photo by Jack Temple
“When I was five years old my mother told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment. I told them they didn’t understand life.” – John Lennon
science meets happy
Happiness is the subject of some of the most recent cutting-edge research among scientists today. Although far from definitive, scientists have recently made leaps in investigating the empirical features of happiness and mapping the functional neuro-anatomy of happiness. In modern psychology, happiness is usually thought of as consisting of two aspects: pleasure and meaning. Psychologists have recently proposed adding a third component: feelings of commitment and participation in life.
how to control happiness
Happiness depends on information that is constantly cycling throughout cortical and subcortical, conscious and subconscious brain systems. Psychologists will tell you that through conscious behavioral therapies you can reset some of this yourself. (Not convinced just yet? See the Science of Happy for the more geeked out explaination.)
Despite all the conscious and subconscious controls of our brain, the complexity of neurotransmitters, neural maps, and nervous and immune system effectors, we are more in control of the subconscious matters of happiness than we think. We can start to control happiness by coming back to the definition set out by research scientists in its three measured components: pleasure, meaning and participation in life.
1. find pleasure in everything – big and small
2. discover meaning, whether it is through work, family or self
3. commit to and participate in your life. In the end, it’s up to you. Why not embrace it all?
*At this point you can go out and be happy or catch a screening of the Happy movie, which is what inspired this post. If learning how things work is what brings a smile to your face then read on! Warning science-y language ahead.
science of happy
One crucial anatomical part of determining emotional state is the hypothalamus, which is a tiny, subcortical structure that looks like nothing other than a melty ice-cream cone. Its base tip is adjacent to the endocrine gland, which links the nervous system with the endocrine system (proximity is key in neuroanatomy! – neurons firing can stimulate hormone secretion and hormones are key to producing happiness feelings). The hypothalamus maintains what neurobiologists call the “set point”—a unique and fixed status quo in each person’s body.
The hypothalamus is part of the limbic system of the brain, which influences nervous system control and is critical to emotional expression and learning. A variety of brain structures play a role in the limbic system. There is some conscious control of this system but many of its functions are also subconscious. Laughter and smiling, for instance, are stimulated by structures in the brain that are linked to the limbic system. Because those portions of the brain are both conscious and subconscious, you can stimulate the subconscious parts of the brain that are responsible for these pleasures by consciously partaking in laughter and smiling (have you tried Laughter Yoga? – it’s a hoot!).
The neurotransmitters that travel between the physical structures of the brain (serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine) must be maintained at certain levels in the brain to elicit and sustain happiness feelings. Other signals, such as endorphins and enkephalins, the body’s natural analgesics, contribute to positive affect through the mood elevation we get after exercise (hint: get out there and sweat!). Together, these signals create a current that runs between our synapses and profoundly affect our emotional highs and lows.
Happiness can be created. It is being awake to every moment of your life and reminding yourself to smile, laugh and pay attention. So tell us, what makes you happy?
*For citations to this article, please contact Ingrid at www.ingridyang.com. Ingrid Yang is a lululemon ambassador and medical student in Chicago, IL. Her book, Hatha Yoga Asanas is a great resource for yoga.