The secret to happiness, science would have us believe, is shaped like a kidney and weighs less than 1kg. You can’t see it working (not directly, anyway), and its inner mechanisms were largely a mystery until recently.
You don’t have to search the ends of the world, though—the secret to your happiness is right behind your forehead; it’s the part of your brain called the “prefrontal cortex”. The diminutive thing is believed to be the centre of personality and mood and emotional memory, and could hold the secrets of happiness.
Happiness has always been a fuzzy concept for scientists and researchers. Could there be interventions designed scientifically to improve people’s happiness? Would the results be obscured by erratic subjective biases? The answers may be arrived at sooner than later, thanks to a new branch of psychology called “positive psychology” that has been attempting to address these issues.
Positive psychologists posit that traditional psychology was too concerned with the gloom and doom of the human psyche, with treating illness and disorder rather than strengthening normal lives.
The “father of positive psychology” is Martin E.P. Seligman who, as president of the American Psychological Association, chose “positive psychology” as the theme during his year-long tenure in 1998. It was, in a sense, a response to psychology’s historical bias towards mental illness rather than mental wellness. Seligman believed that the question “how do happy people differ from the rest of you” was just as important as the tomes dedicated to the so-called “mentally ill”.
He conceptualized and started an annual three-day positive psychology conference—gathering the big minds, such as Ed Diener and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Diener, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, underscored the importance of social ties in combating depression. Csikszentmihalyi is known for his theory of “flow”, which argues that humans derived the most happiness from being in a state of timelessness and immersion in a challenging and skilled activity.
So how does this all relate to that kidney-shaped cortex?
Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of the 2005 book ‘Stumbling on Happiness’, calls the prefrontal cortex an “experience simulator”, the part of the brain that allows us to indulge in flights of imagination and create “synthetic happiness”. He argued that certain cognitive biases in its innate predictive capabilities, such as imagining foreseeable futures, made us terrible at predicting what would make us happy.
Researchers are also looking at larger groups—a study by Nicholas Christakis and James H. Fowler at Harvard University found that “people’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected”, providing a picture that could see “happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon”.
The studies have just really gotten under way in the past decade, so many results are still pending. And Anjali Chhabria, Mumbai-based psychiatrist and founder of Mindtemple, a counselling centre, cautions against a perfect pathway to happiness through science.
She says that happiness is a combination of factors—not just psychological and hormonal, but also environmental and situational. “There’s a lot of research happening in this field—there are so-called ‘happy hormones’ being identified, there are psychological studies of happy people being conducted versus overall studies of ‘happiness’. But we don’t have all the answers—yet.”