The Science of Happiness

Kristin Osika

For years, scientists have been studying the causes and effects of clinical depression. With time, money, and research being poured into the function of depression, it is both refreshing and important that scientists are now beginning to study the other end of the human emotional spectrum: happiness. To many people, happiness is an elusive goal or a life purpose. To break down something as intangible as happiness into numbers and figures may seem impossible or pointless, but the study of happiness has lead to discoveries that could change how we go about the significant task of attaining it.


Although happiness is subjective and depends on individual human experience, previous studies have shown that happiness can in fact be measured by evaluating different emotional and cognitive components.   Scientists agree that happiness is somewhat effected by genetics, and that, regardless of external experience, a person will eventually return to their own predisposed base level of happiness. This phenomenon is known as hedonic adaptation, and describes the tendency of humans to return, with time, to a stable level of happiness after a positive or negative change.


While happiness is apparently measurable, the neural substrates of happiness are still unclear. This means that scientists don’t fully understand what part of the brain is responsible for subjective happiness, or how this area functions to produce it. To investigate this issue, researchers at Kyoto University in 2015 used structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and evaluative questions to study the happiness and brain function of 51 volunteers. The researchers found a positive correlation between subjective happiness and gray matter, specifically in the precuneus. Gray matter is an important part of our central nervous system that serves to process information in the brain. The precuneus is a part of the brain in the superior parietal lobe that is active in personal experience and memory, and researchers believe it is a vital area for the formation of happiness.


The research suggested a significant positive correlation between measured happiness and the amount of gray matter in the right precuneus. Gray matter in the right precuneus mediates subjective happiness by integrating the emotional and cognitive components of happiness.


Results suggest that the precuneus plays an important role in integrating different types of information and converting it into subjective happiness, and that the more gray matter present, the more efficiently this process can occur.


Why does this matter to us?


New research points to gray matter as the secret for happiness. Because gray matter in the right precuneus is the catalyst for processing emotions and cognitive stimulation into the feeling of happiness, increased gray matter can increase an individual’s subjective happiness. The researchers at Kyoto University believe that their findings show that with psychological training to increase the amount of gray matter in the precuneus, the function of the precuneus will be able to enhance personal happiness. Therefore, the key to attaining happiness is developing and sustaining gray matter.


Physiological studies and studies on mindful awareness at Harvard University have shown a variety of ways to increase gray matter in the brain, such as physical exercise, meditation, and complex learning. This research shows that there are tangible things that can be done to increase something as abstract as happiness. The science behind happiness suggests that we can increase our predisposed subjective happiness and train our minds to return to a naturally happier state, and it is up to us to take action to turn this research into a personal reality.


Caroline Petrow-Cohen ’18



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