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Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Neurophysiology of Happiness

By Dr. Syed Asad

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Happiness has variously been defined as a state of well-being and contentment or as a pleasurable or satisfying experience. When we think back to happy moments or experiences in our lives, most of us want to somehow hold on to that feeling or at least feel that way on most days or at most times. In this blog, we will explore our current understanding of the physiologic basis of happiness. And we will try to use what we learn to help us turn a fleeting and in some cases elusive experience into one that can become the dominant emotion.

According to the Greek Philosopher Aristotle: “Happiness is the consequence of a deed”. In other words, it is not coincidental, but flows from optimal use of available possibilities. Although many centuries have passed since Ari made this statement, his observations are as valid today as they were back then. While we can do our utmost to manipulate the chemicals that make us happy, ultimately, the way our brains are wired, along with what transpires in our day to day activities will determine our state of mind.  We will go over some of these activities and how they influence various brain chemicals.

Does the Brain Have a Pleasure Center?

While unhappiness can occur on its own, we must work for happiness. Fear, anger and sadness are responses to stimuli from the external world. Feelings of pleasure have evolved to lure us into desirable situations. If there is such a thing as a pleasure center in the brain, it is located in the left pre-frontal cortex. However, there are other important emotional centers in the brain, including the nucleus accumbens, the amygdalae, the hippocampi, the anterior cingulate cortex and the insular cortex.

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There can be a genetic predisposition to increased firing in the prefrontal cortex based on some studies in babies. Lower levels of activation in the brains of babies in the study resulted in greater anxiety and crying when mothers left the room compared to babies with higher levels of activation who were found to be more resilient. Having said that, brain plasticity can help rewire parts of the brain, including the happiness centers. Some level of early childhood stress is helpful in training our brains to bounce back from negative emotions (like an exercise to strengthen our happiness muscles).

Which Brain Chemicals Promote Happiness?

The pre-frontal cortex is awash with many neurotransmitters or brain chemicals (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphin), all of which are important for happiness. Dopamine is especially important since it helps transfer signals from the left pre-frontal area and the nucleus accumbens. People with a sensitive version of the receptor that accepts dopamine tend to have better moods. More important than absolute levels of these “brain chemicals” is the rate of change in the levels in the brain that determine our feelings of happiness or joy.  For example, anticipating something pleasurable can cause the release of these brain chemicals, making the brain spark.  Other brain chemicals that are thought to contribute to the complex emotion of happiness include norepinephrine, epinephrine, melatonin and cortisol. Just as there are a number of ways in which to make a person happy, there are brain chemicals associated with them.

Dopamine pathways are Important in happiness associated with moving toward goals
Endorphin pathways facilitate sensory pleasures come from the opioid (endorphin) pathways
Oxytocin pathways: Oxytocin is the love molecule, and chemical foundation for trusting others
Serotonin pathways help maintain mood balance.  A deficit of serotonin leads to depression. It is also one of the body’s natural tranquilizers.

While there is no such thing as a “Happy Pill,” there are a number of activities you can do to increase the levels of Dopamine, Endorphins, Oxytocin and Serotonin.

Dopamine levels can be elevated physiologically by exercise, stress reduction techniques like yoga and tai chi, magnesium supplements, ingesting foods rich in tyrosine (such as bananas), reducing caffeine intake, reducing sugar intake, setting a routine schedule, Vitamin C and E supplements.

Endorphin levels can be elevated physiologically by exercise, laughter, sex, ingestion of chocolate, listening to music, smelling aromas such as vanilla and lavender as well as from ingesting spicy foods.

Serotonin levels can be elevated with exercise, getting massages, exposure to early morning sunlight, stress reduction techniques like breathing exercises, yoga and tai chi, elimination of sugar intake and ingesting foods rich in proteins and grains.

Oxytocin levels can be raised by practicing meditation, giving gifts, sharing meals, expressing affection towards family, friends or even pets, riding a roller coaster or jumping out of a plane.

Happiness Benefits the Entire Body
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As well as providing a lift to one’s mood, happiness has been shown to decrease heart rate and blood pressure. Higher antibody levels are noted in people who are generally happy. Happiness has been shown to reduce cortisol levels, high levels of which can negatively impact the immune system, fertility and memory.

In conclusion, happiness is a complex emotion that can be viewed from the aspect of genetics and biology, but also from the social and psychological perspectives. Happiness is ultimately what makes life worth living. If you are routinely sad or depressed, I would recommend seeking medical advice as unchecked depression can be a life-threatening illness.  According to the CDC, 42,773 people ended their own lives in the US in 2014 making it the 10th most likely cause of death. The clear majority of these deaths were related to depression. In such cases, the use of medications, cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, or use of newer techniques such as trans-magnetic stimulation may be explored with professionals who deal with these conditions. For the rest of us, using the techniques described above may keep our brains brimming with the “feel good stuff” that nature has so carefully crafted for us.

Dr. Asad is a Neurologist, Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. He currently practices in Jacksonville, Florida at the Universal Neurological Care.


  1. The good news is there is a place in the brain where happiness resides. The bad news is after millions of years of evolution it doesn't reside in one place.

  2. Thanks for your comment Carl. Not only is it spread all over the brain it also depends on many different factors. But of course, the better we try to understand it, the more we can do to modulate it.