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Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 24 Oct 2011

Building a neuroscience of pleasure and well-being

Abstract

Background

How is happiness generated via brain function in lucky individuals who have the good fortune to be happy? Conceptually, well-being or happiness has long been viewed as requiring at least two crucial ingredients: positive affect or pleasure (hedonia) and a sense of meaningfulness or engagement in life (eudaimonia). Science has recently made progress in relating hedonic pleasure to brain function, and so here we survey new insights into how brains generate the hedonic ingredient of sustained or frequent pleasure. We also briefly discuss how brains might connect hedonia states of pleasure to eudaimonia assessments of meaningfulness, and so create balanced states of positive well-being.

Results

Notable progress has been made in understanding brain bases of hedonic processing, producing insights into that brain systems that cause and/or code sensory pleasures. Progress has been facilitated by the recognition that hedonic brain mechanisms are largely shared between humans and other mammals, allowing application of conclusions from animal studies to a better understanding of human pleasures. In the past few years, evidence has also grown to indicate that for humans, brain mechanisms of higher abstract pleasures strongly overlap with more basic sensory pleasures. This overlap may provide a window into underlying brain circuitry that generates all pleasures, including even the hedonic quality of pervasive well-being that detaches from any particular sensation to apply to daily life in a more sustained or frequent fashion.

Conclusions

Hedonic insights are applied to understanding human well-being here. Our strategy combines new findings on brain mediators that generate the pleasure of sensations with evidence that human brains use many of the same hedonic circuits from sensory pleasures to create the higher pleasures. This in turn may be linked to how hedonic systems interact with other brain systems relevant to self-understanding and the meaning components of eudaimonic happiness. Finally, we speculate a bit about how brains that generate hedonia states might link to eudaimonia assessments to create properly balanced states of positive well-being that approach true happiness.