That Happy Feeling

Does the art of happiness involve science?

Written by Pritha Chatterjee | New Delhi | Published: September 29, 2013 5:43:10 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 the temporal lobe,that has a series of neurons,known as the amygdale. Davidson demonstrated through MRIs that the left part of the pre-frontal cortex is more active and that circuits in the amygdale are suppressed when people experience happy and positive thoughts. Conversely,the right side works more with heightened activity in the amygdale during negative emotions like sadness,anxiety and anger. A person’s mood,according to Davidson,can be explained by which part is more active.

His team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison added to the research,showcasing how meditation can be a tool to “train” or “skill” the mind to be happy. Davidson termed the process of training the brain “neuroplasticity” and demonstrated its effect on a live subject — 66-year-old Tibetan monk and molecular geneticist Matthieu Ricard,an aide of the Dalai Lama,who was shown to be the happiest man in the world. Functional MRIs on his brain showed heightened activity in his left pre-frontal cortex “never before seen in neuroradiology” while he meditated. “When the framework of neuroplasticity is applied to meditation,we suggest that the mental training of meditation is fundamentally no different than other forms of skill acquisition that can induce plastic changes in the brain,” Davidson notes in one of his articles.

Experts studying the brain and its functions say the research has immense potential in controlling thought processes. Dr Nihar Jana,professor of neurochemistry at the National Brain Research Centre in Manesar,Haryana,says,“What made the brains of Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa different from others? Why were they so calm even in adverse situations? As our society changes,in times of growing unrest and lives of stress and anger,functional MRI studies hold a huge potential.”

Brain imaging has also shown that elevated levels of certain antioxidants like glutathione work like a coolant in the brain,controlling stress levels and thus contributing to better brain function,which leads to happiness. A comparison of the levels of this antioxidant between healthy people and those diagnosed with degenerative neurological disorders has helped establish this theory. Dr Prabhat Mandal,adjunct associate professor in the department of neuroradiology at the John Hopkins School of Medicine,and part of the faculty at the Haryana-based National Brain Research Centre,says,“I look at happiness as a result of positive brain functions. In my analysis,glutathione,which is present in different quantities in different areas of the brain,contributes to a large extent towards positive brain function. In patients with degenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s,we have been able to establish that the glutathione levels go down to near zero-levels,breaking down connections between different cells,” he says. The role of glutathione in controlling mood,memory and other factors is still being studied.

Another alternative scientific explanation for happiness lies in neurochemistry,which studies chemical reactions within the human brain as a result of environmental stimuli. “What leads to the immensely satisfying feeling a mother experiences while breastfeeding her child? Again,when a baby gets hurt,what triggers the feeling of relief with the coming of the mother as opposed to anyone else?” says Jana. These stimuli that a mother or baby experiences,which give the perception of happiness,can be explained by the release of some chemicals in the brain. Broadly categorised as neurotransmitters,these trigger or lighten up some pathways in the brain that lower negative thought processes. This has been established in mice models in several countries including India. “It has been shown that a neurotransmitter known as oxytocin gets released in the brain with these stimuli,which may be a possible answer to these feelings,” explains Jana.

Similarly,the perceived sense of happiness when being administered placebos has been explained by the elevated levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. “When levels of dopamine and another neurotransmitter serotonin are reduced,anxiety levels become high,and when the levels of the neurotransmitters are raised by administration of drugs,anxiety levels go down,” says Jana. Another neurotransmitter,endorphins,associated with physical activity,has been known to create a sense of positivity and happiness. “Endorphins works like any pain relief drugs such as morphine. It is the body’s natural mechanism to fight pain. So after exercise or physical activity when there is a perceived sense of pain in the muscular system,the body naturally releases endorphins which creates a sense of pain relief,” Jana said.

The pH levels of the brain may also hold some answers to the theory of happiness. Immediately after birth,the brain is alkaline and slowly turns acidic. Till this pH state (acidic) is maintained,experts say brain function remains positive. “In people diagnosed with depressive and degenerative disorders,it has been seen that the hippocampus becomes alkaline,” says Mandal.

Work in psychiatry and the emerging discipline of cognitive behaviour therapy,as opposed to drug-based treatment of psychiatric disorders has shown,that the state of the mind can be controlled to a great extent through behavioural changes. This,experts suggest,is a vindication of the theory of happiness as a voluntarily phenomenon. “Behaviour therapy is any engagement in positive activities — exercise,music,reading,all these have been established as therapeutic tools for disorders like Ochs,anxiety and depression. They can,in turn,contribute to happiness,” says Desai.

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