Happiness: Using MRI To Find Where It Happens

First Posted: Nov 20, 2015 12:36 PM EST

Happiness is a complicated phenomenon. We spend our lives chasing it, searching for it - but do we know what it is? Can we really explain it?

Over the years, many have attempted. However, happiness is a diverse feeling. People experience it in different ways. Some feel more intensely happier when they recieve a compliment, while others may feel happier when they achieve something. Psychologists have found that both satisfaction with life as a whole and these emotional factors combine to define the subjective experience that is "happiness."  

A team of researchers from Japan's Kyoto University, led by Wataru Sato, defined happiness as the "combination of happy emotions and satisfaction of life coming together in the precuneus, a region in the medial parietal lobe that becomes active when experiencing consciousness," according to their study. To examine it further, the team dove into the neural structures of the brain that surround the feeling of happiness.

Despite what psychologists have determined about the emotion, the neural mechanism that drives happiness has remained somewhat clouded in research. Sato believes that unvieling this mechanism will be an enormous asset when it comes to objectively quantifying levels of happiness. 

To do this, the team scanned participants brains with magnetic resonance imaging, otherwise known as MRI. The study's participants were then required to fill out a survey that asked them about their general happiness, the intensity of their emotions, and their overall life satisfaction.

Analysis of the findings showed that the participants with higher scores on the surveys had far more grey matter mass (which contains neuronal cell bodies) in the precuneus, a part of the brain's superior parietal lobule that is responsible for episodic memory, aspects of consciousness, and reflections upon the self. Those who said they felt happiness more intensely, sadness less intensely, and had a better feeling of meaning in their lives had a larger precuneus.

"Over history, many eminent scholars like Aristotle have contemplated what happiness is," Sato, an expert in cognitive psychology, said. "I'm very happy that we now know more about what it means to be happy."

The precuneus is responsible for self-consciousness, essentially rating ones own personality traits, as well as comparing them against the observed ones of others. Those who have a larger precuneus have more neurons in that portion of their brain, and have a better ability to process information in that part of their brains.

Studies have shown that those with more grey matter in certain areas of their brains are better able to process rewards and consequences. More grey matter equals higher feeling of reward. Many scientists have used this knowledge to attempt to increase the levels of grey matter in people.

"Several studies have shown that meditation increases grey matter mass in the precuneus. This new insight on where happiness happens in the brain will be useful for developing happiness programs based on scientific research," Sato said in a press release.

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