Can You Measure Happiness?

Everyone wants to be happier, but it's hard even to agree on what happinessisor what types of things and experiences produce it. A science of happiness (aka "positive psychology") has emerged in recent years, and it may be about to get a boost from research that shows how we can measure happiness objectively. Using MRI scans, researchers at Kyoto University in Japan have pinpointed an area of the brain called the "precuneus" that's responsible for happiness, and that's the first step to understanding how to increase it.

Taking a cue from other sources (ranging from psychology researchers to philosophers like Aristotle), the Japanese researchers acknowledge that happiness consists in some blend of momentary, hedonistic mental feelings but also in satisfaction with life experiences. So, they created surveys that recognized both of these sides of the happiness coin.

The experimental participants who scored highly on this multifaceted survey turned out to have more gray matter in the precuneus area of the brain, indicating that they "feel happiness more intensely, feel sadness less intensely, and are more able to find meaning in life." The precuneus is located in the parietal lobe of the brain, which is thought to be responsible for consciousness in humans. Injuries to the parietal lobe cause people to have difficulties in paying attention due to reduced perceptual awareness.

Though the lead researcher notes that meditation is known to increase mass in the precuneus (and therefore possibly increase a person's capacity for happiness over time), meditation is also interesting because it causes the parietal lobe to "go dark" or temporarily cease activity. Though meditation isn't always harmless, it's certainly worth investigating for its connection to this apparent happiness zone of the brain.

In any case, more research is required. But since self-reports of happiness levels are probably unreliable and definitely limited, this objective measure of human happiness should help us to surmount the obstacles typically surrounding studies on happiness.

Image: Tetyana Kovyrina/Pexels, Giphy