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The Science of Happiness

Happiness is a pleasure that can aptly be described as a state of content, aided by the absence of gross desire. //

For generations, man has indulged in a conscious pursuit to quench his yen for happiness.For most people it has proven to be as evading as their quest for the Holy Grail. Different cultures take a different view of happiness. The eastern culture harbors a fatalistic view of life, which enables them to accept happiness, and overcome unhappiness, with an inbuilt ease. The western culture, on the other hand, with its individualistic approach, and its insatiable urge to achieve, views happiness as yet another goal.

About 5 million people in the UK suffer from depression at any given time, 30-40% of who do not respond to treatment. There is an endless list of factors such as debt, loneliness, weather or work pressure that sets off the sadness siren. The neuroscience that delves into the biology of well being is toddling towards a complete explanation, and the striving researchers claim that happiness is palpable.The foci of their research are pleasure and desire, two complex and interesting emotions in humans.

In an early study conducted by James Old and Peter Milner of McGill University, rats repeatedly pressed a lever, sometimes as often as 2000 times / hr, to experience stimulation targeted at a specific area of the brain. During this period they refused to stop for feeding, drinking or acts of procreation. These areas, identified as the ‘pleasure centers’ of the brain, were found to be impaired in individuals with Parkinson’s disease. The signaling chemical, dopamine, was christened the ‘pleasure chemical’. It was later established by Kent Berridge of the University of Michigan that the electrodes actually kindled desire, rather than pleasure. The dopamine system was found to control desire while the opioid syst em, comprising of naturally occurring morphine- like compounds, encodes pleasure.

Current research, through neuroimaging, has found that the orbito frontal cortex, a ‘recent’ evolutionary development, correlates with subjective reports of pleasure, which incorporates cognitive and emotive judgments. Some scientists have proved that ‘happy images’ kindled that part of the brain that was associated with gloom in people suffering from depression, who processed their responses to these images differently, at an emotional level. Studies have also revealed that certain parts of the brain of these patients were less active, compared to normal individuals.

Studies involving MRI scans have revealed that the anterior cingulated cortex of the brain is the emotional alarm system, which can be activated by physical pain as well as by emotional distress, like social exclusion. These emotions that are linked to happiness by default, are facets of evolution ingrained into our brains. Research on animals have revealed that another part of the brain, the right ventral prefrontal cortex was activated simultaneously to cope with the vagaries of pain, implicating that the centers of sadness and the mechanism to cope are wired into our system and are well within our reach to make or mar.

It is fairly certain that happiness is a tangible skill that can be acquired through time and effort. Experts in neuroscience have been baffled by a 60 yr old, academician- turned Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard, who has amazed them with his brilliant mind control and racing brain impulses. They have honored him as the ‘happiest man on earth’.Scans have shown that long time meditators like Ricard, and other optimistic people, express excessive activity in the left pre-frontal cortex of the brain which is associated with happy and positive thoughts. Alternatively the right side, which is associated with negative emotions, seems to be largely suppressed in them. Although the human mind is like a trouble- making monkey, it is highly malleable. Human existence can, therefore, be greatly brightened by incorporating minimal changes into the thought processes that controls the way one understands and responds to the world outside.

The ceaseless quest for growth has generated large-scale dissatisfaction in our society. But the drudgery of dealing with despair is now a million dollar industry. Designer drugs, some of which are recreational, impart a false sense of well being which is quickly replaced by apathy and depression. Anti depressants may help to suppress negative emotions but they do not help to generate joy. Besides, some recent studies have warned that certain drugs are capable of unleashing suicidal tendencies in susceptible individuals. Stress and discontent are factors that helped man to evolve physically, emotionally and culturally; therefore tampering with these emotions are likely to dull our natural instincts.

Then where lies the remedy?

Meditation is a time- tested, scientifically- proven remedy that enhances well- being. Long-term meditation takes the edge off emotions, like fear and anger, by taming the amygdala of the brain. Besides, in meditating people, the left prefrontal lobe activity is increased, ensuring a steady flow of positive thoughts and emotions.

Although the need to maximize personal happiness is primordial, it should be combined with a sense of social commitment. Psychologists insist that there is a distinction between ‘feeling good’, which they refer to as a ‘hedonic treadmill’ that leads one to search for more pleasure, and ‘doing good’, which may pave the way for lasting happiness. Doing good is also associated with positive emotions like optimism, gratitude, hope, spirituality and love, among many others.

Building one’s confidence by working on one’s strength, being comfortable with oneself, accepting changes, accepting the fact that changes cannot always be made, developing a positive attitude,consciously striving towards a better self and living in the present are the milestones on the ‘silky route’ to inner joy. It is important, however, not to overtly indulge and to reduce the search for happiness into yet another stress-filled, time- bound goal.

Sorce-Medindia
RJA
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