The Neuroscience of Happiness

In recent years, several studies on the neuroscience of happiness have emerged. Learn all about this in our article!
The Neuroscience of Happiness

Last update: 14 July, 2020

In recent years, several studies on the neuroscience of happiness have been carried out. In fact, neuroscientists and psychologists have been investigating the brain states associated with happiness. Likewise, scientists are also investigating its relationship with well-being.

For years, research has shown that our experiences reshape our brain. Additionally, they can also change our nervous systems.

Currently, neuroscience of happiness researchers are focusing on how we can take advantage of the brain’s plasticity. In particular, they want to find out how to cultivate and maintain positive emotions.

Positive emotions are the keys to psychological well-being

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

Scientists have also found that positive emotions help people recover from stress. Furthermore, they can even counteract the effects of negative emotions. Consequently, positive emotions promote a better social connection.

The inability to maintain positive emotions over time is a hallmark of depression and other psychopathologies. However, until very recently, we understood very little about the mechanisms that allow us to sustain positive emotional responses.

A woman lying down next to flowers and smiling.

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

The good news is that we can control the activation of the ventral striatumIn other words, experiencing positive emotions is in our hands.

Neuroscience of happiness

According to the study we mentioned, people with higher levels of sustained ventral striatum activity show higher psychological well-being levels and lower cortisol levels.

The researchers of a previous study identified that enjoying things like a beautiful sunset and the positive emotions surrounding it can help improve well-being. The  researchers wanted to identify how and why some people are able to maintain positive feelings.

There are many great advantages to identifying a specific region of the brain that’s related to the maintenance of positive emotions. For example, it facilitates the visualization of what could be a switch that allows us to activate this region consciously.

In this new study, researchers analyzed the neuroscience of happiness, which studies the maintenance of positive emotions. To do so, they conducted two experiments on humans. First, they set up a task of reward responses that a functional magnetic resonance device monitored. The second experiment consisted of a sampling task that measured the emotional responses of getting a reward. The experiments correctly predicted the duration of the positive emotional responses in the real world.

The duration of positive emotions is important

Examining these dynamics facilitates a better understanding of the behavioral associations of the brain. In this regard, we should note that, according to several authors, it’s important to consider not only how much emotion you experience, but also how long those emotions last.

The exact mechanism that creates emotional instances in the brain in terms of seconds, minutes, and hours remains a mystery. However, researchers say that these findings suggest that the duration of activity in specific brain circuits, even in relatively short periods of time, can predict the persistence of a person’s positive emotions just minutes or hours later.

A woman basking in the sunlight, feeling happy.

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. Likewise, the findings may also help explain why some people are more cynical than others. On the other hand, it can also explain why some people tend to see the glass half full.

According to the author of the study, the neural pattern they observed, particularly in the ventral striatum, predicted higher levels of well-being in other studies too. According to them, kindness and compassion towards others may help increase one’s ability to enjoy positive emotions. Likewise, kindness and compassion aim to cultivate certain forms of positive emotion.

On the other hand, according to the authors, the methodological innovations of this study can be applied to investigate whether the impact of simple forms of meditation can improve sustained positive emotions in real-world contexts, as well as the sustained activation of the ventral striatum measured in the laboratory using brain imaging technology. In any case, they can help develop our understanding of the neuroscience of happiness.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Dunn, J. R., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2005). Feeling and Believing: The Influence of Emotion on Trust. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(5), 736-748.
  • L. Fredrickson, B. y Levenson, R. (1998). Positive Emotions Speed Recovery from the Cardiovascular Sequelae of Negative Emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 12(2), pp.191-220.
  • Heller, A., Fox, A., Wing, E., McQuisition, K., Vack, N. y Davidson, R. (2015). The Neurodynamics of Affect in the Laboratory Predicts Persistence of Real-World Emotional Responses. Journal of Neuroscience, 35(29), pp.10503-10509.
  • Kringelbach, M. L., & Berridge, K. C. (2010). The Neuroscience of Happiness and Pleasure. Social research77(2), 659-678.
  • Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success? Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 803-855.
  • Ryan T. Howell Ph.D, Margaret L. Kern & Sonja Lyubomirsky (2007) Health benefits: Meta-analytically determining the impact of well-being on objective health outcomes, Health Psychology Review, 1:1, 83-136

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.