The truth about being happy.
The Neuroscience of Happiness
You know those midnight moments when your mind wanders and you can’t sleep and you decide to Google random things?
It was one of those nights, mild rain showering outside my window, that I decided to look up - “how to be happy”. And this wasn’t from a lack of any in my life; it was mostly from curiosity.
But I found something surprising.
We all want to be happy.
Seven point four billion results in 0.72 seconds. Obviously, not only is this highly written about but clearly highly searched as well.
And so I came to that seemingly logical conclusion.
I mean, after all, it’s a valid human sentiment.
It seems like the default answer whenever anyone is asked what they really want out of life.
And while it’s not the first thing I personally aspire to (there’s something else I think is better), it is something I’ve often wondered about. What being happy really means.
But my further research (if I can call it that; wait, does an Instagram survey count?) felt inconclusive.
Happiness is subjective and so means different things to different people.
Wind in my hair. Sun on my cheek. Feet in the waves of an ocean.
And so, if it’s subjective, is it actually a thing? A real thing?
What if the answers lie somewhere else I hadn’t been looking, somewhere we hardly search?
What if there’s a biological basis?
What if there’s a method to the madness?
And so I looked to the most fascinating human organ, in my opinion.
The brain 🧠
A Happy Cocktail of Chemicals 🍹
I came across something I’d call “happiness chemicals” which are released by the brain. And if you’re a medic, you’re probably familiar with some of their names. I, myself, wasn’t entirely shocked. Until I realised the very real and scientific ways these can be influenced.
I. Serotonin: known broadly as the “the happy chemical”, this fella is largely responsible for modulating our mood, in addition to other functions. It definitely comes in handy in the treatment of clinical depression. Oddly enough, it’s mostly and largely located in the gastrointestinal tract. *inserts an unrelated joke about a happy & well-fed tummy*
Swimming (🐳 )
Spending time outside (in non-direct sunlight)
Massage (um yes, please)
II. Oxytocin: aka “the cuddle hormone”. Mostly known for its role in maternal bonding and reproduction, it’s also part of what makes us feel good during a hug!
A hug (consensual, duh)
Sharing your feelings with a loved one
Doing activities with friends
III. Dopamine: With its role in the reward-motivation pathway, it’s no wonder this is implicated in a number of addictive substances. Thankfully, there are less harmful ways to release this neurotransmitter.
Get proper sleep (*cries in night owl*)
Regular exercise (I know, I know)
A protein-rich diet
IV. Endorphins: translates to ‘endogenous morphine’ (meaning produced by the body itself), it’s been found in association with the “runner’s high”.
Laughing (who doesn’t love a good comedy?)
Giving/donating (a win-win)
Surprisingly, spicy food (where are my Yoruba people?). Or in general, tasty food.
And so, is happiness sustainable?
A question I came across on Twitter recently, but one I wasn’t quite sure I’d want to be true.
There’s a fancy word by the Greeks used to describe something considered superior.
Eudaimonia (“human flourishing”).
Which is, in simple terms, happiness in the long-term, in retrospect, as an overall evaluation of a life.
“Satisfaction comes from little things, in particular from finding what it is you do well. It’s the little things that can keep you bouncing along above your genetic set point… a good meal, working in the garden, time with friends. Sprinkle your life with them.” - Dr. Lykken.
But since there’s a biological basis, maybe we’re just subject to our bodies?
Thankfully, this is not always the case.