Too much research has been devoted to the science of stress, depression, and the connection to disease and not enough to the biology of joy. If a greater emphasis was placed on why we don’t go to doctors when we are feeling optimistic, happy, and joyful, there would be less value and importance placed on the emotional states that coincidentally generate more money for those manufacturing medication. There are many ways to experience pleasure in our brains and happiness might be the one emotion that prevents and reverses the cascade of cellular events that lead to disease.
A lot of people get addicted to chemicals — alcohol, cocaine, amphetamine, heroin, and nicotine. Why do they do that? And why aren’t they happy? It is because brains have a variety of chemical systems that regulate their electrical activities in waking and sleeping, and the addictive drugs artificially stimulate those systems, but the feelings are not those of joy.
For example, a chemical called ‘dopamine‘ is broadly spread through the brain by specialized nerve cells when a person achieves some kind of reward, such as by satisfying hunger and thirst, winning a game, or passing an examination. Dopamine is often called a “reward hormone.” Its chemical actions are produced also by closely-related compounds such as amphetamine and cocaine. They give feelings of buoyant optimism, energy, power, and knowledge.
This same chemical linked to drug addiction may also contribute to obesity, researchers have found.
It is not surprising that people who have no other avenues to success, living in poverty and hopelessness, will spend their food money on some transient chemical bliss. But that isn’t happiness, and even people who are bloated on academic or business success, and who feel elation, aren’t liable to confuse that feeling with happiness.
Other chemicals called ‘endorphins‘ act in the brain as natural pain relievers. Their action is imitated by heroin and morphine, also alcohol. Again, it is small wonder that people who suffer from the emotional pains of regret, shame, guilt, and despair might find relief from their demons in forgetfulness. But that isn’t happiness.
Yet another chemical called ‘serotonin‘ is important in bringing mental relaxation as an important condition for getting to sleep. We don’t really know yet what sleep is for, but we know that we can’t survive without it. The relief from agitation and anxiety that is mediated by serotonin leads also to recovery from some forms of depression. That is why the chemical fluoxitine (Prozac) has become so popular. It doesn’t act like serotonin, but it prolongs the action of what little serotonin the brain is producing, if it is in short supply. But return to tranquillity from anxiety and depression is not the same thing as happiness.
So, is there a chemical for joy? Scientists are beginning to understand that this is a wrong-headed question. There is no such chemical, and even to ask the question is to expose a deep ignorance about how brains — and people — actually work.
Happiness Is Directly Linked To Our Health
Dr. Derek Cox, Director of Public Health at Dumfries and Galloway NHS, suspects that for decades health professionals have been missing a big trick in improving the health of the nation.
“We’ve spent years saying that giving up smoking could be the single most important thing that we could do for the health of the nation. And yet there is mounting evidence that happiness might be at least as powerful a predictor, if not a more powerful predictor than some of the other lifestyle factors that we talk about in terms of cigarette smoking, diet, physical activity, and those kind of things,” he says.
The science of happiness is increasingly suggesting a link between happiness and health. Research conducted by Andrew Steptoe, the British Heart Foundation Professor of Psychology at University College London, has found that happier people also have greater protection against things like heart disease and stroke.
“We know that stress, which has bad effects on biology, leads to those bad changes as far as health is concerned. What we think is happening is that happiness has the opposite effect and has a protective effect on these same biological pathways,” said Mr Steptoe.
What Happens To Our Cells When We are Happy?
The increasing prevalence (and debilitating effects) of depressive symptoms has motivated intense research into the biological basis of mood disorders and negative affect. However, the immense volume of research investigating pathophysiology has yet to be paralleled by research of positive affect.
Specifically, the emerging field of ‘positive affect’ is focused on identifying contributing factors and various effects of positive subjective experiences and emotions, such as hope, optimism, and spirituality. Positive affect is a term encompassing various components, including happiness, contentment, life satisfaction, optimism, and well-being. It appears that happy, healthy people have the same habits.
The study of positive psychology is encouraging more researchers to study the proactive prevention of illness by identifying attitudes and personality traits that contribute to positive mood and increase quality of life. For example, happy people, as compared with less happy people, tend to have greater immune system function, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and report greater marriage and job satisfaction. It is therefore valuable to develop a deeper understanding of the positive affect by investigating its biological basis. Several studies have begun to investigate potential biological markers of positive affect.
Research investigating the association between potential biological markers indicates depressed individuals have a lower concentration of prolactin. Most people associate prolactin with enabling women to produce milk, however, it is influential over a large number of functions. Prolactin plays an essential role in metabolism, regulation of the immune system, and pancreatic development. In humans, prolactin is produced in the pituitary, uterus, breast, lymphocytes, leukocytes, and prostate. As prolactin response increases, so do the positive effects associated with happiness, and this correlates with cognition and neural connectivity affecting our ability to perceive, remember, and reinforce existing neural connections.
To protect the brain from stress, it releases a protein called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a neurotrophin which translates activity into synaptic and cognitive plasticity in the adult animal. This BDNF has a protective and also a reparative element to memory neurons and acts as a reset switch. That’s why we often feel so at ease and see things so clearly after moments of stress.
At the same time, endorphins, another chemical to fight stress, are released from the brain. The main purpose of endorphins is to minimize discomfort and block the feeling of pain by stimulating pleasure centers, many of which even lead to euphoria.
BDNF and endorphins are the reasons exercise makes us feel so good. The somewhat scary part is that they are associated with very similar addictive behaviors to morphine, heroine or nicotine users. The only difference? Well, it’s actually good for us.
Endorphins are chemicals that are able to cross through the gaps between neurons in order to pass along a message from one to the next. There are many different kinds, and much remains to be learned about their different purposes and functions, but endorphins can be released with many different types of activities.
Endorphins act as both a painkiller and as the pay-off for your body’s reward system. When you hurt yourself (or eat a hot chili pepper), you may get a big dose of endorphins to ease the pain. You may also get an endorphin blast from talking to a stranger, eating a satisfying meal or being exposed to ultraviolet light. (Everyone has different amounts of endorphins, and what may trigger an endorphin rush for one person could very well produce a dud for someone else.) The pay-off in the form of your body tapping into its own stash of “opiates” is to let you know you’ve had enough — and convince you to do it again sometime soon.
Overall, the net benefit of cells undergoing all the above changes leads to:
- Stimulating the growth of nerve connections.
- Improving cognition by increasing mental productivity.
- Improving our ability to analyze and think.
- Enhancing our view of our surroundings.
- Increasing attentiveness.
- Even more happy thoughts.
Why Happiness Cannot Be Made By A Chemical
Where we humans find joy is in surmounting this solipsistic barrier between us and sharing our feelings and comforts. We cannot ever really cross it but, a bit like neighbors chatting over a fence, we can be together. However, there is more to this communion than mere talking. There is trust, which underlies true friendships and partnerships. What is the chemistry of trust?
Answers are found when we look back on our mammalian ancestors. Raising a helpless infant to childhood requires intensive parental care, which comes with bonding between the parents and the infant. Now, how does a carefree child, when it has grown up, become a parent? This change in role requires a catastrophic change in beliefs, attitudes, and values to make new parents. We humans would say that they fall in love, first with each other, and then with their offspring.
Scientists have learned that, when animals mate and give birth, specialized chemicals are released into their brains that enable their behavior to change. Maternal and paternal patterns of nursing and caring appear. The most important is a chemical called ‘oxytocin.’ It doesn’t cause joy. On the contrary, it may cause anxiety, because it melts down the patterns of connections among neurons that hold experience, so that new experience can form. We become aware of this meltdown most dramatically as a frightening loss of identity and self control, when we fall in love for the first time.
Bonding comes not with the meltdown, but with the shared activity afterward, in which people learn about each other through cooperation. Knowing another person doesn’t come with foreplay and orgasm. It comes in cooperative activities during and afterward. Trust emerges not just with sex, but also with vigorous shared activity in sports and combat, through which people bond into teams by learning to trust each other.
So oxytocin is not a happiness chemical, but a brain tool for building trust — and is a documented result of mother-child bonds. Perhaps a million years ago our ancestors learned how to use this mammalian mechanism to promote social bonding beyond sexual union, in order to form groups and tribes. They did it, and still do it, with dancing, rhythmic clapping and chanting, singing and making music together all day and night, into exhaustion and collapse. When they awaken, they are reborn.
Friedrich Nietzsche realized this. Emil Durkheim and other anthropologists have shown how people engage in Dionysian orgies and religious ceremonies as the most effective way in which to create group identities. The joy they experience comes in dancing and singing with each other, thereby forming the bonds of trust. Trust comes when we are able to predict what other people will do, and we achieve that by repeated cooperative actions.
Aristotle wrote, “Happiness is activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” That is rather abstract. We can see virtue as a set of shared goals for the good of ourselves and our children. Joy comes with activities that we share with people we have learned to trust, and that enable us to share meaning across the solipsistic barrier that separates each of us from all others.
So happiness is not made by a chemical. That would be the same as treating a violin sonata as nothing but rubbing horse hair on strings of cat gut in order to make a wooden box resonate. Violin makers have to know their materials to make one, and violinists have to learn how to make it sing. Physicians have to know about the brain chemicals in order to treat patients, when the chemistry of brains has gone wrong, but they can’t give us a pill to make us happy. We create our own joys, and we feel happiest in learning to trust each other.
The Power Of Positive Thoughts
As far as your brain, every thought releases brain chemicals. Being focused on negative thoughts effectively saps the brain of its positive forcefulness, slows it down, and can go as far as dimming your brain’s ability to function, even creating depression. On the flip side, thinking positive, happy, hopeful, optimistic, joyful thoughts decreases cortisol and produces serotonin, which creates a sense of well-being. This helps your brain function at peak capacity.
Happy thoughts and positive thinking, in general, support brain growth, as well as the generation and reinforcement of new synapses, especially in your prefrontal cortex (PFC), which serves as the integration center of all of your brain-mind functions.
In other words, your PFC not only regulates the signals that your neurons transmit to other brain parts and to your body, it allows you to think about and reflect upon what you are physically doing. In particular, the PFC allows you to control your emotional responses through connections to your deep limbic brain. It gives you the ability to focus on whatever you choose and to gain insight about your thinking processes. The PFC is the only part of your brain that can control your emotions and behaviors and help you focus on whatever goals you elect to pursue. It helps you grow as a human being, change what you wish to change, and live life the way you decide!
Why Optimism Leads To Greater Happiness
Neuroscientists have discovered that people who have a more cheerful disposition and are more prone to optimism generally have higher activity occurring in their left PFC. But that’s a brain explanation… Interestingly, behavioral scientists have observed fascinating differences between optimists and pessimists.
Optimism, for example, involves highly desirable cognitive, emotional, and motivational components. Optimistic people tend to have better moods, to be more persevering and successful, and to experience better physical health. One factor may be simply that optimists attribute good events to themselves in terms of permanence, citing their traits and abilities as the cause, and bad events as transient (using words like “sometimes” or “lately”), or the fault of other people. In addition, optimists:
- Lead happy, rich, fulfilled lives.
- Spend the least amount of time alone, and the most time socializing.
- Have good relationships.
- Have better health habits.
- Have stronger immune systems.
- Live longer than pessimists.
On the flip side, pessimistic people explain good events by citing transient causes, such as moods and effort, and bad events as permanent conditions (using words like “always” or “never”). A study by a University of British Columbia researcher found that some people are genetically predisposed to see the world darkly. Negativity is all-pervasive, it seems. Pessimists:
- Automatically assume setbacks are permanent, pervasive, and due to personal failings.
- Are eight times more likely to be depressed than optimists.
- Perform worse at school and work.
- Have rockier interpersonal relationships.
- Die sooner than optimists.
According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a University of California researcher, unhappy people spend hours comparing themselves to other people, both above and below themselves on the happiness scale; happy people didn’t compare themselves with anyone.
According to a study from Lund University, a collective picture of what makes us happy is more about relationships and people, and less about things.
The good news is that you can use your mind to train your brain to ramp down the negative thoughts that lead to pessimism, while ramping up the types of positive thoughts that lead to optimism. You can be the master of the neuronal changes that will lead to greater happiness, and the rewiring starts in those teensy miracles known as your brain cells, or neurons. Even if depression runs in your family, you have the capability of improving the way your brain functions, of setting up neuronal roadblocks and diminishing the neuronal patterns linked to negative thinking. You may not be able to eradicate a genetic disposition towards depression, but you can greatly reduce its impact and its recurrence.
Negative Thinking, Negative Balance
Negative thinking slows down brain coordination, making it difficult to process thoughts and find solutions. Feeling frightened, which often happens when focused on negative outcomes, has been shown to decrease activity in your cerebellum, which slow the brain’s ability to process new information — limiting your ability to practice creative problem solving. Additionally, the fear factor impacts your left temporal lobe, which affects mood, memory, and impulse control.
Your frontal lobe, particularly your PFC, decides what is important according to the amount of attention you pay to something and how you feel about it. Thus, the more you focus on negativity, the more synapses and neurons your brain will create that support your negative thought process.
Your hippocampus provides the context of stored memories, which means the emotional tone and description your mind creates can potentially rewire your brain by creating stronger neuronal pathways and synapses. What you think and feel about a certain situation or thing can become so deeply ingrained that you will have to work hard to dismantle the negative connections and rewire your brain in order to be less afraid, to think positively, to believe that dreams can come true, to trust that your efforts will be successful.
Train Your Brain To Think More Positively
One of the oldest precepts of neuroscience has been that our mental processes (thinking) originate from brain activity: that our brain is in charge when it comes to creating and shaping our mind. However, more recent research has shown that it can also work the other way around: that focused, repetitive mental activity can affect changes in your brain’s structure, wiring, and capabilities.
The actions we take can literally expand or contract different regions of the brain, firing up circuits or ramping them down. The more you ask your brain to do, the more cortical space it sets up to handle the new tasks. It responds by forging stronger connections in circuits that underlie the desired behavior or thought and weakening the connections in others. Thus, what you do and what you think, see, or feel is mirrored in the size of your respective brain regions and the connections your brain forms to accommodate your needs.
What does all this mean? It means that what we think, do, and say matters; that it affects who we become on the outside, the inside, and in our brain. Mostly, it means that you can retrain your brain to be more positive.
Start by thinking happy thoughts, looking on the bright side, and refocusing your brain when negative thoughts occur. Your mind has the ability to determine how your brain thinks about what happens in your life. Use it to your own advantage to reframe events and think positively.
About the author:
Dr. Marianna Pochelli is a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine specializing in the treatment of disease through super-foods and herbal strategies. She actively promotes detoxification, colon cleansing, and a vegetarian lifestyle using living foods as a platform to good health. This article is published courtesy of the good folks at PreventDisease.com.