How does happiness affect the brain?

Ronald Siegel
Researchers now agree that there is a biomolecular aspect to all experience, including happiness, and that the brain is command central for the chemical and physiological changes that occur in the body with positive emotions. While many researchers have studied positive emotions by observing human and animal behavior, others are trying to discover what is happening inside the brain at the structural and molecular levels.

Since the middle of the 20th century, neuroscientists have investigated the mechanisms of positive emotion in the brain and body. Before that time, positive emotions were regarded as too subjective for rigorous scientific study. But a better understanding of the brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters and increased ability to use technology to create images of the living brain opened new opportunities for study.

In the 1950s, psychologists identified a "pleasure center" in an area of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens. They found that laboratory animals would press a lever to deliver an electrical stimulus to their own brain's "pleasure center" repeatedly until they were exhausted—undeterred by hunger, thirst, or pain. When researchers stimulate the nucleus accumbens of people, they smile, laugh, and report feeling pleasure, happiness, or euphoria. Later, by mapping connected areas, the researchers identified a reward circuit in the brain that involves the prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain) and several underlying areas, including the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala (which triggers emotions).

The brain responds to a pleasure stimulus by activating a reward system. When the brain receives a positive sensory stimulus (something that feels good), it sends a signal to the ventral tegmental area (VTA) in the midbrain. The VTA releases dopamine into the nucleus accumbens (the pleasure center) and into the septum, the amygdala (part of our emotional response system), and the prefrontal cortex (which is involved in thinking).
Dr. Kathleen Hall
Preventive Medicine
Happiness is a physical state of the brain. When we are happy our brain produces neurochemicals that result in us wanting to eat, have sex, or maybe sing a song. Most researchers study the effects of these neurochemicals by using different measurement techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI), which records blood flow that activates parts of the brain; an electroencephalogram (EEG), which monitors the electrical activity of neuronal circuits; or blood tests that measure the amount of hormones or neurotransmitters in the blood, such as dopamine or serotonin.
A Life in Balance: Nourishing the Four Roots of True Happiness

More About this Book

A Life in Balance: Nourishing the Four Roots of True Happiness

Nautilus Book Awards Winners for 2007 (category: Self-Help/Psychology/ Personal Growth) "Like many people, Kathleen Hall found that despite great success and material wealth, she had yet to identify...

Continue Learning about Happiness

Share Your Stories For a Happier, Healthier Life
Share Your Stories For a Happier, Healthier Life
Photo Credit: TIm Brown, via Flickr Creative Commons Our ability to tell a story is one of our most valuable and powerful gifts. It means reaching ou...
Read More
Can being happy earn me more money?
Discovery HealthDiscovery Health
Researchers think so. Happy people tend to possess more initiative and be more productive than those...
More Answers
Health Experts Answer: What Is Happiness?
Health Experts Answer: What Is Happiness?Health Experts Answer: What Is Happiness?Health Experts Answer: What Is Happiness?Health Experts Answer: What Is Happiness?
What is the definition of happiness? Mental health experts offer their take.
Start Slideshow
A Surprising Key to Happiness
A Surprising Key to Happiness

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.