PERREAULT Magazine September 2014 - Page 49

If the information needs immediate attention, then the amygdala sends information to other regions of the brain like the frontal cortex, where decision processing takes place. This then results in physical changes in our bodies to respond to that stimulus such as flight or fight

Dissecting Happiness

Happiness is not a simple response to a stimulus. It is actually a bit difficult to dissect since people have many definitions of what happiness means to them. How many of you have heard phrases like “If I had this much money I would be happy”, “If I became the president of XYZ I would be happy” or “As long as I have my family I will be happy”. Definitions of happiness vary from the material world to abstract things like love and family values. Age can also change the way we view happiness. Children might be happy with the mere presence of toys, a middle age person by his career path and grandma seeing their children and grandchildren grow up to be healthy.

Despite these differences, we can still come with a basic structure of happiness, and can dissect its main components: PHYSICAL PLEASURE, MEANING and ABSENCE OF A NEGATIVE EMOTIONS. These three components together seem to be a common factor in defining a happy feeling.

Physical pleasure arrives from our dopaminergic system (see March 2014 issue – iCrave). Our reward system activates when we experience something positive, and as a result, we get a “feel good” chemical rush that helps us reinforce that experience. Meaning is also a key component of happiness. Without it we would not be able to distinguish something pleasurable from something mundane. The meaning portion of happiness takes place mainly in the frontal cortex where we make conscious choices.

Finally, it is crucial to eliminate negative emotions in order to allow happiness to flourish. Negative emotions have a stronger “will” on us as a result of evolution and our survival.

Fear and anger for instance, are primal instincts that saved us from predators, thus negative emotions reduce pleasurable ones until that situation has been dealt with.

Negative emotions are controlled mainly by our limbic system. Keeping this system in check will help us avoid it overwhelming our brains and impeding us from experiencing positive emotions.

The Negativity Bias

One of the biggest problems we face that keeps people from being happier is that we do not maintain positive experiences long enough to allow them to be encoded into our neuronal circuitry. On the other hand, negative emotions tend to stick with us longer than positive ones. This reinforcement of negative emotions generates a stronger memory for negative situations than for positive ones. According to Dr. Rick Hanson from Berkeley University, negative emotions and happiness use different memory pathways and unfortunately for all of us happy events are not stored into our long term memory as easily as negative emotions are. This negativity bias results in a very reactive brain when it comes to bad things happening.

For instance, research has found that long lasting relationships need a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative emotions in order to overcome the negative interactions that affect us. This means we need to be embracing five times more positive events with our spouse or partner for every one negative event we experience. We tend to fixate on negative events and lose our general focus of things.

Considering all, it would be very important to focus on positive events for longer periods of time. We need to embrace those moments of happiness even if it is a few seconds at a time. Holding them as long as we can will allow our brains to establish long lasting neuronal connections of happiness.

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