Monthly Archives: September 2006

Mysteries of the Brain Part – 15 – HAPPINESS


   In this episode of VERITAS we will attempt to search for something so elusive that Philosophers and Religion guys have tried to search for it
for centuries but have failed! Today we attempt to solve the mystery that haunts everyone. Today we attempt to find the solution to the greatest
problem that we humans struggle with…. Today we attempt to find the the cause of human happiness! What is happiness? How do we achieve
happiness? What is sadness? What is its cure? Today we will attempt to answer all these fundamental questions.

       But our approach is not Philosophical! And it is not empirical. Our approach will be Chemical! We are guided by this hope: It should be
possible( in theory) to differentiate between a happy brain and a sad brain by doing a chemical analysis of these two brains!

       I can try to avoid the Philosophers and Religion guys for this VERITAS but I do not know how to avoid the poets. So they may disturb us
during the VERITAS with their reflections on the nature of happiness.

                       He who binds himself to a joy,
                       Doth the winged life destroy.
                       He who kisses joy as he flies,
                       Lives in eternity’s sunrise
                                       ( William Blake)

 Before we understand happiness and depression we have to understand neurotransmitters. We have studied in earlier episodes of this series that
nerve cells( or neurons) communicate with each other through chemicals- these chemicals are called neurotransmitters. Packets of neurotransmitters are released from one neuron and they travel to another neuron and are absorbed there. Excess neurotransmitter packets are absorbed back by the transmitting neuron.

       Now let’s say that there is a indeed a happiness chemical in the brain- a happiness neurotransmitter. Call it H. What happens if H is in
short supply( maybe the molecules that make H are not working)? Or what happens if H is released from one neuron but does not make it to the
receiving neuron? What happens if H is released and absorbed by the same neuron. All these will cause a lack of transmission of H and the
message contained in it- the message of happiness. All these conditions cause depression. And if H is in good supply and there is proper transmission we have happiness.

       Is there such a chemical? There are three: norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine. A lack of any one of these can cause depression or
different types of it based on which chemical is in short supply.

Norepinephrine is a stress harmone. It is also responsible for attention and focus.

Serotonin regulates mood, sleep and appetite. Serotonin levels also control the Norepinephrine levels in the brain. Serotonin gives us a feeling of well being.

Dopamine is associated with the pleasure system of the brain. Dopamine is associated with the reward or the promise of reward that causes us to do some activity. Typical rewards are pleasures like sex, food ( or a promise of these hidden in our complex and abstract throught processes) or even social acceptance.

       So the following are the three ingredients of happiness:

1) A lack of stress( Norepinephrine )
2) General feel good factor ( Serotonin )
3) Good level of motivation and feeling rewarded or a anticipation
  of reward (Dopamine ).

       Let’s take the case of social behaviour. If we have good levels of Dopamine we will consider social interactions to be rewarding. We look
forward to social interactions because we anticipate social acceptance.And when we anticipate social acceptance more Dopamine is fired by neurons and we feel good during the party! People who have had a bad social interaction in the past do not anticipate social acceptance and their Dopamine levels drop during social interactions and they do not feel good during the interaction. There you have it- we have even explained confidence!

       But remember: an excess of any of these chemicals is also bad. An excess of Dopamine can make people hypersocial and hypersexual!

       An lack of Serotonin is accociated with obsessive compulsive disorders- doing something an abnormal amount of times. It is also associated with mania- thinking about something to an abnormal degree! And it is associated with romantic love!! So there is no difference between the levels of Serotonin  in a person who is experiencing a new romantic love and a maniac.

       THe beginning stages of romantic love has very high levels of Dopamine and very low levels of Serotonin. High Dopamine gives the lover a
high level of focus, decreased sleep and an enormous delight in every experience of the romance. Low levels of Serotonin gives the lover an
obsessive interest in the object of affection- the lover keeps thinking about the beloved at all times- this can also cause a huge depression if
the the beloved does not respond. But remember, all this lasts for about a year- then all chemical levels go back to their normal values!

       Many drugs have these happiness chemicals. Cocaine has Dopamine. Ecstacy has Serotonin. Most anti-depression pills just regulate these
three neurotransmitters.

             A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
             Its loveliness increases; it will never
             Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
             A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
             Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

                                            ( John Keats)

Now we come to a very important point- what is the difference between pleasure and happiness? If these three chemicals are the core of happiness and pleasure then pleasure and happiness mean the same thing and we should go about maximizing our pleasures! Wrong! And wrong for two reasons: First, there is something called the “bliss point”. The body does not allow you too much of a good thing. The body wants to to reach a “bliss point” and stop there. Second, the same event may not cause the same levels of the happiness chemicals later. So we cannot do a pleasurable activity again and again- it loses its freshness.

       Let’s define pleasure as a temporary increase in the the H chemicals. A lottery or a promotion can give you  a Dopamine  high for 6
months. A new romance can give you a Dopamine high for a year. But what after that? You cannot get promoted every 6 months( atleast I cannot), you cannot fall in love every year! So we cannot live a happy life with pleasure alone. We need good Serotonin,Norepinephrine and Dopamine levels everyday to live happy lives. Here is how we do that:

1) Keep away stress
2) Exercise( it increases the Serotonin levels)
3) Sleep well ( it increases the Serotonin levels)
4) A Balanced diet can keep these chemicals in the right quantity.
5) Make long term plans and achieve something everyday. Everyday should be a small reward. Do not wait for big rewards. Achieve something everyday and reward yourself. (This will keep the Dopamine level nice because Dopamine is about the anticipation of rewards and about being
  motivated). Have your own reward system- do not rely on society   to reward to for everything.
6) Have meaningful and stress free family relationships( people who can keep your Dopamine and Serotonin levels stable on a everyday basis)
7) You need small Serotonin/Dopamine level increases everyday- books,   music, sports etc.

       So we see that happiness is indeed a chemical function of the brain. But to regulate the levels of these chemicals we have found ways
that are very close to the ways perscribed by the Philosophers and the Religion guys. I did want to avoid the Philosophers and the Religion guys
but I could not do that. The reason for happiness may be chemical but the way to it is certainly perscribed by the Philosophers and it agrees with
Chemistry! This is a rare happy occasion where the Philosophical agrees with the Chemical!

       My mind to me a kingdom is;
       Such present joys therein I find,
       That it excels all other bliss
       That earth affords or grows by kind.
                               (Edward Dyer)



 Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:
 Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:
 Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
 Correct old time and regulate the Sun;