We all seem to strive for a state of happiness. We berate ourselves when we are anything but. However, happy is not all we are. It is one emotion in the human experience and if we pressure ourselves to just be this thing called happy, it can often elude us. But, how do we define this fundamental pursuit of human behaviour? Recent neuroscientific research gives us new evidence on how happiness is created.
The role of the brain
“We all differ greatly with regards to what makes us happy or provides us with a sensation of bliss,” says Liane Lurie, a psychologist and expert at the South African Depression and Anxiety Group. “For some, it is a feeling of being loved and being close to someone. For others, it may be the knowledge that they and their loved ones are safe. For others, financial security may make them happy.”
There are four major chemicals in the brain that influence our happiness: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins.
“Serotonin is sometimes referred to as our ‘feel good’ hormone. It helps to regulate our mood and regulate the impact of stress. Its production is stimulated through exercise and getting enough sleep. The latest research shows that a large percentage of serotonin is produced in the gut. Eating properly and looking after our tummies is therefore imperative in maintaining a positive brain-body connection.
Endorphins also play a function in lifting our mood, lowering our anxiety and our sensitivity to pain. Like serotonin, endorphins are also released by exercising.
Dopamine enables us to feel mentally alert, to think clearly and focus. It is a neurotransmitter that is produced in the dopaminergic neurons in the ventral tegmental and the hypothalamus area of the brain, activated by pleasurable stimulants such as eating and intimacy. A shortage in dopamine can lower our moods. Dopamine is also said to play a role in our ability to anticipate positive events and may therefore play a role in feelings of motivation.
Oxytocin has sometimes been referred to as the ‘connection or closeness’ hormone. It is released by having proximity with those with whom you may share a bond. If we feel we are cared for or looked after this often helps to negate the negative effects of low mood, stress and isolation.”
Three types of happiness
According to Tony Dovale, CEO of Life Masters, happiness can be divided into the following three categories:
Rock star or emotional happiness
“These are bursts of positive and pleasurable feelings. This is usually from material wealth or achieving meaningful goals. This level of happiness is based on the idea that rock stars have everything that they want, but remain miserable. Thus, money can give you what you want, but it can't make you happy. We can increase this state of happiness by investing financially in memorable experiences rather than a new dress or car.”
“This is a fairly stable level of happiness that is positively influenced by our activities and contexts. This can be a learned growth-oriented mindset that intentionally focuses on what we can control, such as replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. We should focus on solutions instead of problems and progress instead of loss. It comes from a perspective of feeling grateful and connected with those around us. We can grow this level of happiness by intentionally developing a resilient and positive mindset.”
“Trait happiness or ‘life purpose’ happiness is generally consistent across your lifetime, as they encompass past influences and longer-term responses to life. These trigger positive moods and actions, because of the meaning and purpose they have in our life. People with high levels of ‘psychological capital’ usually live here. By getting involved in meaningful relationships and work, we can begin to rewire our mindsets over time.”
The essential keys to happier living
Insights provided by Natasha Bolognesi, copy editor of the South African Journal of Natural Medicine
“Research done at the University of Hertfordshire shows that there are 10 basic keys to happy living. Five thousand participants rated themselves on a scale of 1 to 10 according to 10 habits defined as being key to happiness. Here are the habits listed from most practised to least:
• Giving: do things for others.
• Relating: connecting emotionally with people.
• Exercising: take care of your body.
• Appreciating: notice and appreciate the world around you.
• Trying out: constantly learn new things.
• Direction: have goals to work towards and look forward to.
• Resilience: find ways to bounce back.
• Emotion: be positive in your approach.
• Acceptance: be comfortable with who you are.
• Meaning: be part of something bigger.”
What about money, then…?
“Many people, usually those without a lot of cash to throw around, believe that lots of money will buy you happiness,” says Natasha “While it is true that having money certainly makes life easier, it does not necessarily hold true that it will bring real happiness with it.”
Yet, Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton disagrees. Norton, a researcher of ‘The Science of Spending’, says that it depends on how you spend your money. According to Norton, the secret is to buy experiences rather than things. The reasoning is that experiences make for happy memories as shared with friends or family while time spent in front of a TV or a computer is time spent alone.
Adding to the ‘money and happiness’ debate, Tony remarks: “Happiness, or rather ‘life satisfaction’, tends to keep increasing with income, up to a certain level. But, there comes a point where the increase in happiness or satisfaction is negligible.
For medium to longer term happiness, you can achieve this either by creating more ‘ends’ goals (feelings), through truly memorable activities, spending money on others, supporting meaningful causes, reducing any debt, sticking to commitments such as Medical Aid, hanging around positive people, deprogramming yourself from family and cultural negative habits to more supportive, loving, connected, contributing ones.
Practice mindfulness, gratitude and be kind to yourself. Appreciate the great stuff in life, share laughter and love. Lighten up, empathise and express your feelings. Keep regular contact with friends. Do work you love. Take time to focus on creating feelings like freedom, love, abundance, peace and joy.”
Happiness and health
Insights provided by Body and Mind
“What makes one person happy may not necessarily do the same for another – however, the overall effects are the same. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, ‘emotional vitality – a sense of enthusiasm, of hopefulness, of engagement in life – and the ability to face life’s stresses with emotional balance can contribute to a healthier outlook’.
Many books have been written on happiness as well, such as ‘Happy People Live Longer’ by Ed Diener & Micaela Y. Chan, which has a very scientific approach to happiness and the chemical balance in the brain.
But, from personal experience, it is much easier to handle day-to-day stresses when you are emotionally upbeat. Laughter also uses many muscles in the body and releases lactic acid, thereby calming the body and mind down, and balancing the neural hormones. When these hormones are balanced, the synapses and neural pathways flow smoothly, thereby improving cognitive function and ability.”
While we tend to focus on the external means which lend themselves to happiness, we can never neglect the relationship we have with ourselves. If we are able to nurture and take care of ourselves through things like sleeping, eating properly and regular physical exercise, we promote our own resilience and ability to tolerate stress. It is also critical that we create and maintain support systems such as a Medical Aid for when the wheels do happen to come off unexpectedly.