Anatomy of happiness: The science behind your smile

Anatomy of happiness: The science behind your smile

By Dipavali Hazra | | 2 April, 2016
We are all hard-wired for happiness.
Physicist and science writer Stefan Klein, in his new book, set out on a happy pursuit. He wished to figure out the meaning of happiness by taking a scientific approach, writes Dipavali Hazra.


The Science of Happiness (How Our Brains Make Us Happy and What We Can Do to Get Happier)

Stefan Klein

Pages: 296

Price: Rs 450

Western research has corroborated what your friendly neighbourhood groups of yoga enthusiasts have known and practised with a thousand sunrises, laughing their way to fitness of the mind and body. Small-scale research has found that laughter yoga may indeed positively affect cardiovascular health and mood. In his book, The Science of Happiness, science journalist Stefan Klein too writes about an experiment which illustrates that a forced smile can make one happy — but only when done correctly, by training the orbicularis oculi muscle to lift the face into a genuine smile, raising the corners of the mouth while crinkling the corners of the eyes into crows’ feet.

Happiness, as is often repeated, is an inside job, and The Science of Happiness explains exactly to what extent it is so. Author Stefan Klein, a physicist, essayist and science writer, set on a pursuit of happiness to answer, specifically, the question: what is happiness? He has compiled his findings in this book, collecting research and scholarly articles scattered across the world that have addressed different kinds of happy feelings —falling in love, having sex, cuddling a baby, buying a new outfit, listening to music — and how and where they arise within the brain. Klein also draws parallels between practices and philosophies, particularly of the East, and modern findings in psychology that reinforce what the ancients intuitively knew about that glorious but fleeting feeling.

It may be hard to reconcile with the fact that science can explain such a divine experience as happiness, but in the course of reading this book one finds, and Klein reiterates with examples, how much in control of our feelings we really are. “Animals have to follow the commands of their emotions, but we don’t. We can decide against our feelings, allowing us more options to react appropriately...Not wanting our quaking knees to deprive us of a new experience, we can thwart our feelings of timidity and fear. Dogs wouldn’t go bungee jumping even if they could; they would be prevented by the unconsciousness of their fear — to which they are slaves.”

Contrary to earlier beliefs, the adult brain continues to change under the influence of thoughts and, particularly, emotions. Like the smile experiment written about before, where controlling muscle movement produced a positive feeling; the more we learn to control our thoughts and emotions, the happier we can be. “The circuits in our brain are altered whenever we learn something, and new connections are forged in our network of nerve cells...These changes are triggered by thoughts and even more by emotions. This means that by the right exercises we can increase our capacity of happiness. Much as we can learn a foreign language, we can train our natural aptitude for positive feelings.”


Certainly, there are things beyond our control — external stimuli and genetic factors — that determine how we feel and react. For instance, a hypothesis asserts that people who are supplied with relatively few dopamine receptors are more likely to seek out new experiences more often than others. “Their neurons are less responsive to dopamine, and they need more than other people to attain a balance. These adventurous personalities have to do more than the rest of us to create dopamine.” There even exists a loosely called “happiness gene”, the possessors of which are more inclined to cheerfulness than others. Yet even genes are not our destiny, argues Klein because they “do not function like a computer program that always does the same thing”. Moreover, the brain is capable of even re-programming itself.

For the most part, we are all wired for happiness, and we can achieve it through tricking (fake a genuine smile), training (control violent outbursts) and treating (exercise to release dopamine — a chemical the brain loves) the mind in a number of ways.

The Science of Happiness gives psychology a very readable popular science treatment and due to the issues it addresses, it also makes for a useful self help guide validated by science, which is a bonus. In fact, Klein debunks popular self help myths about how emulating the lives of rich and famous people will make our own living successful. Comparison is one of the many pitfalls on the journey to happiness.

Republished in 2016 by Speaking Tiger for the first time in India, the bestselling The Science of Happiness could have very well borrowed its title from The Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler’s bestselling The Art of Happiness, smartly substituting the Art with Science, therefore highlighting the technical side of the picture of happiness. But this apparent dichotomy, one discovers, is an illusion. The separation that exists today between the science and art of living was foreign to the ancient philosophers, writes Klein.

Will you be happier after reading this book? That, indeed, depends on you. But your brain will certainly look different from what it was before you started, promises Klein. Having thought new thoughts, learnt new lessons, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that you will even be younger, with the nerve growth factors — an elixir of life— in your brain rushing to cement new connections (essentially seeing to it that neurons, or nerve cells, grow dendrites, or the links between nerve cells).

And it is a fact that nerve growth factors are produced more easily when serotonin and dopamine (neurotransmitters or chemical messengers that are associated with positive feelings) flush the brain. “Happy” reading!


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