Looking for the key to happiness using MRI

For some, happiness comes from time with family. Others look for happiness in their bank accounts or among material possessions. Researchers from Kyoto University, however, have taken a different tactic in the search for happiness, leveraging structural MRI to address the issue from a neurological perspective.

Now, researcher and psychologist Wataru Sato, and colleagues at Kyoto University, have homed in on the region of the brain that plays a significant role in how a person subjectively rates their overall happiness. Their results suggest that a person’s emotions and satisfaction in life come together in the precuneus, part of the medial parietal lobe, and constitute a subjective experience of being “happy.”

The study was published online in Scientific Reports, a journal from the publishers of Nature.

Sato and team reached their conclusions following a series of interviews and MRI scans of 51 participants to pin down a basis for happiness. The interviews asked how happy test subjects were generally, how intensely they feel emotion and how satisfied they are with events in their life.

The scans revealed that those with survey reporting higher levels of happiness also had more grey matter mass in the precuneus, a region that is also responsible for self-consciousness.

"Over history, many eminent scholars like Aristotle have contemplated what happiness is," Sato said in a statement. "I'm very happy that we now know more about what it means to be happy."

The findings aren’t necessarily surprising, as the authors noted that prior research has hinted at a connection between happy emotional states and the medial parietal cortex. “However, these previous studies investigated a transiently induced happy mood state, whereas subjective happiness, which is a more complex and stable subjective experience, has not been evaluated,” wrote the authors.

Aside from helping demystify ancient, high-minded questions about happiness, the findings could have practical implications in that the underlying structural basis for subjective happiness may be changeable.

“[P]revious structural neuroimaging studies have shown that training in psychological activities, such as meditation, changed the structure of the precuneus gray matter,” wrote the authors. “These findings are consistent with those of previous studies showing that meditation training increased subjective happiness. Together with these findings, our results suggest that psychological training that effectively increases gray matter volume in the precuneus may enhance subjective happiness.”