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Kyoto University Researchers Zero in on the Neural Structures Behind Happiness

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Posted November 23, 2015

Trying to define happiness, and looking for ways to achieve it, have been pop culture mainstays for many decades now, with countless articles and self-help books on the topic being published nearly every single day. Jumping on the bandwagon, many researchers around the world have been hard at work trying to pinpoint the neural structures behind it.

Having more grey matter in the region of the medial parietal lobe, called precuneus, strongly correlates with more intense positive affect and overall level of happiness. Image credit: Colours via flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Having more grey matter in the region of the medial parietal lobe, called precuneus, strongly correlates with more intense positive affect and overall level of happiness. Image credit: Colours via flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0.

And, finally, we might have an answer. At least a partial one, anyway – researchers at the Kyoto University have found that, overall, happiness is a combination of positive emotions and life satisfaction coming together in the precuneus, a region in the medial parietal lobe that becomes active when experiencing consciousness.

It’s been clear for a long time now that positive affect isn’t dependent squarely on external circumstances – what constitutes a source of acute pleasure for one person might be perceived as something rather neutral by another. The neural mechanisms behind this variation, however, remained obscure.

According to Wataru Sato, lead researcher on the new study, understanding the way happiness emerges in the brain could become a huge asset for quantifying its levels objectively.

First, Sato and his team scanned the brains of 51 healthy volunteers with an MRI, and then asked them to complete the Mini-International Psychiatric Interview, designed to gauge their general level of happiness, life satisfaction and intensity of felt emotion.

Results showed that those who reported being capable of finding meaning in their lives, as well as scoring higher on intensity of positive emotions, and lower on that of negative ones, had more grey matter in their precuneus.

“Over history, many eminent scholars like Aristotle have contemplated what happiness is,” said Sato. “I’m very happy that we now know more about what it means to be happy.”

Fascinating as they are, these findings might also have real-world applications for what is called “happiness training”. “Several studies have shown that meditation increases grey matter mass in the precuneus. This new insight on where happiness happens in the brain will be useful for developing happiness programs based on scientific research,” concluded Sato.

The study was published on November 20, 2015 in the journal Scientific Reports.

Sources: study, kyoto-u.ac.jp.

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