The pursuit of happiness is considered to be part biological, rooted in the evolution of the brain and nervous system. It is generally hard to identify and challenging to measure due to its subjective nature. Happiness to one is not necessarily happiness to another. And yet, the pursuit of happiness that every person on this planet aspires to is a motivating factor in most everything that we do.
Though there are many ways to approach this subject, for this post, I want to look at the biology of happiness and its benefits. What leads to happiness is indeed the work of life coaches as well. And, that's a quite large subject. Since I am focused on health and wellness for this series, my intention is to focus on the benefits of happiness to the body and to our lives.
Searching for happiness in the brain
Research in this field encompasses psychology, neurology, and general biology. Scientists have studied happiness for many years and find that we are indeed hardwired for happiness. This does not negate the fact that we are also hardwired for non-toxic anxiety or emotions that "feel negative" to ensure that we are also focused on survival and procreation, with strong evidence that happiness and pleasure are also linked. The truth is that our bodies are wired for homeostasis so, generally, both are true. But, again, this post is about happiness and the neurological and psychophysiological case for encoded mechanisms for experiencing happiness.
So, where does happiness live in our brains - is there a biological basis for happiness? Much research has gone into states such as depression, anxiety, mental health conditions, and so forth. With the advent of neuroscience, researchers are now turning their attention to researching happiness. What they are finding out is that happiness is linked to, among other things, our nervous system. As they continued to study this, they found that there are pleasure centers in the brain. Experiments on rats with implanted electrodes showed that, when given the opportunity to self-stimulate and produce the state of pleasure, that the rats did so over eating, drinking, or resting. Extensive mapping in humans also revealed that stimulation in these same human brain centers elicited smiling, laughter, pleasurable feelings, happiness, and even euphoria. This extensive mapping also showed the existence of a coherent (remember that word from earlier posts) reward system. When the brain is stimulated, it releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine, not only in that area but also in the septum, the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex. Dopamine is essential for the activation of the reward system in our brains. In our work, we find that many factors in a person's life seriously affects their production of dopamine. High levels of dopamine produces developmental problems, poor impulse control, and reality-altering emotions. Low levels of dopamine produces a lack of motivation and focus, cravings, and low libido.
A secondary breakthrough in research revealed that we also produce endorphins, a kind of internal morphine that is composed of a sequence of amino acids. Receptors for endorphins are released by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus and are found in several places in our brains. Endorphins suppress pain. In addition, it produces pleasurable feelings with accompanying actions such as eating chocolate, laughing, smiling, listening to good music, and even orgasm. Endorphins released in the brain also stimulates the production of dopamine.
There is a Set Point
Happiness is both a general state of health and wellness and a subjective condition that we chase. For the purpose of this blog, as I stated above, I wanted to illuminate that there is a case for biological wiring that affects our ABILITY to feel happiness. The benefits of that is a well-balanced and general state of wellbeing that leads to creativity, pleasure, focus, energy, and motivation. There is also evidence to support that each human has a personal set point that tends to be genetically wired as well. Some of this has to do with our biology and some has to do with our psychology - how we filter and interpret events in our lives. What I hope you also see is that those filters and interpretation is also impacted by our neurology - are our neurotransmitter levels where they need to be in order to have the ability to experience happiness and pleasure? Much has been written about the benefits of positive psychology and we support that. What is also true, however, is that sometimes our biology trumps how we experience life, it can preclude any ability to see it positively. It's just not going to happen until we achieve neurological and hormonal balance.
If you are feeling anxious, depressed, unmotivated, lack concentration, experience cravings of any kind, and have low libido, why not come in and do the testing to find out if it is neurology or psychology or both? Our team of health and wellness certified and licensed professionals can help you identify the overarching cause of your current condition. We perform a comprehensive health and wellness assessment, order hormone and neurotransmitter testing, refer for additional bloodwork (if necessary), conduct a diet and nutrition assessment, and reach out and work with your other healthcare providers to put together an individualized plan for you that works with your stated goals and vision for yourself.
Invest and learn about yourself. We are so much more than we ever imagined. Call me for a FREE information conversation to see if we are right for you.
Wanda Taylor, CEO, MCC
Thomas R. Schneider, Medical Director