- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 25, 2001

"Joy to the World," one of the season's best-known Christmas carols, is a tonic as well as a song. The optimism and sense of well-being expressed in the words can act positively on one's physical well-being, according to a number of leading psychiatrists and neurologists. "People who are full of hope and joy do better physically," states Dr. James Gordon, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine at 5225 Connecticut Ave. NW.
Objective studies show that people who think they are doing better in an illness actually often improve their well-being, he says, adding: "In Chinese medicine, the heart is connected to joy, which means without any real scientific proof that the heart functions better if you are joyful."
Studies of the immune system have shown that volunteers were far less likely to develop infections if they were optimistic by nature, Dr. Gordon notes. "You are likely to do better under a variety of different conditions, whether you have cancer or a headache. People who are joyful have a feeling of more energy. The neurotransmitters are going to be different."
He offers a cautionary note about the limits of overdoing such emphasis, however, especially during the holiday season. "People think they have to be happy all the time. It's great to feel joy, but one of the things I saw when treating children traumatized by war in Kosovo is people who lost so much began to realize the possibility of joy because they had felt the depths of despair. If you cut yourself off from one emotion, you cut yourself off from all."
A person must allow himself to feel sad, Dr. Gordon advises on this point.
"Don't deny it. If you shut [sadness] down, it will be harder to feel [happiness]," he says. Still, he admits it is hard to say whether that is the cause or the effect of the emotion.

Such assertions go well beyond the benefit of feel-good attitudes put forward many decades ago in a popular book by Norman Vincent Peale called "The Power of Positive Thinking." Far more than simple nostrums and inspirational tracts, the latest thinking on the subject involves aspects of brain physiology.
Among the latest titles explaining the new research are "Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot: Unleashing Your Brain's Potential," published this year by Harmony Books, and "The Secret Life of the Brain," both by Dr. Richard Restak, a Washington neurologist and neuropsychiatrist who is clinical professor of neurology at George Washington University. The latter book is a companion volume to an upcoming PBS-TV series of the same title.
"We know obviously that certain people have personality traits that are basically positive and that there are things you can do to enhance that," Dr. Restak says. "We become what we think about, and our attitudes about our performance can be very self-determinative. I think people with a positive outlook have a different brain from the outset."
The song "Put on a Happy Face" shows such truths long have been acknowledged in the popular imagination, but funding to study brain mechanisms involved in happiness or joy has been made available only relatively recently because, Dr. Restak says, "no one is being treated for being too joyful."
The tide is turning, he says. By using PET scans and MRI, he notes, research scientists such as Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry and director of the brain-imaging laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, are beginning to chart the neurological basis of optimism as opposed to pessimism.
Dr. Davidson's discoveries, Dr. Restak says, include finding increased activity inside the left prefrontal cortex among people who are happy and optimistic.
Scientists also now realize, Dr. Restak says, that "no single area of the brain controls the expression of happiness, smiles and laughter. And why should that be surprising? Happiness involves an internal state a cozy, warm feeling that is mediated by the limbic system, notably the amygdala and other structures connected to it."
Happiness in adults also involves the ability to compare experiences of such a state, he says. "In order to carry out these cognitive operations, we have to employ our frontal lobes along with memory-mediating areas like the hippocampus, parts of the thalamus and, again, other parts of the frontal lobes."

"Much of happiness is pre-programmed," agrees Rockville psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal, a professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine who is well-known for his studies of mood disorders namely, seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, which he developed while a researcher for 20 years at the National Institutes of Health. He has written "The Emotional Revolution: How the New Science of Feelings Can Transform Your Life," which is set to come out in March from Kensington Books.
"Researchers have found that a lot of happiness seems to be part of a person's temperament and also that there are things you can do to feel happier," he says, describing some of the latest findings.
"Married people are happier than unmarried people, for instance. Those who observe religion and those with values and a sense of where they are going in life are happier.
"Psychologists are beginning to take heed of happiness from different points of view. Not only because it is a wonderful emotion, but also to be appreciative of its evolutionary adaptability. The purpose and behavior of happiness is to explore the world. Without that quality, we wouldn't venture out. We wouldn't have all the wonderful things that represent the spirit of innovation."
Happiness, though, is a "composite experience, involving so many things," Dr. Rosenthal cautions, echoing Dr. Restak's view. "When dealing with a physiological state, pleasure is much easier to characterize. Happiness is a sense of evaluating your world."
In zeroing in on several brain areas important in the experience of happiness, he says, scientists have found others involved in addition to the left prefrontal cortex "very helpful in getting you to pursue your goals."
He names as an example a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which he describes as being "full of nerve cells containing such neurotransmitters as dopamine, which certainly is one of the chemicals that pleasure researchers are focusing on. This is the part of the brain that evaluates how good is one's experience and asks, 'Should I go for more?' And there is the hypothalamus, the old pleasure center in the base of the brain, the one rats will keep pushing a lever for to keep stimulating themselves again and again.
"There are these three centers working together, and talking together. One pursues happiness. One tells you when you are pleasured enough, and the other keeps going for more."
Apart from dopamine, other important neurotransmitters, he points out, are the endorphins and the hormone called prolactin, "which is the one secreted when people meditate, for example. Chemicals work in harmony together, but you have to remember that happiness also is judgment, a reflection of where your life is or where it should be."
Further studies show that the way we remember emotions is different from the way we remember factual matters, Dr. Rosenthal notes, saying such a position differs greatly from how emotions were regarded even five years ago.
In the view of both Dr. Restak and Dr. Rosenthal, what is becoming known is how the brain can replenish itself, even as the body ages what Dr. Restak refers to as the brain's "plasticity."
Dr. Rosenthal describes the finding as "recognition that change of a fundamental neurological nature is possible." He calls that integral to the revolution of how we understand our emotions and their importance.
"What we are understanding now is that the adult brain wires and rewires itself throughout adult life," he says. "What this means is we are capable of changing not just the software, but the hardware. If this can happen in regard to motor functioning or visual functioning, then surely it can occur in relation to emotional functioning. What we have been doing all along in psychotherapy is helping people rewire their brains."
So, come all ye faithful, keep singing long enough, and surely the pleasure that joy embodies will enhance your life and possibly help lengthen life in ways that scientists are beginning to chart.

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