And always look on the light side of life

The immortal words of Monty Python’s star Eric Idle have become an anthemic approach to tackling the universe’s complications brought forth in what we define as ‘life’. While most of us desperately search for silver linings in clouds and, more often than not, only find ominous clouds in the brightest of silver linings, some are naturally blessed with a rose-tinted outlook impossible to obscure. Or at least that’s what recent research claims: that the brains of genuinely happy people are finely tuned to notice and make the most of the positives many of us simply shun or overlook.

According to psychologists Will Cunningham and Tabitha Kirkland of Ohio State University, brain scans of volunteers who scored fairly high on a standardised test for happiness displayed massive activity in regions that reinforced their blithe disposition and primed them for a ‘cycle of positivity’. Reported at the Society of Neuroscience annual meeting in Washington DC (November 12th-16th 2011), the findings prove that a sheer chipper outlook has nothing to do with gullibility or ignorance about the world’s threats and dangers, but to a hugely enhanced response to the positive opportunities one experiences. Apparently, it’s the small delights of life that count.

To include a crash course in neuroscience, one must specify that the part of the brain the researches focused on is the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure, which is an integral part of the limbic system. In complex vertebrates, including humans, the amygdalae perform crucial roles in the creation and storage of memories correlated with emotional events. Fear (negative) conditioning, appetitive (positive) priming, memory consolidation and even binge-drinking are associated with this tiny median temporal lobe component, whose exact role is still undergoing substantial investigation.

The team of psychologists scanned the brains of 38 volunteers as they viewed pictures meant to trigger positive, negative or neutral feelings. While all the volunteers’ brains reacted in the same way to the neutral and negative pictures, the positive images evoked a far more extensive response in the amygdalae of the participants classed as ‘happy’ (who had scored 5 and above on a 7-point happiness test).  Dr Cunningham claims that ‘they don’t see the positives in everything, but they see the positives where they can find them’.  Thus, viewing a picture of a basket of kittens or of a stunning bouquet is likely to make you far happier if you’re that person who finds spiritual fulfilment in a muffin and delight in a colourful butterfly.

So can happiness truly hit you like a train on a track? Or can we really set ourselves up to contemplate beauty, contentment and beatitude wherever we may find them, consequently creating a ‘vicious’ circle of pleasure and euphoria? Regardless if you’re Grumpy or Happy, a hedonist, a dedicated cynic or a caffeine-fuelled workaholic, happiness is such an eclectic notion that each and every one of us has concocted his own private and perfect little definition of it.


Julie Kanya

Image credit – seanbjack