How Happy Brains Respond to Negative Things

Bad things happen to everyone. But how we react to the bad things in life reveals a lot about our brains. It might be obvious, but people who are happier are better able to regulate their emotions when dealing with unpleasant events.

How? There are a few theories.

One is that happier people are able to focus on positive things and filter out the negative. Another reason is that happier people could be better at savouring good moments and emotions to help them deal with negative events.

But why does this matter? Because this has implications for your perspective on life. Is it better to ignore the negatives, or strengthen your ability to focus on the good while acknowledging the bad?

Activity in the amygdala

The answer may lie in the amygdala—the primitive “fear centre” of the brain, which is always on the lookout for potential threats. In some people, increased amygdala activity has been linked to depression and anxiety.

That’s what psychologists William Cunningham at the University of Toronto and Alexander Todorov of Princeton University are exploring with their colleagues.

However it’s not just the “fear center” that they’re interested in. They’ve discovered a whole new amygdala—one they believe holds the key to human connection, compassion, and happiness. According to their research, the happiest people don’t ignore threats. They just might be better at seeing the good.

Happy people take the good with the bad

Cunningham and Kirkland recorded the amygdala activity of 42 participants as they viewed series of positive, negative, and neutral pictures. Participants also filled out surveys to determine their subjective happiness levels.

When compared with less-happy people, the researchers found that happier people had greater amygdala activation in response to positive photographs. But they did not have a decreased response to negative images, as would be predicted by the “rose-colored glasses” view of happiness.

According to the paper, this suggests that “happier people are not necessarily naïve or blind to negativity, but rather may respond adaptively to the world, recognizing both good and bad things in life.”

This is interesting because it suggests that being able to sense and respond to negative information may actually be an important component of happiness. The authors’ conclusion from this study: “Happy people are joyful, yet balanced.”

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