life experiences of positive feelings such as pleasure, gratitude, love, hope, interest, and pride. Hence, positive emotions seem to expand cognition and improve daily functioning (Fredrickson et al., 2008).

Beyond that, science classifies the concept of affective states into two categories: In one’s affective state and one’s conscious affective feelings. The affective state is defined more objectively in terms of behavior, physiology, and neural responses. The conscious affective feelings can be viewed as an individual’s subjective experience of emotion. Thus, happiness is both a conscious affective feeling and an objectively measurable reaction, partly determined by one’s individual perception and neuroanatomy of positive emotions (e.g., pleasure) (Kringelbach, 2004; Kringelbach & Berridge, 2010).

How do we become happy?

The Brain consists of many interconnected brain regions and neurotransmitters. Several of these are activated by pleasant stimuli and events. The most crucial brain areas for happiness are the nucleus accumbens and the ventral pallidum, as well as other regions in the limbic system and deep brainstem. Pleasure is translated into motivational processes including incentive salience (i.e., “desire”). Incentive salience relies partly on mesolimbic dopamine neurotransmission. Noticeable however is that incentive salience (i.e., “desire”) does most commonly, but not necessarily come in hand with pleasure (i.e., “liking”). This is because both processes belong to distinct neuronal brain areas. Meaning, individuals can for example have the desire to compulsively check social media while they may not like to do so on a more conscious and cognitive level. Needless to say, dissonances like this may lead to low levels of happiness.

High levels of happiness on the other hand, are strongly linked to desire and liking being in harmony. For instance, most people desire and like positive social relationships with others. This includes sensory input such as visual facial expressions, touch features of grooming, and cognitive aspects like social reward, and perceived belongingness. Thus, the desire and liking of social bonding and attachment is not only crucial for survival but also for perceived happiness (Kringelbach & Berridge, 2010).

Another important factor associated with happiness, is a sense of meaning and purpose in life. A sense of meaning is central to psychological well-being and has an influential impact on mental health. Individuals who report their life as being meaningful, state either that they are in the process of fulfilling or that they have already fulfilled their life goals. In this context it is important to mention that the development of meaning in life is linked to successful development of self-esteem, which again contributes to the feeling of being happy (Debats, 1996). Along with that, meaning drives the development of purpose, which in turn produces goals. From here, these goals – if they are in line with one’s values – lead back to a sense of meaning (McKnight & Kashdan, 2009). Based on these findings one can conclude, happiness can be achieved through the interplay of various factors both biological and psychological in nature.

How do we stay happy?

Research by De Neve et al. (2012) proposes the existence of individual baseline happiness, partly shaped by personality and genetic predispositions. Subsidiary, there appears to be evidence that individuals with a more efficient serotonin transporter gene (5-HTT) report significantly higher levels of life satisfaction. Approximately 33% of variance in an individual’s subjective well-being is found to be heritable. Therefore, the emerging question is: how can we influence the remaining 67% to improve our happiness?

A strategy called segregation of gains has been proven to successfully increase the hedonic benefit of pleasant events or stimuli. Meaning, eating a cookie every day for a month is perceived as more pleasurable as eating 30 cookies at once. However, this only holds true if those gains are not segregated into too small units. More precisely, eating 1/12 of a cookie every day for a year maybe equal in pleasure to eating no cookies at all (Morewedge et al., 2007). Thus, dividing a pleasant experience into reasonable smaller units, will eventually lead to higher levels of satisfaction.

Further, gratitude is a strong positive emotion. Especially reflecting and writing about what one is grateful for is a beneficial strategy to improve and maintain happiness (Witvliet et al., 2019). Interventions such as writing a daily gratitude list have been found to significantly enhance subjective happiness and decrease negative emotions and depressive symptoms (Cunha et al., 2019). People commonly forget to appreciate the smallest things in life such as a smile from a stranger or even take a well-stocked fridge for granted. In being more thankful and aware of the “big” and “small” things in life, you may realize the “small” things are “big” things, too.

Additionally, grateful individuals tend to feel more valued and affirmed, which again elevates their self-esteem and perceived level of social support. Beyond that, practicing gratitude is linked to prosocial behavior (i.e., helping other people) and positive social bonding. According to the Big Five taxonomy of personality, grateful people appear to be more agreeable, which is known to evoke prosocial behavior (McCullough et al., 2002). In fact, helping a person in need, will make you feel more useful and appreciated. Thus, prosocial behavior can substantially improve one’s happiness as well as maintain and foster positive social relationships (Aknin & Whillans, 2020).

Concluding, happiness may rise from the interplay of several different factors influenced by a person’s behavior, personality, and genetic predisposition. All these factors are accompanied and elicited by the cooperation of several brain regions and neurotransmitters (Kringelbach & Berridge, 2010). Happiness is a state we can actively improve, maintain, and practice, wherever we are. In acknowledging this, we can influence our lives immensely. We want to encourage you to take a few moments each day to reflect upon and recognize your thoughts and emotions. Thereby, you will improve your awareness of what may positively influence your happiness.

The world is constantly in motion and becoming increasingly dynamic. Consequently, a portable workplace is an essential gadget to advance flexibility, productivity, and most importantly: happiness. This is exactly Jodama’s vision. In combining work and happiness, we want you to experience WOPPINESS. Our aim is to merge comfort with mobility to enable you to work from wherever you are. And in doing so, improve your happiness wherever you are. Certainly, we value the subjectivity and individuality of happiness. For this reason, we designed various additional features for all our Woppie® products. With these features, you can create your unique WOPPINESS experience and become happier in your personal way.

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