Happy brains are wired that way

In this rich and varied world, there are people who are generally happy, and those who tend to be sad.

Choice? Circumstance?

New research from Oxford University is suggesting something far more subtle:

Actual connections in the makeup of our brains may be the underlying cause of our overall emotional outlook.

Literally, if you’re happy and you know it, your brain may just be wired that way.

“Using 461 subjects drawn from the general population, this study includes state-of-the-art Magnetic Resonance Imaging data of the brain, showing the way different brain areas are physically connected, as well as how they are connected in terms of how they function. It also includes a wealth of information about each individual – their behaviours and life history.”

That’s Thomas Nichols, head of neuroimaging statistics at England’s University of Warwick, one of ten co-authors of the final report. He was part of a team that studied 280 variables in the test subjects’ lives and choices.

And yes, indeed, they found an intriguing pattern.

“We can't point to any specific one of the variables, but there is a general pattern of ‘positive’ versus ‘negative’ life factors, including years of education, income and life satisfaction, that were opposed against factors including substance use, rule-breaking behaviour, and poor sleep quality.” 

A tight correlation emerged between outlook and brain wiring. Certain brain alignments correspond to positive outlooks, others to more negative ones.

“We cannot begin to say how these relationships came to be, nor can we say that changing one’s behaviour can change brain connectivity,” Nichols notes.

“But it does say that over a population of subjects, we would predict differences in brain connectivity between groups of individuals differing on this positive-negative axis.”

Nichols declined to speculate on any evolutionary advantage this may have given humans over the eons.

“I’m a statistician, not an evolutionary biologist,” he quipped.

So – are we happy because of how our brains line up, or do our brains line up like that because we’re happy?

Oxford biomedical engineering professor Stephen Smith, the study’s lead author, said it’s too early to know for sure.

“It's hard to make any broad claims about being able to help people to ‘move up’ this axis,” he cautiouned.

“But yes, there are plenty of examples in the literature of some form of intervention affecting the brain and behaviour.”

Nichols finds the study results – and the deep connections they imply – intriguing.

“It says that fundamental life factors explain differences in how our brains are connected,” he noted.

“That these differences exist is exciting – and now much more work is needed to actually understand how these differences arose.”