That Happy Feeling

Does the art of happiness involve science?

Written by Pritha Chatterjee | New Delhi | Published on:September 29, 2013 5:43 am

Does the art of happiness involve science?

In 2011,the UN General Assembly passed a resolution,inviting member countries to measure the happiness of their citizens in terms of socio-economic indicators such as development,life expectancy,health and GDP,besides certain perceived freedoms,like those from crime,corruption and the right to make choices. In the latest such report released earlier this month,India was ranked 111 among 156 countries,tailing Pakistan at 81 and Bangladesh at 108. The Scandinavian countries of Denmark and Norway were the top two grossers.

Yet,as economists,sociologists and other observers throw up these theories to describe happiness as induced by external factors,research on happiness is fast beginning to be recognised as a potential area of scientific study,with neurologists,biologists,neurochemists,and psychologists trying to unravel it in the structure and function of the brain,and the many chemical reactions within it. These scientists are turning established concepts around,rejecting the idea that happiness is a result of worldly possessions. Instead,they attribute the emotion to certain reactions,and circuits that get activated within the brain.

A scientific approach to happiness,however,has one deterrent — there is no textbook definition of happiness. “Modern psychiatry concentrates too much on the diseased state of the mind to define what constitutes a happy or even healthy state of mind. There is too much attention given to the so-called abnormal to scientifically define or even characterise the notion of normal,” says Dr Nimesh Desai,professor of psychiatry and director,Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS),Delhi. So,with no established standards to define the phenomenon,scientists are essentially looking to establish trends — what sets happy people apart from the not-so-happy ones? Why do people react differently to situations with the same levels of stress? Why do anxiety levels differ from person to person? Why do they have mood swings? Is there a thread to link the way the mind operates,a larger puzzle that can be formed with all the pieces appropriately joined?

Biologists say there is no doubt that cells — as units of the nervous system — are involved in generating physiological changes that create a perceived sense of happiness. But these changes are yet to be identified. “A network of neurons probably work together to create synapses or connections,that make a larger circuit; all of it together contribute to this sense of happiness. The brain cell or neuron then undergoes certain physiological changes to generate the emotion,but it is far too early to say what that is,because it is an area which has only just started to be recognised in cell biology,” says Dr Satyajit Mayor,professor of cellular organisation and signalling group at the National Centre for Biological Science (NCBS) in Bangalore.

US-based psychologist Dr Richard Davidson,considered to be a frontrunner in this emerging field of happiness studies,has over the last few years studied the functioning of the brain through MRIs to show that specific areas of the brain become more active during happy thoughts. His work revolves around two centres of the brain,already established areas in controlling emotions — the prefrontal cortex in the frontal lobe and an almond-shaped area in …continued »

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