What we can do to get happier

We see nothing strange in the study of unhappiness. Clinical psychologists have long attended to unpleasant feelings, and for the past two decades or so brain researchers have become increasingly knowledgeable about the origins of anger, fear, and depression. An entire industry that sells pills against pathological dejection profits from their discoveries, as, indeed, do countless patients. But for a long time happiness was more or less shrugged off.

We are now beginning to answer questions that people have always asked themselves. Is happiness more than simply the opposite of unhappiness? Is it genetic? Does the feeling of anger pass if you vent it? Is it possible to prolong the good moments? Does money make people happy? Can we stay in love with the same person all our life? What is the greatest happiness?

Central to answering these questions are two fairly recent insights of brain research. One concerns the parts of the brain that produce a sense of well-being: our brains have a special circuitry for joy, pleasure, and euphoria — we have a happiness system. Just as we come into the world with a capacity for speech, we are also programmed for positive feelings. This discovery will shape our understanding of mankind as powerfully as Freud’s theories of the deep unconscious did in the last century.

The other, still more surprising discovery is that the adult brain continues to change. Until a few years ago scientists believed that the brain, like bones, was fully grown by the end of puberty. But exactly the opposite it true: the circuits in our brain are altered whenever we learn something, and new connections are forged in our network of nerve cells. Using the right microscopes, we can even see these transformations within the skull.

These changes are triggered by thoughts, but even more by emotions. This means that with the right exercises we can increase our capacity for happiness. Much as we can learn a foreign language, we can train our natural aptitude for positive feelings.

Our happiness depends at least as much on our environment and our culture as on our genes, which is why we need to consider not only the brain as a source of happiness but also the cultural influences and the daily occurrences that set these processes in motion.

Unhappiness destroys the body. Happiness strengthens it. Persistent fear and despondency endanger one’s health because they cause stress. And stress increases the risk of dying of a heart attack or stroke, for example. By contrast, someone who has learned to contain his dark moods and to fortify his sunny ones is also taking care of his body. Positive feelings counteract stress and its consequences for health. They even stimulate the immune system.

They increase mental productivity even more. In terms of the brain, thoughts and feelings are two sides of the same coin: happy people are more creative, and, as many studies show, they solve problems better and more quickly. Happiness makes people smart, and not just momentarily, but permanently. Positive feelings stimulate growth in the nerve connections in the brain — happiness and new mental associations go together.

Finally, happy people are also nicer people. They are more aware and more likely to see the good in others. They are more likely to act altruistically and they are more successful mediators in resolving conflict.

Thus, happiness can be both one of life’s goals and the means to a better life. Negative moods limit people, whereas positive feelings expand options. Happiness brings vitality. (Abridged from the Introduction to the new book, ‘The Science of Happiness’ – Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt Ltd).