The Brain Science of Happiness

Neuroscientist Dr. Tony Nader, a leader of the Transcendental Meditation movement, weighs in on brain structures and behavior.
Photo by Morgan Maassen

Can the brain explain all our behavior? Are we just hundreds of billions of atoms and molecules structured in patterns that give us our hopes and beliefs, our dreams and disappointments, our pains and moments of joy, happiness and ecstasy?

In the front left side of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, resides the Interpreter. The Interpreter assesses the past, including events and decisions, and then puts it in the context of time, space, belief, expectations etc. This part of the brain tries to paint our actions in the best possible light. It wants us to feel that we genuinely make sense in everything we do. The Interpreter puts forth the logic to justify our actions, whether supported by facts or not.

The right front side is more accurate in facing facts and in doing reality checks. People with more dominance in one side of the brain will have more or less tendency to work with facts, get depressed, confabulate, or be an eternal optimist or pessimist.

Brain structures, particularly the reward center—a small area called the nucleus accumbens—motivate us to seek food by giving pleasure in eating or to maintain and propagate the human species through the reproduction of our DNA. This is why we have pleasure in sex and partially the reason we cherish the otherwise tasking responsibility of making and raising children.

Based on our alertness or state of our consciousness we choose what to eat, whether to exercise, among others. The work we do and how well we do it, how we conduct ourselves in our relationships—all these behaviors determine whether we are happy or not so happy, vibrantly healthy or just getting by.

That said, true happiness is more than just transitory satisfaction or contentment. It is a state of lasting fulfillment of desire on a higher level than the immediate needs of food and drink and material goods. It is based on the achievement of basic goals in life and of our role in life, but also feeling that we are growing in the direction of greater awareness and understanding.

True happiness comes when we are in true communication with the self. We know and accept our self, and see our self as growing rather than stagnating or confused. Scientific research on Transcendental Meditation shows that this simple technique develops creativity and intelligence, improves health and behavior, and expands individual consciousness. It gives us the ability to fulfill our outer desires while being anchored in the stable, peaceful, inner self. Even when there are limitations and restrictions to freedom on the outside, we can still be free, fulfilled and happy by developing our full potential and by realizing that what we are doing is the best we possibly can do.