There’s a biology to lasting happiness, and there may be way to train yourself for it

Gotta good feeling.
Gotta good feeling.
Image: Reuters/Guillermo Granja
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That uplifting feeling you get when something good happens to you? Researchers now think they know the part of the brain responsible for it—and they suggest we may be able to train ourselves to make those positive emotions last longer.

Their conclusions are based on a study (paywall) conducted by scientists at the University of Wisconsin, where psychologist Aaron Heller and his team conducted an experiment with more than 100 college students. For a period of 10 days, participants were sent text messages about 25 times a day asking them to rank their positive and negative emotions on a scale of 1 to 9, with 1 being a low level of feeling and 9 being the most intense. Once a day, the subjects were invited to play a game of chance: They were asked to guess if a computer-generated number would be above or below 5, and if they were right, they won $15. After the game, participants checked in with their positive and negative emotions every 10 to 15 minutes for the next hour and a half, so that their moods could be monitored.

The researchers also analyzed brain scans, taken by an MRI scanner, of 40 participants in the study. Here they found that those who were happier for longer periods of time after winning the game had the longest activation in a part of the brain called the ventral striatum (pdf), which helps regulate our reward system.

“People who sustain positive emotion the longest in the course of minutes and hours were those people who showed the most persistent brain activity in an area that’s thought to be responsible for reward and reward learning,” says Heller, who is now on the faculty at the University of Miami. He tells Quartz that there are “dynamics over the course of seconds in the brain that seem to be related to dynamics of emotional experience over the course of minutes in the real world.”

Heller thinks that this research can help scientists understand how we may be able to train ourselves to be happier. This might involve prolonged activation of the ventral striatum, or we might just consciously choose to savor moments of happiness—when we take in a beautiful sunset, for example—in order to make the emotional satisfaction last longer.