How can we feel biologically happy

What happens in the brain when we are happy?

Questioner: Margot B. from Frankfurt via email

Published: 08/16/2014

Happiness has many faces. Sometimes it's just a brief moment of exhilaration. But there is also the longer-term, silent variant of satisfaction. But how does this most beautiful of all feelings arise in the brain?

The answer from the editors is:

Answer from Prof. Dr. Dr. Gerhard Roth, Institute for Brain Research, University of Bremen:

Happiness is a subjective feeling, but neurobiologically easy to grasp. In order to understand what happens in the brain when we are happy, it is important to differentiate between “happiness” and “satisfaction”.

Satisfaction is a positively motivated state, the feeling of inner balance. It is partly genetically determined, partly shaped by the environment, for example through attachment experiences in childhood. How satisfied a person is can already be seen between the ages of five and ten and remains largely the same throughout their life. Only in old age does it become less pronounced. A pessimist then becomes a moderate pessimist. In terms of biochemistry, three brain messenger substances are particularly involved: serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.

The actual feeling of happiness comes from a cocktail of the brain's own opioids such as endorphins. It is a short-term positive deviation from the individual satisfaction level that both optimists and pessimists know. However, optimists have more of it. The happiness impulse makes them euphoric, and the good feeling lasts longer than with pessimists. Although they are also currently feeling lucky, they quickly find a fly in the ointment: A lottery win could attract envious people or an award could bring additional work.

Severely depressed people alone do not experience any happiness. The inability to experience joy and pleasure, called anhedonia, is reflected in the brain. Areas of the brain associated with happiness, such as areas of the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, as well as the nucleus accumbens, remain largely inactive.

Another special case are people who think they are in a constant high of happiness. For example during the manic phases of a bipolar disorder - better known as manic-depressive disorder. It is known from "hypomanic" men that a mix of opioids and increased testosterone can increase the feeling of happiness to lasting euphoria.

Finally there is “Sensation Seeker”. Deeply dissatisfied or even depressed in terms of their basic psychological constitution, they call for strong feelings and extreme experiences in order to fill an inner void. Risky behavior or extreme sports produce short-term lucky kicks - followed by a deep emotional crash. The example of the Seeker sensation demonstrates the volatility of happiness.

The source of joy is also decisive for neurobiology and the quality of happiness. Material rewards such as gifts of money or sex mainly activate the nucleus accumbens at the center of the so-called reward system. This feeling of happiness is short-lived and quickly demands more - one reason why some companies are offering ever higher premiums in order to motivate their employees.

Social rewards, such as recognition and friendship, work longer. They activate areas of the cerebral cortex such as the orbitofrontal and insular cortex, in which positive and negative experiences are processed on a conscious level.

The most constant feelings of happiness come from activities in which we are completely absorbed. When things go like clockwork - psychologists and neurologists call it the flow experience - basal ganglia come into play. They are the storage location of all habits and automatisms and ensure that the brain's own opioids trickle down when we do things “skillfully” and experience ourselves as self-effective.

Answer recorded by Stefanie Reinberger