What really makes us happy?


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Happy. Who doesn’t want and like to be happy? It can turn the doom and gloom into something far more optimistic; it brings enjoyment and pleasure; and it makes almost any task a brighter prospect. It can leave you feeling, to quote self-confessed Happy man, Pharrell Williams, “like a room without a roof”. But the elusive answer to what really makes us happy is something that perplexes us all, leaving us living in pursuit. So, my question to you is: what makes you happy?

I’m sure you can provide many quick answers to that. Perhaps along the lines of a new phone, a good exam result, a lottery win, one of your favourite songs coming on when shuffling a playlist, etc. Yes, these may provide a short-term burst of happiness, but this theme of ‘external circumstances being responsible for our happiness’ is not able to provide the deeper, long-term happiness we are talking about - the ‘true happiness’. A smile or general good feeling doesn’t mean that happiness has encapsulated your day-to-day life and outlook towards it.

So, if it’s not these materialistic, external factors causing such long-lasting emotion, what is really going on? On a smaller scale happiness is very subjective, but when entering the real happiness state of being, you begin to unlock a sense of fulfilment and a purpose in life. From a biochemical standpoint, it is a combination of different ‘happy’ hormones and lower levels of ‘sad’ hormones, specifically neurotransmitters (chemicals in the brain that provide stimuli to neurone receptors, causing a reaction/emotional change).

Primary examples of these neurotransmitters include oxytocin, pregnenolone and dopamine. Oxytocin, the ‘’love’’ hormone helps build healthy relationships and is released during social interactions and moments of physical intimacy such as childbirth and sex. The happy hormone, pregnenolone, is responsible for reducing and balancing the major stress hormone, cortisol, while also providing a boost in memory, focus and concentration. Dopamine and serotonin, hormones that both stimulate the pleasure centres of the brain and help with motivation, give us a sense of importance and reward us when we achieve our goals, desires or needs.


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So, it is the interactions of this cocktail of hormones that help towards providing the happiness state of mind, however it is not as ‘simple’ as that. For the body to release these chemicals, it requires specific stimuli. Researchers have been looking into the actions or methods that will allow you to live a happy life, and a comprehensive study was performed at Harvard, over a 75 year period, looking into the origin of this happiness.

The Harvard Grant Study followed 268 undergraduate men throughout their lives from 1938, and tracked different aspects of their lives, over decades, from relationships to income, while monitoring their happiness. They found the ‘secret’ to happiness is linked to one key factor: relationships, specifically love. This may seem like a romanticised view, but true happiness comes from the deeper connections we develop with people. Humans are social creatures, we generally can’t be happy without other people. The moments we share with those around us, especially friends, family and/or partners, allow for the most memorable, happiest moments in life. From marriage to childbirth, these positive events hold the highest concentration of these ‘relationships’ we hold, making them (potentially) some of the happiest moments of our lives.

Another finding of the study, was that the common notion “money can’t buy you happiness”, was proven to be correct. As long as you reach the threshold needed to pay the bills and have some disposable income for little extras, you can be just as happy, on average, as someone earning millions. Your emotional well-being comes from limited stress, so as long as you are not worrying about your finances, as you can pay for everything you need and a bit of what you want, you have a good basis for happiness. Placing value on materialistic things (commodity fetishism), only gives you a source for short-term, superficial happiness as the ‘pleasure’ gained from buying something for yourself soon dissipates.

But, interestingly, studies have shown that ‘prosocial’ spending, buying a gift for someone else or donating to charity increases happiness and for a longer duration than the short-term buying for yourself. Another study goes further into this, showing that stronger relationship ties (family or close friends) will give a higher intensity level of happiness than weaker social ties (acquaintances). So, money itself may not increase your happiness, but where you spend your money could play a significant role as it can reinforce an emotional connection, or provide altruistic happiness from helping others.

Martin Seligman, a pioneer of Positive Psychology, a field of psychology looking into happiness, says that real happiness is derived from finding meaning in what you do and an engagement with life. This gives a purpose for your life, and allows for the deeper happiness to flourish. Research has shown that finding a ‘flow’ within your life, also allows for an increased happiness. The concept of ‘flow’ is based on finding the equilibrium between boredom and anxiety, the perfect point at which you are being challenged, but not pressured and rushed to do what you’re doing.

It is these secrets of relationships, finding your flow and purpose in life, and even spending your money in the right way, that can truly lead you to the life of happiness. Cultivating love and close relationships with other people is where the true ‘richness’ and happiness lies. What really makes us happy is those around us, and if we limit stress and increase these strong connections, happiness will often bloom.

#SamuelWeston #Biology #Happiness #Psychology

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