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Neural basis for eudaimonic well-being discovered

Eudaimonic womanNeuroscience continues to advance in leaps and bounds. Whereas in the past discovering the neural basis for even primitive urges proved a struggle, now neuroscientists Gary Lewis (University of Stirling, United Kingdom) and others have found the neural basis for a high-level cognitive ability: eudaimonic well-being. Usually contrasted with the hedonic pleasure system that makes us feel good when we eat sugary foods or have sex, eudaimonic well-being includes virtuous activity, a sense of purpose in life, self-acceptance, and personal growth. Essentially, it encompasses high-order self-reflective mental functions.

Scientifically measuring something like eudaimonic well-being seems like an impossible task: how can something so seemingly subjective be measured objectively? Surprisingly enough, the six Ryff Scales of Psychological Well-being do precisely that. Through the factors of autonomy, personal growth, self-acceptance, purpose in life, environmental mastery and positive relations with others, these scales successfully measure eudaimonic well-being.

With an objective measure of eudaimonic well-being in hand, the researchers wondered whether they could find the neural bases of eudaimonic well-being. They hypothesized that regional gray matter (GM) volume would correlate with eudaimonic well-being.

To test their hypothesis, they recruited 70 healthy people from the community of University College London. First, the participants completed the Ryff Scales of Psychological Well-being. Items included: “I tend to be influenced by people with strong opinions” (autonomy, reverse-scored), “I am quite good at managing the many responsibilities of my daily life” (environmental mastery), “I think it is important to have new experiences that challenge how you think about yourself and the world” (personal growth), “People would describe me as a giving person, willing to share my time with others” (positive relations with others), “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them” (purpose in life), and “In many ways I feel disappointed about my achievements in life” (self-acceptance, reverse-scored). Finally, all participants underwent an MRI.

As expected, eudaimonia did correlate with gray matter volume. More exactly, purpose in life, positive relations, and personal growth correlated with the GM volume of the right insular cortex. Additionally, personal growth also correlated with left insular cortex volume, and purpose in life had a “marginal” negative correlation with the middle temporal gyrus.

The researchers conclude, “This study found evidence for a positive association between GM volume in the right insular cortex and eudaimonic well-being in a large sample of young, healthy adults.” Correlation, of course, does not mean causation, and so much work remains to be done. Still, ever higher mental functions are finding grounding in the lowly regions of the brain.

For more, see “Neural correlates of the ‘good life’: eudaimonic well-being is associated with insular cortex volume” in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.  

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