Neuroscience of Happiness: Brain and Positive Emotions

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In recent years, several studies have emerged related to what has been called neuroscience of happiness. In fact, relatively few years ago neuroscientists and psychologists have begun to investigate the brain states associated with the components of happiness and to consider the relationship with well-being.

For years, research has shown that, over time, our experiences reshape our brains and can change our nervous systems. This is true for both good and bad.

Currently, researchers in the field of happiness neuroscience are focusing on how we can take advantage of this “plasticity” of the brain to cultivate and maintain positive emotions.

Positive emotions, keys to psychological well-being

The ability to maintain a positive emotion is a key component of psychological well-being. The benefits of positive emotions are well documented. For example, positive emotions have been shown to improve physical health, foster confidence and compassion, and compensate for and / or cushion depressive symptoms.

It has also been found that positive emotions help people recover from stress and that they can even counteract the effects of negative emotions. In addition, positive emotions promote a better social connection.

However, the inability to maintain positive emotions over time is a hallmark of depression and other psychopathologies, but the mechanisms that support the ability to sustain positive emotional responses have been little understood until very recently.

One study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience in July 2015, found that prolonged activation of a region of the brain called the ventral striatum is directly related to maintaining positive emotions and rewards.

The good news is that we can control the activation of the ventral striatum, which means that enjoying the most positive emotions is in our hands.

Neuroscience of happiness

In general, according to the study, people with more sustained activity levels in the ventral striatum show higher levels of psychological well-being and lower levels of cortisol, the so-called stress hormone.

In previous research, the research team identified that enjoying things like a beautiful sunset and the positive emotions associated with it can help improve well-being. For this new study, researchers wanted to identify how and why some people are able to keep positive feelings alive.

One of the great advantages of identifying a specific region of the brain, related to the maintenance of positive emotions, is that it facilitates the visualization of what could be called a switch that allows us to activate this region in a conscious way.

For this new study, the researchers studied neuroscience associated with the maintenance of positive emotions in the real world by conducting two experiments on humans. The first was a task of reward responses monitored by functional magnetic resonance. The second was an experience sampling task that measures the emotional responses to a reward obtained. The laboratory test positively predicted the duration of positive emotional responses in the real world.

Examining these dynamics can facilitate a better understanding of the behavioral associations of the brain that underlie positive and negative emotions. In this regard, it should be noted that, according to the authors, it is important to consider not only how much emotion you experience, but also how long these emotions persist.

The exact mechanism that allows the creation of instances in the brain of the emotions of the real world, experienced in seconds, minutes and hours, remains mysterious. However, the authors say, these findings suggest that the duration of activity in specific brain circuits, even in relatively short periods of time, such as seconds, can predict the persistence of a person’s positive emotions minutes and hours later.

Activation of the ventral striatum

The results of this study contribute to a better understanding of how mental disorders such as depression manifest themselves in the brain. The findings may also help explain why some people are more cynical than others and why some people tend to see the glass as always half full, rather than half empty.

According to the authors of the study, the neural pattern observed in the new study, particularly in the ventral striatum, has predicted higher levels of well-being in previous studies. According to them, practices such as loving-kindness and compassion toward others, which aim to cultivate certain forms of positive emotion, may help increase the ability to savor positive emotions.

On the other hand, according to the authors, the methodological innovations shown in this study can be applied to study whether the impact of simple forms of meditation can improve positive emotions sustained in real-world contexts, as well as the sustained activation of the ventral striatum measured in the laboratory using brain imaging technology.