The processes through which human beings experience emotion are highly complex and multifaceted. As with most human behaviours and experiences, emotions are shaped by both biological and environmental factors. The debate (nature versus nurture) over which element has more influence over the resultant state of mind is ongoing and contentious. It is often difficult to separate the effects of external environmental influences on emotional states from those of internal biochemical processes. The two phenomena have a dynamic relationship in which changes in one may effect changes in the other.
‘Mood’, a name given to a generalized state of mind predisposed toward a specific emotion or group of similar emotions, is usually categorized in a bipolar manner as being either ‘bad’ or ‘good’. Good moods are commonly associated with the experience and expression of positive emotions such as joy, excitement, amusement, and affection. Bad moods are associated with negative emotions such as sadness, anger, frustration, or fear. A good or bad mood is normally a transitory state, triggered by influences that are internal, external, or a combination of the two. When a bad mood lasts beyond a determined period of time and has a negative impact on an individual’s ability to function effectively, it is classified as a mood disorder. Most research has been focused on an examination of the possible causes of negative emotions that impede health and psychological well-being, rather than on the nature of positive emotions. Investigators that have focused on the biological processes behind good moods are usually interested in the phenomena in order to create therapeutic interventions for individuals with mood disorders (p. 262).
There are a number of biologically mediated triggers for positive emotions such as happiness and pleasure. The effects of ingesting certain substances, exercising, laughing, and experiencing certain physical stimulation can all elevate an individual’s mood. Measuring activity in the brain is the standard gauge used in studies of the effect of various stimuli on mood. Imaging techniques such as positron emission tomography (PET) or functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) provide images of the brain that show the contrasting levels of activity. A non-imaging technique, the electroencephalogram (EEG) records the electric impulses emitted by neurons, indicating which areas of the brain are more active than others in a given time period (pp. 231-232). Certain areas of the brain, termed ‘hedonic hotspots’ by investigators, are particularly active when a participant is exposed to pleasurable stimuli. The identification of these areas, and the types of neurotransmitters involved, are valuable in the design of targeted therapy for depression and other mood disorders.
Certain foods are believed to be mood elevators, and multiple studies have been performed in an attempt to establish a link between diet and mood. Because individuals choose what foods to consume, it is difficult to determine whether the mood is dictating the type of food in the diet, or the diet is influencing the mood (p. 263). Individuals experiencing negative emotions may be drawn to sugars and fats for their comforting qualities, while those in neutral or elevated moods may be drawn to healthier choices. A number of studies have examined the relationship between mood and chocolate. A chemical in cocoa stimulates the release of opioids in the brain. While this provide a pleasurable sensation, it is brief and regular use does not appear to provide any long-term benefits. Morphine-based drugs such as heroin may activate the same neural pathways as chocolate; addicts develop strong cravings for chocolate and other sweets when in withdrawal (p. 265). Results from studies investigating the relationship between mood and diet increasingly suggests that maintaining a healthy diet supports a positive mood. There may be confounds to beware of when examining this relationship, however. Individuals eating a well-balanced diet may have been raised in healthier homes, where they had other advantages that affect mood. In addition, individuals may feel a mood elevating sense of pride for taking care of themselves when they eat a well-balanced diet.
Another lifestyle factor that may affect mood and general happiness is the amount of physical exercise that an individual does. Aside from the sense of empowerment and other psychosocial rewards that an individual feels when exercising regularly, there is a distinctive underlying biological element to the mood elevation. Endogenous morphine-like substances (endorphins) are opioids that are produced in the brain and the pituitary gland. Researches have been able to get a valid measure of levels of endorphins at opioid receptors in the brain before and after exercise, and have found a positive correlation between the elevated mood of a participant and whether he or she has exercised (p. 266). The brain is, in effect, rewarding the individual for pursuing healthy behaviours by generating chemicals that both dull the discomfort that accompanies strenuous exercise and provide a sense of elation. The so-called ‘runners high’ is a product of these endorphins flooding the opioid receptors.
Other socially driven behaviours may also trigger feelings of euphoria and joy through the biochemical processes of the brain. Amusement, or humour, appears to trigger the release of endorphins. Berk and Tan (2006) found that humour therapy both mitigated ratings of pain and increased levels of happiness over an eight week period (p. 267). Sexual desire has also been demonstrated to elevate mood. Neurochemically, it activates dopaminergic pathways, similar to the effect of drugs like cocaine or methamphetamine.
The biological underpinnings of the emotional state of happiness are varied and intertwined with psychosocial factors. Ingesting food and substances, moving around, laughing, and making love can all lift an individual’s mood through the complex electrochemical processes of the brain.