Category: Science

How to Choose Happiness: The Neurochemical Basis

April 25, 2014

By: Austin Perlmutter, MD, Medical Student, Miller School of Medicine

Happiness is tough to find. We seek it out in our accomplishments, relationships, experiences, and our possessions. When this doesn’t pan out we turn to medication. But what if there was a way to create happiness, independent of any external influence or validation? The revolutionary idea that we can generate happiness from within ourselves seems like a children’s story, but research now supports this theory as sound and powerful. Still, you may want more, proof that the data behind de novo happiness is more than a few questionnaires. I was a skeptic too, and that’s why you need to read this article.

My medical school psychiatry rotation constantly surprised me with how many patients were receiving anti-depressants. I checked with the CDC, and was amazed to find that not only do 1 in 10 Americans report depression, but 11% of Americans over age 12 are currently on anti-depressants. As an advocate for avoiding pharmaceuticals and their side effects when possible, I began to wonder whether there was a better option.

While I contemplated this thought, serendipity led me to a TED talk by Harvard researcher Dan Gilbert. His lecture on human happiness couldn’t have come at a better time. The most interesting topic involved our ability to create happiness from nothing, something Gilbert calls “synthesized happiness.” Essentially, this is the idea that we can create happiness without the need for external influences or validation. Research shows that this theory is not only demonstrable in real people, but that it is equally if not more powerful than our traditional concept of happiness. It seemed unbelievable that we could generate happiness rather than waiting for good things to happen to us. I started to wonder whether I could link this theory with my knowledge of psychiatry.

Experts admit that they don’t really understand how antidepressants work. However, it’s generally assumed that they increase certain neurotransmitters in the brain. The go to antidepressant is an SSRI like Zoloft and Prozac, which primarily increases serotonin. Antidepressants like Wellbutrin increase dopamine. Our psychiatry lectures continued to emphasize the neurochemical imbalance of depression as a central reason for why these medications worked. If neurotransmitters are the key to avoiding and treating depression, I wanted to know if we could consciously change the levels of these molecules in our brain, thereby finding a biochemical basis for Gilbert’s ideas. I remembered that it was impossible to measure neurotransmitters in a person’s brain in real time, but then I found two fascinating studies that still managed to make it happen.

Understanding that dopamine is crucial for happiness and relaxation, scientists in the journal Cognitive Brain Research decided to examine the changes in this neurotransmitter during meditation. The study started with 8 meditation instructors, each highly versed in proper meditative practice. Using positron emission tomography (PET) scanning, the levels of a molecule representative of brain dopamine binding were followed during meditation. The results showed a significant increase in dopamine binding in the basal ganglia during relaxation meditation, and were concluded to be the first “evidence provided for regulation of conscious states at a synaptic level.” This is incredible data, suggesting that our mindfulness practice actual changes the neurochemistry of our brains. Basically, we can choose how our neurons fire by altering our thoughts.

In 2007, scientists created a similar study for serotonin, another key neurotransmitter in happiness. Researchers in The Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience wanted to determine if there was way to measure the effects of positive thoughts on brain serotonin levels. To pull off this study, professional actors were recruited for their ability to maintain intense emotional states. Using the PET scan, researchers followed the brain uptake of labeled serotonin precursors during changes in emotion.  When the subjects focused on happy memories, the brain had increased uptake of the serotonin building blocks, and conversely, sad memories led to lower uptake. Again, this information supports the astonishing conclusion that we can self-regulate our brain’s neurotransmitters. By simply choosing to focus on happy thoughts, we can change our brain’s chemical balance to support happiness.

We know happiness and depression are complex emotional states, and no single neurotransmitter deficiency bears responsibility for either condition. Yet when we realize we can change our neurochemistry by conscious thought, we are empowered to pursue practices that may shift our brains to a happier state. If we could mimic the beneficial actions of antidepressants without the side effects or cost, we could see tremendous advances in helping our unhappy population to regain the contented life we all deserve. This research may be in its infancy, but the available data clearly suggests that positive thinking and mindfulness practices may directly shift our neurochemistry towards happiness. There’s nothing to lose, so why not give it a try?

loading symbol Loading More