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Where Does Happiness Happen?

Happiness can be measured, say scientists in Kyoto, Japan, and their study has identified the area of the brain involved with happiness.

The research, led by Wataru Sato, associate professor at Kyoto University, focused on “subjective happiness,” rather than a momentary happy experience.

The scientists noted that subjective happiness is stable, can be measured reliably and consists of emotional and cognitive factors. For example, experiencing more pleasure than displeasure is an emotional aspect of happiness; a cognitive aspect is assessing one’s life as good.

Sato and colleagues evaluated the subjective happiness of study participants, their life satisfaction, and the intensity of their positive and negative emotions; then each participant underwent structural magnetic resonance imaging. Data analysis showed that subjects with the highest scores on subjective happiness had more gray-matter volume in the brain’s right precuneus region, which is in the medial parietal lobe. In addition, results revealed a significant association between subjective happiness and combined scores for life purpose and intensity of positive and negative emotions; this link suggested that indeed there are both emotional and cognitive aspects of subjective happiness.

According to the authors, the significance of these findings is that ways of increasing individual happiness can now be objectively evaluated. “Several studies have shown that meditation increases [gray-matter] mass in the precuneus,” said Sato in a Kyoto University news release. “This new insight on where happiness happens in the brain will be useful for developing happiness programs based on scientific research.”

The study is open source and is available in Scientific Reports (2015; doi: 10.1038/srep16891), published by Nature Publishing Group.

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