Happiness is a state of mind. It also relates to health, wellness, and contentment. Many of us know of the physical effects of happiness — that a smile, laugh, or grin mirrors our happiness index. Happiness, in terms of physiology, has been linked to amplified activity in the brain’s left pre-frontal lobe, as well as a decreased amount of the stress hormone (cortisol) in the bloodstream. The physical and functional mechanisms involving the manifestation of happiness, as research indicates, are real, although they can wane with time.
Sustaining happiness and other emotions is linked to neurochemicals in the brain. Research points to the fascinating role of dopamine, the brain chemical, in controlling moods. The best part is that dopamine reaches its zenith when you need it the most. There are other neurochemicals too — such as endorphins, serotonin and oxytocin — involved in the mind-brain connection. They all have a definitive purpose: keeping us happy.
The basic function of endorphins is related to concealing pain. It also plays a pivotal role in manipulating us into feeling cheerful following an exercise session, or after laughing out loud. Oxytocin is connected to elation — after giving birth, holding one’s child, or during orgasm. In like manner, the thought of feeling good increases our serotonin levels. The big downside is that if there is a discrepancy or lack of balance in serotonin levels, it can trigger what we call Depression. This also explains why most conventional anti-depressants are categorised as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
For anyone who finds and maintains happiness, the physical effects of laughter can percolate or envelop one’s entire psyche. This is primarily because a big bout of laughter releases endorphins, leading to more good feelings — more than, perchance, a taxing workout at the gym. It is also a fact that any individual who is less stressed might not experience the impact or damage of stressful states that cortisol causes to our physiology and emotions. It is a given that less-stressed people are relatively more active than people who are stressed out — this also augments one’s happiness quotient.
A study in the US reports that people who ‘emoted’ a positive attitude had a lower risk of heart disease than their peers who were not positive. It is, however, not an agreed scientific plank that happiness creates better heart health or overall wellness. The fact is when you take care of yourself, have less stress in life and ensure that you are happy — whatever the wavering patterns of everyday life — being happy or contented cannot dent your health. Is this asking for too much in our modern chaotic world? Not really, if one is realistic and does not have too much expectation from others.
Smiling has a universal appeal. What is astounding is people from all over the world — whatever one’s ethnicity, colour, or belief — smile the same way. Just think of it. A smile has a communicative element in people who are visually challenged too — they smile even without seeing others smile. This is because smiling is entrenched in what makes us human. Yet, there is a paradox — although smiles can be different and indeed mean different things, many are actually forged. Research suggests that just one form is genuine. This emerges when the corners of the mouth soar; the eyes narrow down marginally while creating ‘crow’s feet;’ and, the upper half of the cheeks rise. Such a smile is known as Duchenne Smile, named after Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne, a French physiologist, who first studied the muscle that surrounds the eye. While the Duchenne smile is a direct result of feeling happy, it does not describe how we all feel glad. Or, how we smile and laugh; how our hearts beat fast and the flow of blood escalates; or, how our skin temperature rises, or our fingers quiver. When we are complimented or praised the accolade triggers a set of changes in the body. It urges the brain to ‘feel’ happy.
Emotions too play a role in the happiness of a smile — they cause our body to react to the signals of our brain. What does this signify? That happiness arises as much from our body intelligence just as much as it does from our thoughts. It is also agreed that the emotions associated with happiness are involuntarily controlled by our autonomic nervous system. While this would only mean that we cannot simply decide to be happy by influencing such involuntary body function, the fascinating aspect is that we are all endowed with the facility to sidestep the autonomic nervous system. All of us have the wherewithal, too, to smile, even in the absence of a trigger. This is because our bodily movements of smiling can make our brains experience feelings of happiness — it is also one reason why the use of a smile provides the prompt for others to smile. This can sway, no less, your happiness, and the feelings of everyone around you. The more you smile and the more you spread the feeling, the better you will be able to expand on the Duchenne smile effect and take it to the next level.
Happiness, to highlight the point, can help one overcome illness and extend life, too. Norman Cousins’ example is a famous case in point. The magazine editor was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a life-threatening autoimmune disease, in 1964, and given a 1 in 500 chance of recovery. Cousins cast off his doctor’s gloomy projection and designed his own agenda of happiness therapy, which included regular doses of Marx Brothers films. He credited his happiness therapy for his dramatic recovery.
Your smile has a positive immunity base too, the true expression of a strong immune system. This is because negative responses affect our immune response — long periods of stress and negativism are evidenced to be a major risk for illness. To cull virologist Ronald Glaser’s words, “In the 1980s, nobody believed what stress could do, including me.” This was before Glaser and his colleagues sampled blood from medical students and found that, during a stressful exam period, they had lower activity from virus-fighting immune cells and higher levels of antibodies for the common virus Epstein–Barr. This, as further research suggests, compromises our immune systems and allows the normally latent virus to become active again.
It is being increasingly accepted that our body’s response to stress can suppress parts of the immune system and, over time, lead to detrimental levels of inflammation. Studies suggest that chronic work stress increases the risk of heart disease and type-2 diabetes — to cull but just two examples. More recently, psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) studies have looked at the levels of individual immune-cell types or molecular messengers — such as the stress hormone cortisol and the immune messenger proteins called cytokines — or, the expression of individual genes. They confirm the unfavourable effect of stress on our mind and body systems.
When researchers studied gene expression in the white blood cells (WBCs) of six chronically lonely people — people who had said consistently over several years that they felt lonely or isolated, and were frightened of other people — and eight people who said that they had great friends and social support, they were in for a revelation. Out of the 25,000 genes in the human genome, the researchers identified 209 that distinguished lonely people from their sociable peers — they were either regulated to produce more of an individual protein or regulated down to produce less. It was reported that a particularly large proportion of the ‘up-regulated’ genes in the lonely group had a predilection for inflammatory response; on the contrary, most of the ‘down-regulated’ genes had antiviral effects. In affable people, the latter was factual. The pioneering, small study has been replicated in larger groups of subjects. The pattern has been similar in the blueprint of gene expression in individuals exposed to various types of social hardship, bereavement, and economic status.
When mainstream medicine first debunked the avowal that any psychological state, positive or negative, could affect physical wellness, research studies in the late 1980s began to show that the brain was directly wired to the immune system — with immune-related organs. For example, the thymus, bone marrow, and immune cells of the nervous system, connected them to neurotransmitters — the basis for our mind-body interface. The results made (r)evolutionary logic. The early humans, to bring home the point, lived in interdependent, close social groups. They would have apparently faced augmented risk of viral incursions; this probably ‘elevated’ their antiviral genes. People today remain isolated and under incessant stress — a sure ‘soil,’ or perfect ground, for viral and bacterial infection. The spin-off is their sense of response would need a total revamp of their genes associated with inflammation to enable wound healing and fending-off infections. The fact, however, is chronic and disobliging inflammation damages our body’s tissues, while increasing the risk of diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
According to psychologist-author Daniel Goleman, “Happiness — in terms of biological bustle — is amplified activity in a brain centre that inhibits negative feelings and fosters an increase in available energy and a quietening of those that generate worrisome thought.” He suggests that there is no particular ‘shift’ in physiology, but for quiescence. This, he elaborates, makes the body recover more quickly from the biology of upsetting emotions. The process offers the body general rest, as well as promptness and enthusiasm for whatever task is at hand — also, for the thrust of making every effort towards a great variety of goals. Goleman adds that happiness is, for the most part, established by our genes, not by external reality. No matter the nature of life’s ups and downs, comedies or tragedies, people appear to return inevitably to whatever happiness level is ‘pre-set’ in their constitution. Goleman implies that the idea is analogous to the ‘set-point concept’ in weight control — a premise that suggests that the brain is wired to turn the body’s metabolism up or down to maintain a pre-set weight. This is also reason enough for all of us to take the bumpy with the smooth, and the smooth with the bumpy. It is, perhaps, the only way to happiness.
Photo 1 courtesy of Nick Youngson — Creative Commons 3.
Photo 2 courtesy of Pixabay — Public Domain.
This article was first published in Financial Chronicle.