Happiness is a crucial ingredient of human well-being and health (Duckworth, Steen, & Seligman, 2005; Fredrickson, 1998; Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005) and, therefore, people generally value happiness (Diener, 2000; Myers, 2000)1 and want more of it in their lives ; sometimes believing that they will only be happy when… something or other first happens in their lives.
How can we increase happiness levels in the present moment ? Is there a way we can do so by tricking the brain to help us feel more happier?
How does happiness work in the brain?
There is obviously variance in human experience and one’s happiness baseline will defer from another person’s. However, neuroscience is a very definable way to explain how happiness works. The brain chemicals released during moments of positive emotions2 are endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. These chemicals increase with certain behaviours creating neural pathways that lead to more frequent positive emotions.3
Here is a breakdown of the happiness brain chemicals , their functions and descriptions:
Chemical Mood function
Serotonin mood stabiliser, wellbeing, happiness
Description: Serotonin, like dopamine, is a neurotransmitter. It helps regulate sleep, appetite, and mood. It also helps to inhibit pain. Research shows that lower serotonin activity has been linked to depression and an increased risk of suicide.
Dopamine pleasure, motivational role in brain’s reward system
Description: Dopamine is what’s called a neurotransmitter. Meaning that it helps your brain send messages via your nervous system to different parts of the body so they can communicate with one another. As a result, dopamine plays an essential part in your physical movement but is also crucial to your general well-being. For example, it helps you feel pleasure, like for example when you eat something delicious or hear your favourite song. It is also heavily involved in the brain’s reward system and influences motivation.
Oxytocin Bonding, love, trust
Description : Oxytocin, a hormone connected to maternal behaviour, lactation, social bonding, and sexual pleasure, is produced in the hypothalamus — the “command centre” of the brain — and is either released into the blood through the pituitary gland or to other parts of the brain and spinal cord. It ultimately binds to oxytocin receptors, influencing behaviour, and physiology.
Endorphins Pain relief, runner’s high, relaxation
Description : Endorphins are molecules associated with pain relief and a sense of well-being that is produced by the pituitary and hypothalamus glands in your brain. They interact with the brain’s opiate receptors — the same receptors that are at play when you take opioid-based drugs.
Endorphins trigger positive feelings in the body and are released whenever you do something you enjoy like exercise, have sex, eat sweets, laugh, and listen to music. The feelings caused when endorphins are released mimic morphine, according to research. In fact, a “runner’s high” is the product of endorphins.
Studies on behaviour and their relationship with these brain chemicals have been vital in increasing our knowledge of the importance of behaviour in the increased experience of positive emotion. (Light et. al 2005) (Bue-Klein, 2010)3
However , humans were not designed to be happy, or even content. Instead, we are designed primarily to survive and reproduce, like every other creature in the natural world. A state of contentment is discouraged by nature because it would lower our guard against possible threats to our survival4
This explains why humans are less often than not ‘happy’, and how we believe happiness only happens when others ‘events’ happen. It takes a deliberate process to increase these positive emotions and neural pathways in the brain, increasing the chemicals involved – it is an awareness to be happy – it something we need to train and trick our brain to experience!
Happy and unhappy
Our emotions are mixed and impure, messy, tangled and at times contradictory, like everything else in our lives. Research has shown that positive and negative emotions and affects can coexist in the brain relatively independently of each other5. This model shows that the right hemisphere processes negative emotions preferentially, whereas positive emotions are dealt with by the left-sided brain.
It’s worth remembering, then, that we humans not designed to be consistently happy. Instead, we are designed to survive and reproduce. These are difficult tasks, so we are meant to struggle and strive, seek gratification and safety, fight off threats and avoid pain. The model of competing emotions offered by coexisting pleasure and pain fits our reality much better than the unachievable bliss that the happiness industry is trying to sell us. In fact, pretending that any degree of pain is abnormal or pathological will only foster feelings of inadequacy and frustration6
Are we born with happiness genes ; or can we learn happiness?
A meta-analysis done at Stanford University (Levinson, 2005) showed the particular role that genetics plays in depression. While an absence of depression is not an indicator of the presence of happiness 7, many wonder if we are genetically predisposed to higher levels of life satisfaction.
An additional study was conducted in an attempt to locate a gene responsible for happiness.
In this twin study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience (De Neve, 2012) subjects with a higher presence of the number of longer alleles of the 5-HTTLPR gene (a serotonin transporter gene) self-reported higher levels of life satisfaction, aka happiness.
While the study did not define this gene as the happiness gene, it did equate 33% of subjective life satisfaction with genetic variation. Whereas environmental factor variation equated to not more than 3%.
A twin study of over 2,000 twins from the Minnesota Twin Registry found that approximately 50% of life satisfaction is due to genetics. This leaves 40% attributable to intentional activities and 10% attributable to external events. (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005) Being able to move a happiness “set point” with intentional activities makes levels of happiness variable. Since happiness has so much to do with long-term behaviour, happiness is absolutely teachable and an emotion you can bring into your life. This wild-west of psychology is an exciting and relatively new science. Every day, new discoveries on how to monopolize happiness are being made. The #1 most vital element in this learned behaviour is the You can read more about the research here
For humans to flourish and elevate their set point of happiness, they have to engage in behaviours that promote positive9 emotion in various areas of life.
We can summarize here that positive emotions, as mental responses, fall within a range of hedonic content and evoke a specific, positive feeling. Fredrickson10 has outlined ten of the most commonly experienced positive emotions (Henley, 2009)11:
Here are some researched behaviors/ habits you can implement to make yourself happier and to experience positive emotions:
1. Having deep and meaningful connections with partner/friends & family
People with strong social ties were found to be healthier and have a lower risk of death. Additionally, it was found that as age increases, the people with stronger social ties tend to live longer. And it seems that friendships can even help you fight cancer.
2. Breathing more often
• Reduce stress levels in your body.
• Lower your heart rate.
• Lower your blood pressure.
• Improve diabetic symptoms.
• Reduce depression
Meditation reduces stress and anxiety. Meditation improves your quality of life and boost your immune system.
4. Avoid sitting for long periods of time
Recreational sitting” like sitting in front of a TV screen increases your risk of cardiovascular disease and death, regardless of your physical activity. Obviously, sitting at a desk for work isn’t too good either.
5. Joining a community (religious or spiritual)
people with strong faith often release control of their struggles and worries to a higher power, which can help to relieve anxiety and stress.
6. Practice creative abilities & habits
A study from the Harvard School of Public Health12 revealed that art helps to reduce stress and anxiety, increase positive emotions, and reduce the likelihood of depression, along with many other benefits.
7. Spend time outdoors
Researchers have begun to discover that wilderness excursions — known as “adventure therapy” — can promote weight loss, improve the self-esteem of people with mental illness, and even reduce the rearrest rates of sex offenders.
8. Contribute & support – instead of only consuming
Research on longevity that revealed that the people who live the longest not only live healthy lifestyles, but also tend to engage and connect with the people around them. They visit their neighbors. They teach classes in town. They pass down traditions to their children.
9. Work in a job that you are passionate about
Basically, any way in which your job makes you feel stressed is bad for your health — unpredictable commutes, tension and disagreement with your boss or coworkers, feeling undervalued or unappreciated. Even working overtime increases the risk for coronary heart disease, independent of outside factors.
10. Practice mindful eating & do not eat alone
When people eat alone, they are more likely to have a large binge feeding. Additionally, diets suffer when people eat alone. Lonely diners tend to eat fewer vegetables and less healthy meals. It seems that we make less of an effort to eat well when we are by ourselves than when someone else is involved.
11. Believing that you are unworthy of health, happiness, and love
If you allow your fear or vulnerability or shame to prevent you from showcasing your true self, then you will be preventing yourself from connecting fully with others. If you want to be able to move past fear, judgement, and uncertainty and into a healthier and happier life, then you have to give yourself permission first. You have to decide that you’re worthy.
12. Practice Mindfulness during your day
Mindfulness has been shown to help us be healthier, less affected by stress, more relaxed, more creative, more open to learning, sleep better, improve our relationships with others and feel happier and more satisfied with our lives.
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- Mauss IB, Tamir M, Anderson CL, Savino NS. Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? [corrected] Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness [published correction appears in Emotion. 2011 Aug;11(4):767]. Emotion. 2011;11(4):807-815. doi:10.1037/a0022010 Link https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3160511/
- Positive Psychology , Positive Emotions: A List of 26 Examples & Definition in Psychology link: https://positivepsychology.com/positive-emotions-list-examples-definition-psychology/
- Positive Psychology , is happiness genetic? Link: https://positivepsychology.com/is-happiness-genetic/
- Neurosciencenews.com Human happiness https://neurosciencenews.com/human-happiness-14525/
- Affect and the Brain’s Functional Organization: A Resting-State Connectivity Approach Christiane S. Rohr,Hadas Okon-Singer,R. Cameron Craddock,Arno Villringer,Daniel S. Margulies Published: July 23, 2013https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0068015 link: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0068015
- Neurosciencenews.com Human happiness https://neurosciencenews.com/human-happiness-14525/
- Positive Psychology. What is happiness? https://positivepsychology.com/what-is-happiness/
- Positive Psychology , is happiness genetic? Link https://positivepsychology.com/is-happiness-genetic/ Benefits of Positive Emotions Link https://positivepsychology.com/benefits-of-positive-emotions/
- Fredrickson, B. L., & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science, 13, 172-175. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.00431
- Henley, K. (June 17, 2009). What are the top 10 positive emotions? Huffington Post Wellness. Retrieved from link: www.huffingtonpost.com/kari-henley/what-are-the-top-10-posit_b_203797.html
- Stuckey HL, Nobel J. The connection between art, healing, and public health: a review of current literature. Am J Public Health. 2010;100(2):254-263. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2008.156497Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2804629/