This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.
Biology 202, Spring 2005
Third Web Papers
"I am so stressed out and depressed. I am not happy". This is a familiar phrase we hear on campus this time of the year. Many people including myself are overwhelmed by the amount of work we need to complete and we wonder, "Why in the world did I come to Bryn Mawr?" We seek help by talking to others how stressed out we are or we load too much junk food and caffeine to stay ourselves awake. "I like what I am doing, but why can I not feel happy?" I recently realized that I have not had any moments that I feel "happy" in a while. What is happiness anyway? Happiness appears in various types, sometimes a momentary one like an excitement and sometimes a long-lasting one that generally puts you in a happy mood. What is happening with our nervous systems when we feel happy? Is there anything we can do to make or keep us happy? Happiness is a type of emotion, a positive one. Many researches have been done on negative types of emotion such as depression, stress, traumas and so on. On the other hand, researches on positive types of emotion have not been studied as much so far but they are now getting attention more these days. Looking at the general overview of emotion and the researches on happiness, this paper is going to find a key to happiness.
The part we feel emotion resides in our brains.
The website, BrainConnection.com gives a good overview of emotion. Emotion varies depending on what our experiences are, and there are considerately three categories, primary emotions, secondary emotions, and background emotions. Primary emotions are "experienced as a byproduct of a stimulus-response chain of events" and the examples are fear, anger, sadness and joy (1). Secondary emotions and background emotions come from an "internal feedback loop" (1). It has been also suggested that emotions can overlap various categories like primary and secondary or primary and background. The main pathways for the primary emotions have two forms though it varies somewhat depending on the type of emotion. One way is that our sensory inputs can be transferred from visual cortex and move quickly to thalamic pathways and to the amygdala, a part of limbic system located in front of hippocampus. The second route is that sensory input moves to the cortex and then comes back to the amygdale. What secondary emotions differ from primary motions is that "it begins with cognition and follows a pathway that has been created by learning; images are associated with emotions and events triggering these images then trigger the pre-associated emotions" (1). Thus our second emotion emerges from our learning experiences. The path which second emotion takes is a simple travel of stimulus from the frontal lobe to the amygdala. Secondary emotions involve with chemical releasing process unlike primary emotions. The frontal lobe seems essential to secondary emotions, but what about people who have damages with the frontal lobe? The answer is that those people are mostly unable to experience secondary emotions though they can experience primary emotions. The third type of emotion is the background emotions which is the resting state of your emotions. Since the neurological path is focused on fear, a negative emotion, it might not be a path for a positive emotion like happiness. However, from these three types of emotions, we can think of three types of happy emotions. The primary emotions is a stimulus-response such as a momentary happiness like some kind of excitements. The secondary emotions come from some events and experiences which trigger the happy feelings. Lastly, the background emotions is the general state of happiness.
As it has been mentioned earlier, the study of positive emotions is fairly a recent phenomenon. As far as the year of 2003, HealthEmotions research Institute at UW-Madison was the only institution where researches on positive emotions such as happiness were studied. Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at UW-Madison as well as a leader of a research team at HealthEmotions research Institution has contributed very much on happiness studies. One of the most famous studies was to look at Buddhist monk's brains during their meditations by using the recent technologies including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalograms (EEG). FMRI shows the blood flow within the brains and EEG shows the electrical activity in the brain. From this experiment, Davidson found a much greater level of activity in the left prefrontal lobe in Monk's brains than those who do not meditate (2). On the other hand, a research on negative emotions by using fMRI showed that the right prefrontal cortex was more active when people were emotionally distressed (3). This is a significant finding but the researches are still not sure if this indicates that the sensation of happiness is produced in the left prefrontal area or the area is active because people have the sensation of happiness. Another research was done by Davidson. He conducted a research on babies who were less than a year old and their brain activities when their mothers left them. From this experiment, he found out that babies who did not cry turned out to have a higher activity in their left prefrontal lobe (2). From both of the experiments, happiness and the left prefrontal lobe is even more clearly linked.
The physical difference between the more active left prefrontal lobe, a "happier" brain, and the less active left prefrontal lobe, a less "happy" brain, is questioned. Davidson believes that it maybe has something to do with neurotransmitters(2). Neurotransmitters are chemicals which carry signals from one neuron to the other. The prefrontal cortex is filled with various kinds of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, glutamate, serotonin etc. Since some studies on animals show that dopamine is very active when they transfer signals associated with positive emotions between the left prefrontal lobe area and the emotional center in the brain, Davidson believes that dopamine may be one of the most important neurotransmitters. Davidson believes, "dopamine pathways may be especially important in aspects of happiness associated with moving toward some sort of goals" since monks always have a goal as well as people who try to cut their eating/smoking habits etc (2).
Brian Knutson at Stanford also did a research by using fMRI like Davidson. His interest was to look at people's emotions when they attained the goal. The setting was that people got money as a reward when they won in the videogame. However, the result turned out somewhat different from what Knutson expected: participants reacted dramatically right before they got the reward, and the active part was not in the left prefrontal lobe, but the nucleus acumbens in the subcortex (2). Knutson believes that this was a reaction to happy feelings associated with excitement rather than a achieving a goal (2). From various studies, researchers are trying to figure out more on what the mechanisms of our brains when we are happy.
Monks had a higher activity in their left prefrontal cortex during the mediation, but is it because meditation? Does meditation make you happy? Mindful meditation is described as "a practice designed to focus one's attention intensely on the moment, noting thoughts and feeling as they occur but refraining from judging or acting on those thoughts and feelings" (4). Researches at UW-Madison continued. Participants were randomly divided into two groups: one who underwent intensive mindfulness meditation trainings and practices and one who did not do any mindfulness meditation. The result came out as they expected: participants with meditation had an increase in the left prefrontal lobe activity (4). This research confirms that meditation helps our left side of the frontal region to be more active. Another important aspect, an effect of meditation to health is experimented. Both groups of this experiment received a flu vaccine and their antibodies levels were checked at the fourth and eighth week. They found out that the meditation group had a much more increase in their antibodies level than the control group. Being that said, it is not strange to say that mediation is very effective to make you happy and keep you healthy (4).
Many researchers are now working on happiness effects on health. In fact, a positive impact is found in many researches. For example, Kubzansky studied positivism as an indicator of having a goal, happiness. She found out that people who regard themselves as optimists tend to have a much less heart related disease rate than pessimists (2). Happiness seems to play a big role in our life.
We are now closer figuring out what is neurologically happening to our brains when we have certain emotions including both positive and negative ones. From numerous researches done by Richard Davidson, we are able to see the linkage between happiness and the left prefrontal cortex. We are still not completely sure if it is the area eliciting the emotions of happiness or it is happiness causing the area to be active. According to the research, meditation seems very effective to our happiness. But I wonder what else can make us happy. As monks have goals when they meditate, we can do some other activities and have some goals. When we understand happiness as "working toward goals", other things such as religion would be as effective as meditation. What about my stressful time at school? I am working towards my goals, but why am I not happy? Probably my right prefrontal cortex is as active as the left, and I do not feel the happiness. I may be start meditating.
1)The Emotional Brain , Brain Connection website
2):Lemonick, Michael D. The Biology of Joy. Time. 2005
3)New York Times
4) Brains and Emotions Research , University of Wisconsin-Madison website
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