The science of happiness

Scientists are now studying the brain to see the parts stimulated by happiness.

by Irene Conlan — 

Happiness is an interesting concept. Try to define what it means, and you may find yourself at a loss for words. Most of the time we know what it is to us personally, but cannot say what it is to anyone else. A working definition says it is a state of well-being characterized by emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.

What makes a person happy? Ahh, there’s the rub. What makes one person happy may not affect another person at all. We do know that deep down, each of us wants to be truly happy. It’s the reason we do almost everything we do. We work to earn money, we diet, we exercise, we worship and we have families — primarily because we are looking to be happy.

When we find ourselves seriously unhappy, or even depressed, we may seek help or therapy, which often revolves around finding everything negative in our past, in our parents, our relationships, our environment, our beliefs and in our job that could have brought us to this state. More often than not, this therapy brings little to no relief.

There’s a new kid on the therapy block, however, and its name is Positive Psychology. Positive Psychology wants to find what makes and keeps people happy, rather than what makes them mentally and emotionally unbalanced and/or depressed. Positive Psychology is to clinical psychology and psychotherapy what holistic medicine is to the practice of allopathic medicine.

Both are based on a wellness model rather than an illness model. Holistic medicine attempts to prevent illness and get to the root cause by examining and treating the whole person, rather than just the symptoms. Positive Psychology seeks to find all the individual’s strengths and draw on them to help the person regain equilibrium.

The founder of Positive Psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman, says of this new approach, “We have discovered there is a set of human strengths that are the most likely buffers against mental illness: courage, optimism, interpersonal skill, work ethic, hope, honesty and perseverance. Much of the task of prevention will be to create a science of human strength whose mission will be to foster these virtues in young people.” For more information see and

If you want to know how Positive Psychology works, read What Happy People Know: How the New Science of Happiness Can Change Your Life for the Better by Dan Baker, Ph.D., and Cameron Stauth. It is a delightful read that is easy on the mind, is humorous and imparts uncommon common sense. This is a meaty book that goes against the grain of long-held beliefs about therapy. It will change the way you view “cynical psychotherapy” — Baker’s paraphrase of clinical psychotherapy.

Scientists are now studying the brain to see the parts stimulated by happiness. They are studying the chemicals released as by-products of happiness and the chemicals in our bodies that produce feelings of well-being. They have linked happiness with enhancement of the immune system, with healing and a feeling of well-being. It’s about time happiness is explored on a scientific basis. We have known empirically that laughter is the best medicine, and now science has set out to prove it.

Ironically, it looks again like scientists are discovering what the mystics have known all along — that happiness is key to physical well-being. Take, for example, the story of Avatar Meher Baba, who after years of silence, emerged from his retreat and was asked what he had learned after all that time. He paused, reflected and responded, “Don’t worry, be happy.” That was it; then he continued his life in silence.


Irene Conlan has a master’s degree in nursing, is a certified hypnotherapist and a certified past-life regression therapist at The PowerZone in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 27, Number 4, August/September 2008.

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