Cocaine, kittens and contentment: What and when happiness is, and how to get more

Josh Shear
Nov 6 · 18 min read

Everybody wants to be happier, right? Well, what, exactly, does that mean?

Merriam-Webster defines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment,” or “a pleasurable or satisfying experience.”

Meh, that doesn’t get down to specifics.

How about the origin of the word? Maybe that’s more instructive? It’s not much better: “1520s, ‘good fortune,’ from happy + -ness. Meaning ‘pleasant and contented mental state’ is from 1590s.”

The etymology of happy gets a little more down to it:

late 14c., “lucky, favored by fortune, being in advantageous circumstances, prosperous;” of events, “turning out well,” from hap (n.) “chance, fortune” + -y (2). Sense of “very glad” first recorded late 14c. Meaning “greatly pleased and content” is from 1520s.

So, specifically, happiness is the feeling of pleasure you get when you’re lucky.


That doesn’t seem as specific as the clear neural pathway we can see when empathy is engaged.

We do know there are happiness chemicals — substances present in the body and brain when we’re happy.

Writing in Psychology Today, Christopher Bergland identifies seven:

  1. Endocannabinoids: “Endocannabinoids,” he writes, “are self-produced cannabis that work on the CB-1 and CB-2 receptors of the cannabinoid system. Anandamide (from the Sanskrit ‘Ananda’ meaning Bliss) is the most well known endocannabinoid.” Basically, we have a bunch of different receptors in our brains meant to receive different chemicals from cannabis (about 85 of them, actually), and we make some of those ourselves. Endocannabinoids are responsible for “runner’s high,” so I guess that feeling is accurately named.
  2. Dopamine: This is our reward system. Drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine hit our dopamine systems. It’s also what keeps us checking Facebook and Instagram for likes. Just. One. More. Hit.
  3. Oxytocin: This is our romantic bonding hormone. Skin-to-skin contact, cuddling and other forms of intimacy all increase oxytocin (apparently this may affect men and women differently; vasopressin might serve this purpose in men, Bergland writes).

    We can also increase oxytocin by doing things like drinking coffee and eating chocolate.
  4. Endorphin: “The name Endorphin translates into ‘self-produced morphine,’” Bergland writes. “Endorphins resemble opiates in their chemical structure and have analgesic properties. Endorphins are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus during strenuous physical exertion, sexual intercourse and orgasm.” So, while runner’s high is handled by our endocannabinoids, pushing through an intense workout hits the same chemicals as orgasm.
  5. GABA: GABA is your chill-happy molecule, Bergland writes. Yoga and meditation increase GABA, and benzos (like Valium and Xanax) work as anti-anxiety drugs and sedatives thanks to GABA.
  6. Serotonin: “Serotonin plays so many different roles in our bodies that it is really tough to tag it,” writes Bergland, who calls it the “confidence molecule.” Many antidepressants are classed as SSRIs — selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors — these increase levels of serotonin in the brain, but you can increase it without drugs by doing confidence-boosting things like challenging yourself and doing things that give you a sense of purpose.
  7. Adrenaline (epinephrine): This is your overdrive molecule. “A surge of adrenaline makes you feel very alive,” writes Bergland. “It can be an antidote for boredom, malaise and stagnation. Taking risks, and doing scary things that force you out of your comfort zone is key to maximizing your human potential. However, people often act recklessly to get an adrenaline rush.”

    I can tell you from getting a shot from an EpiPen once — that’s artificial adrenaline, basically — that it is indeed a crazy reaction when you get it artificially. I passed out for a few seconds, and then immediately broke out into hives all over my body. I got a shot of a cortico-steroid to bring that down, and I sat on the couch and probably put down 3,000 calories the rest of the day and managed to wake up having lost a couple of pounds. I’d avoid that as a weight-loss plan, though.

Some of these chemicals can even be gamified.

That, then, is a bit of an overview of how pleasure, which I guess is happiness, presents in the brain.

Cocaine, kittens and curing cancer

Cocaine, kittens and curing cancer may seem different, but each of these “generates a roughly similar pattern of neural activity,” writes Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness, so it makes sense that in some form, these all lead to happiness (p. 35).

Gilbert relates three distinct types of happiness: emotional, moral and judgmental (p. 33). But this brings us to the same issue we had when we were looking at definitions and word origins: it’s hard to pin down what each means.

In fact, unlike empathy, there isn’t an objective outward manifestation of happiness. We can see it in the brain with the release of certain chemicals, as we noted above, but what makes you happy might not be what makes me happy, and vice-versa — I may enjoy my runner’s high; you might think I’m crazy for even seeking it out with a three-hour run. Meanwhile, you might love spending hours listening to mumble rap on Soundcloud and I just don’t get it.

If asked to define emotional happiness, Gilbert writes, “we would either point to the objects in the world that tend to bring it about, or we would mention other feelings that it is like. In fact, this is the only thing we can do when we are asked to define a subjective experience” (p. 34).

He goes on to write that some people would say “subjective studies are ‘irreducible,’ which is to say that nothing we point to, nothing we can compare them with, and nothing we can say about their neurological underpinnings can fully substitute for the experiments themselves” (p. 34).

Unlike empathy, then, we can’t systematize happiness.

This makes happiness a lot more work than empathy. There’s no truly objective outward measure (some people cry when they’re happy and appear to smile when they’re constipated), and nothing is guaranteed to make everybody happy (you think you have a thing or two in mind, but, as you’ll find out in future installments, you’re wrong).

Kelvin and I talked about this on the JKWD Podcast, but one thing we are all interested in is control. Gilbert, again:

Human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless and depressed (p. 22).

Suggestion: Control what you can, and you can be happy.

When is happiness?

Before we get to some of the things that make us happy, the when of happiness turns out to be very interesting. You might be smiling now, but what are you happy about? Is it even the thing you think it is? We’ll see.

“If we have a shred of cosmic gratitude,” writes Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now, we should be happier than we used to be. “An American in 2015,” he continues, “compared with his or her counterpart a half-century earlier, will live nine years longer, have had three more years of education, earn an additional $33,000 a year per family member … and have an additional eight hours a week of leisure” (p. 262).

In Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra goes back even farther, noting that “in 1919 relatively few people could become disenchanted with liberal modernity because only a tiny minority had enjoyed the opportunity to become enchanted with it in the first place” (p. 26).

In other words, are you bored? Be happy with what you have — a century ago, we didn’t have the luxury of being bored with what we had because we really didn’t have anything, most especially the leisure time to get bored.

For the first time, he writes, “people understand themselves in public life primarily as individuals with rights, desires and interests” (p. 12).

But our happiness doesn’t even relate to our own pasts, never mind those of people we never knew a century or half-century ago — and especially not to the pasts of hypothetical people who were the average of their times.

In fact, no wonder people in the mid-20th century were anxious — two World Wars in 35 years, a stock market collapse, impending Cold War, a third World War with atom bombs seemed inevitable and there were plenty of totalitarianism and fascism in the world, Rollo May writes in Man’s Search for Himself (p. 19).

Now, we really have to make up things to be worried about, like fighting on Twitter.

“On the deepest level, the question of which age we live in is irrelevant,” May writes. “The basic question is how the individual, in his own awareness of himself and the period he lives in, as able through his decisions to attain inner freedom and to live according to his own inner integrity” (p. 206).

We just lost some people because sixty years ago, May used masculine pronouns to refer to everyone. That’s something we can focus on now, thanks to our advancement.

But more on that later. I want to talk about the future.

The future

“The greatest achievement of the human brain is its ability to imagine objects and episodes that do not exist in the realm of the real,” Daniel Gilbert writes in Stumbling on Happiness, “and it is this ability that allow us to think about the future” (p. 5).

“Forestalling pleasure,” he continues, “is an inventive technique for getting double the juice from half the fruit. Indeed, some events are more pleasurable to imagine than to experience” (p. 18).

Gilbert goes on to relate a study involving a fancy dinner. “Thinking about the future can be so pleasurable that sometimes we’d rather think about it than get there,” he writes.

When participants in the study were told they won dinner at a fancy French restaurant and asked when they would like to go, most opted to wait a week. “These people not only got to spend several hours slurping oysters and sipping Chateau Cheval Blanc ’47, but they also got to look forward to all that slurping and sipping for a full seven days beforehand” (p.18).

But be careful with that. Jonathan Haidt notes in The Happiness Hypothesis that “we are bad at ‘affective forecasting,’ that is, predicting how we’ll feel in the future.”

Win the lottery? Lose control of your limbs? What do you think? “Within a year,” Haidt writes, “lottery winners and paraplegics have both (on average) returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness” (p. 85).

Crazy, right?

We’re also much better at recalling our feelings, not what got us to those feelings. If we didn’t like the wine or we did like the pie, Gilbert writes, we remember that, not the actual taste or texture of either (Gilbert, pp. 44–45).


Anticipation often gives us deeper feelings than achievement. “Set for yourself any goal you want,” writes Haidt. “Most of the pleasure will be had along the way, with every step that takes you closer. The final moment of success is often no more thrilling than the relief of taking off a heavy backpack and the end of a long hike” (p. 84).

It’s the same with small goals, too. Make a to-do list for your day; include the small things like brushing your teeth and driving to work. See how good it feels to knock items off your list? But what happens when you complete your list? You mark off the last item, toss the list in the recycle bin and wonder what’s next and how you’re going to get a little dopamine hit from completing something else.

And it really is about anticipation. Anticipating unknown pains is scarier than known ones, even if the known ones are more intense, Gilbert writes. Sure, “fear, worry and anxiety have useful roles to play in our lives … we motivate ourselves by imagining the unpleasant tomorrows that await us should we decide to go light on the sunscreen and heavy on the eclairs. In short,” he continues, “we sometimes imagine dark futures just to scare our own pants off” (pp. 20–21).

We really do want control. Gilbert points out that we will pay a fortune to people who say they can predict the future (psychics, investment bankers, weather forecasters, etc.) so that we can feel like we have some control over what’s coming (p. 22).


Let’s talk briefly about exceptions. Gilbert writes about people with prefrontal lobe damage.

“Damage to the prefrontal lobe can make people calm,” he writes, “but it wipes out their ability to plan — in the lab, this means not being able to solve mazes or puzzles, in the real world they can’t discuss what they’re going to do do that afternoon. Both planning and anxiety are intimately connected to thinking about the future” (p. 14).

Of course, so is anticipating something like that fancy dinner.

A person with frontal lobe damage has no concept of the future, of “subjective time” and is living in what Gilbert calls a “permanent present.” “Such an existence is so difficult for most of us to imagine … that we are tempted to dismiss it as a fluke — an unfortunate, rare and freakish aberration brought on by traumatic head injury” (p. 16).

Gilbert goes on to say that, in fact, it’s not an aberration. In the animal kingdom, it’s the norm. Humans are the only animal that considers the future.

Our happiness isn’t now. It’s how we feel about later. And we’re not going to be happy when later becomes the present. The anticipation is the key.

What actually makes us happy

“Animals are born exploiters,” writes Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now. “They live off the hard-won energy stored in the body of plants and other animals by eating them” (p. 19).

Pankaj Mishra, in Age of Anger, points out it’s not just animals who are exploiters; people do it, too. And it’s not just the strong people — weak people try to mimic the strong.

It isn’t just that the strong exploit the weak; the powerless themselves are prone to enviously imitate the powerful. But people who try to make more of themselves than others end up trying to dominate others, forcing them into positions of inferiority or deference. The lucky few on top remain insecure, exposed to the envy and malice of the also-rans. The latter use all means available to them to realize their unfulfilled cravings while making sure to veil them with a show of civility, even benevolence (p. 89).

But this is all a show. This “show of civility, even benevolence,” doesn’t make us happy.

We know that much of what makes us happy is anticipation of how we’ll feel about something. But what does make us happy?

In her book of the same name, Sonja Lyubomirsky debunks some myths of happiness.

Nearly all of us buy into … the myths of happiness — beliefs that certain adult achievements (marriage, kids, jobs, wealth) will make us forever happy and that certain adult failures or adversities (health problems, not having a life partner, having little money) will make us forever unhappy. This reductive understanding is culturally reinforced and continues to endure despite overwhelming evidence that our well-being does not operate according to such black-and-white principles (p. 1).

The things people tell us should make us happy? They don’t, necessarily. So again, what does make us happy?

Where have you been, where are you going?

“The pleasure of getting what you want is often fleeting,” Jonathan Haidt writes in The Happiness Hypothesis (pp. 82–3). The idea really is to make what you want a moving target.

Let’s start first with where you’ve been. Lyubomirsky notes that “people who have experienced some adversity … are ultimately happier (and less distressed, traumatized, stressed, or impaired) than those who have experienced no adversity at all. Having a history of enduring several devastating moments ‘toughens us up’ and makes us better prepared to manage later challenges and traumas” (p. 3).

In other words, if you’ve been through some things, you’re ultimately happier.

Now, I don’t know if that just means the bar for happiness is lower for people who have struggled than it is for people who haven’t, or if it’s the perspective that struggle brings, or something else. For example, if you grew up a constant victim of domestic violence, any day that you didn’t get beat up might be a happy day for you; that’s just a normal day for everyone else.

Let’s say the low-bar argument is correct. What implications does that have for us in the modern Western world?

Pinker points out that the default state of the world throughout history is poverty, but that things are getting better.

Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can to avoid becoming our food. As Adam Smith pointed out, what needs to be explained is wealth (p. 25).

“Here is a shocker,” he writes (emphasis his): “The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being. Here is a second shocker: Almost no one knows about it” (p. 52).

Think you’re smart? Take the Gapminder test. The world’s probably in better shape than you think. We were surprised over at JKWD.

“We are happier, in general,” Pinker writes, “when we are healthy, comfortable, safe, provisioned, socially connected, sexual and loved” (p. 267).

So why do choose to spend our time battling it out on Facebook and Twitter? We’re addicted to the dopamine hit of likes and people agreeing with us.

Long before the advent of Twitter, Facebook, the Internet or even the personal computer, Rollo May wrote about happiness and our values. More accurately, he wrote not about happiness, but one of its obverses: anxiety.

A shift in the values and goals of our society, he writes, is a central reason for anxiety (p. 28). Really, though, if you want to be happy, he writes, you have to live up to your own values.

Be true to yourself. Find a job that pays your bills and fits your values. Surround yourself with friends and family members who keep you safe but challenge you instead of allowing complacency. Simple to conceive of, but not easy to do. That’s a much higher bar for happiness than we used to have.


“Set for yourself any goal you want,” Haidt writes (as we’ve noted). “Most of the pleasure will be had along the way, with every step that takes you closer. The final moment of success is often no more thrilling than the relief of taking off a heavy backpack and the end of a long hike” (p. 84).

This, again, goes back to our dopamine hits. “I hit a milestone! Yay! I hit another milestone! Yay! Oh, I reached my goal! Now what?”

James Victore addresses this in Feck Perfuction. He set himself a 15-year plan. When that 15-year period was up, he was far beyond his vision. Five years later, he was floundering, because he didn’t have any plan beyond his initial plan. It may be cliche to say it’s not the destination, it’s the journey, but we should remember that the “destination” is just a stop along the way: we’re not done when we get there.

And remember this about goals: The universe, as a functioning entity, doesn’t care about your goals. We used to think it did, and then science came along — the Galileos and Newtons of the world — and discovered that things work systematically and predictably, and your goals have nothing to do with it.

“People have goals, of course,” writes Pinker, “but projecting goals onto the workings of nature is an illusion. Things can happen without anyone taking into account their effects on human happiness” (p. 24).

This doesn’t mean the spiritual side of the universe isn’t on your side. It doesn’t rule out the law of attraction. It means that you have to work within nature’s physical rules to capitalize on its spiritual rewards.

It is important, however, to set your goals to be your goals, or checkpoints along the path won’t mean anything to you. As May put it, we’re really good at articulating what society says we should want, not what we actually want.

From happiness to contentment and joy

Chade-Meng Tan was an engineer at Google. True to the company’s early style, he had an unusual job title — “Jolly Good Fellow (which nobody can deny)” — and description: “Enlighten minds, open hearts, create world peace.”

He started a little smaller than the world, creating a course at Google called “Search Inside Yourself,” then wrote a book by that name.

In Joy on Demand, he makes the case for meditation as a training mechanism for creating joy and thereby compassion, kindness and creativity, regardless of outside circumstances.

“People have a remarkable ability to adapt to both good and bad fortune,” he writes, “and that we each have a relatively stable level of happiness that we eventually return to even after major positive or negative life events” (pp. 3–4).

Lyubomirsky echoes that sentiment. “Which events are life changing, and in what ways, is often not immediately knowable” (p. 5). Beyond that, she writes, “instead of being frightening or depressing, your crisis points can be opportunities for renewal, growth, or meaningful change” (p. 3).

The same way that you can train yourself physically — start with light weights, get heavier, and eventually you’re strong, Tan writes, you can train mentally (p. 5), and part of that ability to train is the ability to train yourself to access joy (p. 3).

He proposes meditation as the training mechanism. Obviously, this is not a new mechanism, and it is not new as a path to happiness, joy, compassion, creativity and more.

“One of the biggest surprise discoveries of my life is that self-confidence can be trained by putting my butt onto a meditation cushion,” he writes (p. 33).

But joy and its side effects also link to something like kindness and compassion, things that are going to be even more important as we move forward into an ever-more crowded world.

Compassion and kindness arise from inner peace and joy. Compassion is both the fruition and the multiplier of joy — another one of those cycles of goodness. In other words: joy makes you a kinder, more compassionate person, and kindness and compassion bring you more joy” (pp. 20–21).

Interesting notes on happiness

A few other items of interest popped up in the happiness research that didn’t make it in here but are definitely worth noting.

“Although it may appear that some” crisis points in our life “will definitively and permanently change our lives for better or for worse, it is really our responses to them that govern their repercussions” (Lyubomirsky, p. 2). If you’re not sure what that looks like, listen to our JKWD episode on response versus reaction.

A reaction often looks like anger; a response often looks like problem solving.

I was side-swiped while driving by a teenager a couple of years ago. I was driving in the left lane of a one-way street, and she took a left from the right lane. She didn’t know she was on a one-way street, and was looking in front of her to see if she was OK to turn, not behind her. We pulled over. I had some scraped paint; she had a small dent on her bumper, which was metal, being an older SUV. Nobody was hurt.

She was visibly shaken, on the verge of tears. I could have reacted by yelling at her for not knowing the rules of the road, not understanding where she was, not being careful enough with the privilege of driving — and with it, not only would I have ruined her day, but her self-confidence while out driving. Already that had taken a major blow, but I could have shattered the rest of it. Remember when you were first trusted to drive on your own? There was a sense of freedom with that, and I could have made her emotionally dependent on someone else to drive her around.

Instead, I calmly got out, made sure she wasn’t hurt, had her take her insurance paperwork out of the glove compartment, walked with her over to my car, got my insurance stuff out. We took photos of each other’s paperwork and exchanged phone numbers (it wouldn’t matter if she’d given me a fake number; I had her insurance information).

I made sure she felt OK about driving the rest of the way to her destination, and we went our separate ways.

That’s the difference between reacting and responding, and making the right decision in that situation can turn a crisis point in your life into something that propels you toward happiness rather than something that sends you into a spiral.


In a paper called Happiness is a Stochastic Phenomenon (PDF), David Lykken and Auke Tellegen discover that where we come from — our parents, not our place of origin — is the biggest factor in our happiness. Half our happiness, they write, is associated with genetics. No other factors studied — socioeconomic status, education, income, religiosity, marital status, etc. — accounts for more than three percent of overall happiness.

Don’t let that give you any excuses for wallowing, however. Remember, as Tan shows, you can absolutely train yourself to overcome whatever you need to!


One more. In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert addresses the language of ranking happiness.

The language-squishing hypothesis goes like this: We get the same exact feeling as someone else from an experience, yet describe it differently. For example, you describe your feeling of happiness when you have birthday cake as an “8” while I describe it as a “4” — you’re not necessarily objectively happier in rank order, we just describe the feeling differently (pp. 50–51).

Experience-stretching, on the other hand, is like this: We might mean the same thing when we say “8” and “4,” and I’ve had experiences that make birthday cake seem mundane, while birthday cake is at the top of your experience for happiness (pp. 54–55).


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Helping make a better world by making better people. Cynical optimist. Opinions mine. /G\

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