Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness

New science shows that happiness is about our behavior, not just our biology.

ByABC News
January 10, 2008, 11:30 AM

Jan. 11, 2008— -- What exactly is happening inside the brains of people experiencing joy and happiness?

"It's a very complicated chemical soup," explained Dr. Richard Davidson, who has made a life's work out of studying "happy brains." His lab at the University of Wisconsin is devoted to understanding how much of our joy level is set at birth, and how much we can control.

With a skull cap containing 128 sensors, Davidson's team can watch a subject's brain respond to a series of photographs, some pleasant, some distressing.

"We can challenge the brain by presenting these emotional images and look to see how you respond to them," Davidson said.

ABC News' Bill Weir underwent the test, and by studying the activity in his left prefrontal cortex, Davidson discovered that Weir's brain was "more positive than not."

"Now, it doesn't mean that you don't have episodes of negative emotion," he explained. "But those negative emotions don't linger."

People with happy brains have their parents to thank, to a certain extent, not only for happy genes, but also for loving childhoods. Studies have shown that angry or critical parents can actually alter a child's happiness level until it's set around age 16. But can adults adjust their own feelings of happiness?

Until recently, most research psychologists were more interested in what made people depressed than what made them happy, and pharmaceutical companies have played a crucial role in promoting happiness by developing very successful anti-depressants. But evolving research in a field known as positive psychology is getting people to ask themselves how they can become happier, not through drugs, but by making changes in how they act and think.

"Antidepressants don't make people happier, they just decrease negative emotions," says University of California-Riverside psychology professor Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky. In her new book, "The How of Happiness," Lyubomirksy argues that as much as 40 percent of our happiness "is left for the intentional activities that we can choose to engage in --