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Peak BrainHappiness Training Blog

Enhancing Your Happiness by Changing Your Brain

Dr. Jon Cowan - Sunday, August 12, 2012
Finding the Principal Basis of Happiness
As a multidisciplinary researcher not supported by a university or foundation, I have the opportunity to look at this from a more complete perspective, rather than being tied to the discipline I paid my academic dues to.  In my lifetime, I have used many different types of research hammers, so I see that there are a wide variety of nails--that is, purported causes of happiness.  
To begin to approach this question, you have to refine the time frame.  Life is made up of moments, and your happiness during each of them could actually be rated on some scale.  Now suppose you average that scale over the next few minutes, few hours, or several days.  On a longer scale, you can look at the next few months, or even a lifetime.  Each of these measurements of happiness is really somewhat different, so we have to pick one.  I think that for most of us, our time horizon focuses on the next few days, perhaps a week at most. 
 
Social and Cultural Influences

To approach this, I reviewed the information from the National Geographic Project on Happiness, and particularly the thoughts of Dan Buettner, the author of "Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way".  He researched the causes of happiness in four locations that scored highest in the world--Denmark, Singapore, Mexico, and San Luis Obispo.  He found very little in common among the causes in these places, indicating that the effects are rather weak.  In an interview, he pointed out the importance of developing a social network for happiness, but noted that the data indicates that having children to create one does not pay off in overall increased happiness for at least the first 18 years.  "It's a multivariable equation" --the most important things  over all the nations are trust in the legal system (low corruption), tolerance, green spaces, and lack of noise. 

Psychobiology is the Most Important Basis

All of these effects, however, are rather weak.  They point to the idea that we need to be looking elsewhere for a really powerful explanation.  My perspective is that we need to look at biology much more seriously as a cause of happiness, and examine the role and causes of individual psychobiological variability rather than sociocultural factors.  In particular, we know that the dopamine system in the brain is a key to the development of pleasure responses.  This was first pointed out by James Olds.  Kenneth Blum has done an excellent job in framing the "Reward Deficiency Syndrome", implicating low dopamine levels as the cause for drug, food, gambling, and sex addictions.  Each of these produce an initial dopaminergic rush, particularly in those who are not genetically prone to being naturally happy.  
  
The Reward and Pleasure Circuit

Now, David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins and the editor of the Journal of Neuroscience, has written a new popular book,  "The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning and Gambling Feel So Good", in which he attributes these positive feelings to the activation of the dopaminergic circuits in the medial forebrain pleasure circuit.  He points out the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the VTA (ventral tegmental area), the part of the brain originally implicated by James Old's research.  The book is excellent, although a bit technical at times.  
 
Sound familiar?  We've been talking about the "Prefrontal Pleasure Center", and stating that enhancing the Neureka! rhythm activates it, for quite some time.  Our conviction about this increased considerably when Prof. Blum tried out the Peak BrainHappiness Trainer and declared that it measured the effects of dopamine.  There is a close link between the dopaminergic Prefrontal Pleasure Center, new learning, and positive feelings that are used to encourage it.  The behavioral and experiential ramifications become highly complex as more and more responses are learned and linked to the pleasure circuit.  No wonder that a very recent study indicates that as we get older the "set point" of happiness is more affected by environmental effects and less by genetics.  This goes along with the viewpoints expressed by Bruce Lipton in his fascinating book "The Biology of Belief".  He argues that our experiences, and particularly our beliefs about them, have a strong epigenetic influence on the many ways in which our genetic inheritance is expressed.  I agree that these events and thought patterns are important determinants of which genetic tendencies are actually expressed.

As I have recently written to you, there are also very important consequences for health and success that result from activating the Prefrontal Pleasure Center with the Peak BrainHappiness Trainer.

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