Most of us are driven by the urge to be happy. It doesn’t matter if your focus is on money, friends, community, or whatever it is that drives you. In the end, the aim is to be happy.
No wonder then, that the pursuit of happiness is such a major subject, covered by many books, films, and even music. Not being happy is the core element of regret, hate and everything bad in our lives. Or so we think!
I did some research on happiness. I wanted to find out what it actually is, how it impacts us, what we need to do to have it, and finally if we really need it.
This is what I found:
DNA of Happiness
Happiness is a combination of how satisfied we are with our lives and how good we feel on a day to day basis.
Each person is born with the potential for happiness in their genes. The genetically determined level is individually different. On average, at least 50% of our ability to be happy depends on our genetic marker or set point. About 40% is determined by our thoughts, actions, and behaviors. And only 10% by our circumstances in life – financial, physical, marital, or social.
The experience of happiness relates to everything that is us, our body and mind. And as social animals, our society and circumstances play a role as well.
All of those parts are connected and any action in one part will have an impact on the other.
The genes are related to your body and its composition. I will explain how this comes together in a moment.
The circumstances are the things you’re born into. It relates to your society and the environment.
And then there is your mind, what you think, how you behave and react and your general outlook to life and yourself in it. This part is easiest to control and has the biggest impact on the other parts.
Let’s find out how it all works together:
Chemistry of Happiness
Happiness is largely a chemical experience.
It’s an entire cocktail of various hormones and neurotransmitters that control our well-being. These messengers include not only dopamine, but also serotonin, noradrenaline, endorphins, oxytocin, and phenethylamine. They act as stimulants, relaxants or painkillers.
Let’s have a closer look at these messengers and see how they influence our feelings and behaviors:
Oxytocin is known as the “love hormone” or “cuddle hormone” because it fosters emotional bonding, empathy and a sense of closeness and security. It does so by reducing feelings of fear and stress, and, during sex, by promoting orgasms.
Oxytocin also plays an important role during childbirth, while strengthening the bond between mother and child.
The hormone phenethylamine is responsible for our feeling of pleasure and happiness. Phenethylamine is secreted for various reasons, both physical and psychological.
For example, it is responsible for the emotional rollercoaster that we experience when we fall in love. It promotes the typical signs of being in love such as that tingling sensation in our belly, a noticeable heartbeat, and difficulty concentrating.
Phenethylamine is also secreted during endurance sports and can leave athletes feeling almost intoxicated.
Serotonin is commonly regarded as a chemical that is responsible for maintaining mood balance. It is a natural antidepressant and may cause euphoria. It also affects many bodily functions, ranging from pain perception to the sleep-wake cycle.
Most of it (95%) is found in the intestines, but it is also present in the central nervous system, in the cardiovascular system, and in the bloodstream.
Dopamine is the most important messenger to our feelings and happiness.
It activates the brain’s reward system and can put us in a delirious or euphoric mood. The brain processes involved are similar to the effect of cocaine on the brain.
Endorphins act as the body’s natural painkillers in case of injury, and they can put the body in a delirious state. They also regulate our sense of hunger, our moods, and the production of sex hormones.
Endorphines are also released by intense physical activity, producing the “runner’s high” that many endurance athletes experience.
Noradrenaline controls our level of wakefulness and alertness; it increases our motivation and promotes our ability to focus. It is secreted in situations of mental and physical stress.
Noradrenaline is found in the adrenal glands and in the central nervous system.
Those are the core chemicals involved when we’re feeling this high, of being in love, making love and just generally feel very good about ourselves.
In its essence, they are drugs, when introduces in the right amounts and at the right times, give us a high-feeling which is often translated into happiness. But like with every drug, this feeling is usually short-lived and once it dissipates our chemical level in our body returns to its default level, leaving us with the urge to feel it again.
That brings us to:
The Hedonic Treadmill
Hedonic goods are consumed for luxury purposes, which are desirable objects that allow the consumer to feel pleasure, fun, and enjoyment from buying the product. This is the difference to Utilitarian goods, which are purchased for their practical uses and are based on the consumer’s needs.
It relates to the smallest DNA part of happiness, the hoarding and consumptions of goods for the sake of having it. Initially, we feel a form of happiness when we buy those products, the bigger apartment, the car, or get the promotion. But when we become accustomed to a new state of happiness, our sense of contentment diminishes. In turn, this increases our expectations.
Changes in income or experiences, for instance. temporarily affect happiness, but as people become accustomed to a new situation, our feeling returns to where it was before. It doesn’t last. Not even a short time.
Whatever it is you got yourself, as further away it will take you from your current baseline, as longer it will take to return to your current state. But there is a line when this can turn into stress which will wipe out your happy feeling in an instance.
The more people possess, the more they need to feel better.
But let’s have a look at some common life events and their impact on happiness:
Mariage May Buy You Happiness
The most important external factor affecting a person’s happiness is a human connection. In every society, family, or other close relationships, our close connections are most important, followed by relationships at work and in the community.
Marriage seems to have a special impact. Compared to unmarried people, married people live longer, are healthier, make more money per capita, have more sex and are reporting enjoying it more.
One reason is that happy people do better in the marriage market. But it looks like marriage also makes people happier. If you look at people’s happiness before and after their wedding, it usually doesn’t return to its initial baseline for a number of years.
But only a happy marriage makes people really happy. When a marriage turns bad, we feel relief once we get out of it. This seems to apply more to men than to women.
Happiness and Health
To most people, health and physical integrity are a basic prerequisite for a happy life. But not everyone who is healthy is happy. And not everyone who is sick is miserable.
The reason is our sensitivity to change. Our choices and our satisfaction are driven by the comparisons we make. A change in one’s life, for instance, temporarily affect happiness, but as people become accustomed to a new situation, its impact diminishes. This applies to both positive and negative events or life changes.
Yet, happiness seems to have a substantial impact on our health. Happy people are less often affected by heart attacks, autoimmune disorders, diabetes, cancer, and depression – the opposite of happiness. They are also more likely to follow good self-care and have better social networks – both reliable indicators of good physical health.
These personal attributes seem to be key for healthier living:
- a sense of enthusiasm, hopefulness, and engagement,
- supportive networks of family and friends
- the ability to face life’s stresses with emotional balance
The Strain of Modern Life
Stress can kill, but it also lets us survive. Stress is silent and only its effects might be heard.
It may send our minds spinning, rob us of sleep and throw us off balance – without us ever being aware of its effects. Originally, however, our body’s stress response evolved to help us survive: When we detect a threat, it readies us for fight or flight.
When you are running for your life, basics are all that matter. Your breathing rate goes up, your heart races, and your muscles respond immediately. This fight or flight response worked well when stress was caused mainly by wild animals or enemies physically attacking us.
In the 21st century, however, work, complicated relationships, financial worries, and traffic have taken the place of wild beasts. They permanently stress 1 out of 4 people.
This permanent stress not only compromises our ability to learn and remember but also harms our health. It increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke. In addition, permanent stress impairs our well-being, leading to insecurities, nervousness, anxiety, anger, and even aggression. In the end, we feel burned out or depressed.
People with constantly high-stress levels rarely feel happy. Because the body shuts down everything not required for fight or flight and the chemicals needed to feel happy are never produced.
Do Children Make Us Happy?
Most parents would say their children are the biggest source of their happiness. But researchers come to the opposite conclusion. Children are more likely a great source of stress and as we learned earlier, stress is not promoting any happiness.
But there are the moments when it all reverses. Because of the love parents have for their children, stress is usually short-lived and there are many moments in a normal family life where we might feel happy.
However, research done in this field came up with the following:
- We are ready to spend a lot of money on things we love. And our love is often the bigger, the more expensive things are. Educating children cost a lot of money – and hard work beyond that. Children also cost blood, sweat, tears, and hair. However, expensive things do not promote happiness. They are far more likely to be a source of stress of fear of loss.
- The needs of a child are very demanding. This overshadows other potential sources of joy in the parent’s life. That leaves the moments of happiness with the child. That’s why many parents see their children as their main source of happiness. But it’s more based on the lack of other possibilities to enjoy and feel happy.
- Our revelations are mainly due to significant events and the moments we experienced last. Even if we are annoyed all day and constantly have to say things like “do not do that … do not yank your sister … not now … no, I’m not buying this … I’ve told you that before … “- all the big troubles fade in moments like this: “Dad, I love you” or “Mom, you are the best in the world”.
This is all based on comparisons with people without children and it might be questionable if we should actually compare. Becoming parents is usually a choice that gives us a purpose. Finding happiness in that purpose is what parenthood is about. But if we compare parents with non-parents, the happiness factor goes towards non-parents.
Taking a Breath
An often forgotten factor to happiness is physical fitness. We are not talking about weight or strength here. We are talking about one of the most important exercises you can do towards fitness: Breathing.
Breathing is not just pushing air in and out. It activates our body’s internal communication and provides the core element our body needs to function.
Tests have shown that people who learn to breathe consciously, filling all parts of our lungs, are generally happier and more engaged with their bodies.
Every minute, about 5 to 6 liters of air pass into our lungs. The air first passes through the nose and mouth, and then the larynx and windpipe (trachea). The windpipe divides into two major bronchi, one leading to each lung.
Like the branches of a tree, the bronchi subdivide into ever smaller parts. The bronchial passages in the lungs lead into clusters of tiny air sacs (alveoli). It is here where the gases are exchanged.
The mucous membranes of the airways warm and moisturize the inhaled air. Covered with fine hairs, they also filter dust and bacteria from the air. This filtering process continues through the throat, larynx, windpipe, and bronchi all the way to the lungs.
From there it enters into our bloodstream and provides every part of our body with the nutrients it needs to be ready for happiness.
Never do we experience life more intensely than when we are nearing death. On our death beds, many of us will share the same regrets:
- “I wish I had had the courage to live my own life.”
- “I wish I had worked less and spent more time with my family.”
- “I wish I had been brave enough to express my feelings.”
- “I wish I had stayed in touch more with my friends.”
- “I wish I had given myself permission to be happy more often and to enjoy life.”
What regrets might you have in the end?
A major contributing factor to overall happiness is gratitude. Studies show that when people are given the opportunity to express their feelings of gratitude to someone else, they actually become happier themselves.
Other positive emotions like pride and joy are not short-lived either. They affect our well-being over the long term.
Pressing the Pleasure Button
Our happiness system has an adverse effect: it contributes to our susceptibility to addiction.
Humans have learned to short-circuit the neural reward system with cigarettes, alcohol, crack, heroin, and other drugs. These drugs activate the dopamine receptors in the brain’s pleasure center – and signal a reward.
Their stimulating effect is about 10 times more intense than the effect of food. No wonder people can become obsessed with them, even if their actual survival is at stake.
Modern society offers a multitude of pleasurable activities that help us press our pleasure button too., with no survival benefit: television, video games, junk food, soft drinks, candy, etc.
Compared with drugs, they may produce lower pleasure levels, yet their effect on our brain’s reward system is the same.
Happiness from the Bowl
The bowl also has a very large and extremely complex nervous system.
This produces – as in the brain – neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and endogenous opioids, which are responsible for our thinking, feeling, and remembering. Therefore, the enteric nervous system is sometimes referred to as a “second brain”.
Recent studies indicate that our intestines are in direct contact with our emotion center in the brain. Not only our diet but also our immune system and even our intestinal flora seem to be able to influence our emotions.
For example, certain bacteria can produce precursors of the happiness hormone serotonin that reach the brain via the blood. 97% of our serotonin is produced in the intestine.
This indicates the importance of the stuff you put into your body.
Tune your Body
Cars, escalators, elevators – modern life has become convenient. Many of us spend the day sitting, which is unfortunate for our body because prolonged sitting is detrimental to our health.
You do not have to be a competitive athlete to stay fit. Those who train regularly and, most importantly, correctly and in moderation, promote their health, body awareness, and self-confidence.
Regular exercise has multiple benefits. It gets the circulation going, strengthens muscles and bones, reduces fat deposits, stimulates the brain, and reinforces the immune system to protect the entire body against cardiovascular diseases on a long-term basis.
But not only that: exercise also boosts our happiness hormones! Whether we take a walk, go biking, or are sweating in the gym – stress, and anger usually vanish, our mood rises and we are more balanced.
Laughter is the Best Medicine
Most laughter is not about humor, it’s about bonding and relationships between people. It can lighten up the atmosphere, bring a group of people together, help people to feel good about themselves, and make a challenging day so much easier to face.
When we laugh or smile, it triggers a part of our brain that actually makes us happy. Also, laughter triggers healthy physical changes in our bodies. It strengthens our immune system, boosts our energy, diminishes pain, and protects us from the damaging effects of stress – even if we simulate it.
A relatively new type of yoga makes use of this effect, Laughter Yoga. Laughter Yoga’s recipe is easy, mechanical, and foolproof: “Fake it until you make it”. Check it out online here.
How do you find Happiness?
As controversial as it sounds, the only way to find happiness is to stop searching for it!
The best way to experience happiness is by living every moment with purpose and to respect our mind and body (you). The happy moments pop-up at the most incredible times over and over again. These are the moments that give us the strength, motivation, and satisfaction to live a great (happy) life.
We are not another thing in our bodies. We are our bodies and our minds with our experiences. We only have this moment and our thoughts about the past and the future. There is always only now.
Thoughts have no emotion and don’t feel shame. They just are. They appear for no apparent reason and are almost impossible to control.
Most of us just react to these thoughts without any control. It is like having a dream but not being aware of it. It just happens.
Many happy moments in our life pass without us even noticing. We might be too engaged in negative thought, scream at the car in front for cutting us off, but never see the lovely smile of the person walking by. Those are the lost moments.
Happy moments are all around us, all the time. We need to start living in the NOW and experiencing all those moments. All we need to do is open our eyes to what is happening around us. We need to stop searching, as it implies an expectation. We just need to experience it.
I hope this article gave you some food for thoughts and with this last sentence, I want to send you a smile for your happy moment 🙂