Neurochemistry of Happiness in the Times of Covid-19

It is possible to modulate (influence the functioning characteristics) and train our brain to be happier!

The concept of Happiness is centuries old. Thales of Miletus (624 BC–558 BC), one of the first philosophers of history and one of the so-called Seven Sages of Greece, considered that, in order to be happy, “a strong and healthy body, good luck and a well-formed soul” .

I believe that it takes health, “good genes” and a favorable environment, with reference values ​​for well-being and respect for others.

Happiness isn't something you find when you arrive, it's something you take with you when you leave. It's in us. In the brain, where our superpower resides. Happiness is a reward path. This path is a set of events that take place in the brain and that remain in the memories, from the happy moments of our childhood, from the stories… that were seeds of hope, so that today we can continue to overcome obstacles.

My foray into the “Neurochemistry of Happiness” came after being challenged by a group of students from the Center for Medical Students at the University of Coimbra, where I teach: “Professor, your classes are an inspiration, not only for the knowledge you transmit to us , but also for their effort to be happy and leave their classes with a smile. We want to organize a Week dedicated to Happiness! And we would really like you to give a conference on the topic!…”

The challenge of conveying complex scientific knowledge in a simple and inspiring way. Given my work with schools, since 2005, to explain the interaction mechanisms of alcohol and drugs of abuse with the brain and the investigation of metabolic and genetic factors in drug addiction, this is how the term came to me for the conference, the 19.05.2014.

There are "key" brain areas that make up the so-called "reward pathway": the limbic region in the "center" of the brain (formed by a set of structures, eg amygdala, that control emotions, impulses, memories, response to pain, stress, danger and fear…), which is a kind of “accelerator”, and the prefrontal cortex, which coordinates decisions, acting as a “brake”.

Neurotransmitters are actors in this extremely complex piece. There are genetic factors that influence our response to stimuli, but the physical-chemical and psychosocial environment has a great influence on the development of skills and abilities.

Understanding these mechanisms allows for a better understanding of how our brain works for well-being. Dopamine, serotonin, endocannabinoids and endorphins are the main neurotransmitters associated with well-being.

If, on the one hand, our genetics are decisive for the possibility of being happy, the environment and life experiences are decisive for the realization of this assumption, being essential a good diet, with nutrients to form the neurotransmitters that play a leading role the well-being.

It is possible to modulate (influence the functioning characteristics) and train our brain to be happier!

Happiness is essential to our survival as a species.

However, let those who think that happiness is to have permanent well-being must be disappointed! Less good moments, unhappiness, pain, fears, dangers, insecurities, despair, tears, setbacks, steps back, rest, breaks, some stress, are fundamental spices for happiness!

In fact, excess dopamine is associated with psychosis and is prevented through the role of the prefrontal cortex, acting as a “brake”, releasing another neurotransmitter – GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which prevents the release of excess dopamine and keeping the balance for mental health so that the reward pathway works properly.

Happiness is like salt and sugar in food! It has to be “As Enough”!

Knowledge gives us freedom, but it implies responsibility in our health choices.

We live in difficult times, with great personal, family, professional and social challenges, particularly due to the isolation imposed by the appearance of Covid-19.

The Sars-cov-2 virus enters our body and closes the oxygen gates in the lungs, preventing it from being distributed through the bloodstream to all tissues, where it is used by energy factories (mitochondria).

This energy (ATP) is fundamental for the occurrence of multiple biochemical and cellular processes, including the functioning of the reward pathway and the immune system.

Combating this new virus is a biomolecular challenge for our body, namely keeping the reward pathway functioning and continuing to have strategies for happiness during isolation and surviving if we are infected. Prevention, following safety standards, remains the best medicine.

It is essential to learn to feel the harmony of well-being with what we are and what we have, finding our superpower!

So, I leave you my motto, which is the title of the book I'm writing, “Be happy with what you have at hand”©.


Author: Manuela Grazina
Professor and Researcher, Faculty of Medicine & Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology, University of Coimbra



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