Happier people show greater brain connectivity when processing negative information about themselves

Happier people show greater brain connectivity when processing negative information about themselves, according to a recent study published this February in PLOS ONE. The study points to an active process in the brain, involving the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex, which is related to effectively regulating negative emotional information.

Life satisfaction, often used as a measure of happiness, has been linked to a large number of significant factors, including better adjustment to negative personal feedback and more positive self-related thoughts. Therefore, it is important to understand how life satisfaction influences activity within the brain.

Research has shown that self-related information causes unique brain activity, for example, seeing your own face produces activity that differs from that produced by other faces. Moreover, it has recently been suggested that activity in the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex, which is at the top-front of the brain, may reflect efforts to decrease self-related negative emotion.

The study, led by Eun Joo Kim of Yonsei University in Seoul, included 40 participants who completed a questionnaire to measure life satisfaction (19 had high life satisfaction; 21 had low life satisfaction). Their brains were scanned using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) whilst they performed a task rating the relevance of faces to words. The task consisted of 3 types of faces – their own face, famous faces, and unfamiliar faces; and 3 types of words – positive, negative, and neutral.

They found that individuals low in life satisfaction had higher activity in the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex when responding to positives words. These people also gave lower ratings for the relevance between their own face and positive words. It was argued that this brain activity reflects a conflict between a negative opinion of themselves and the positive emotion from the word. In contrast, individuals high in life satisfaction showed higher activity when responding to negative words, which was attributed to them effectively regulating negative emotional information.

The brain activity in people high in life satisfaction was also found to be highly connected to other regions of the brain associated with emotion regulation (the amygdala and insula). The researchers argued that this is evidence for lower sensitivity to negative information being an active process within the brain.

The study demonstrates that effectively regulating self-related emotional information is a basis for higher life satisfaction, and thus higher happiness. This could be of relevance in an educational context, as it suggests that negative feedback to individuals with lower life satisfaction should be approached with sensitivity and caution.