Happiness is Dope!

I recently wrote a piece about happiness. And how we tend to lose ourselves in our Pursuit of Happiness. (Read more about it here) Today, I wanted to expand a little more one one particular way in which we knowingly, and yet unconsciously lose our way.

The Science behind Happiness

Biologically, the feelings you experience, like happiness, satisfaction, love, and motivation, are a result of a complex mixture of neurochemicals and endorphins that are released in your body. For example, Dopamine is responsible for reward driven behavior and pleasure seeking. It is a feel good chemical that is released on achievements, which drives us to chase more such achievements. Serotonin on the other hand has been associated with your mood. 80% of serotonin exists in your gut; so the next time you get grumpy when you skip lunch, you know why.

So far so good.

So What’s the Problem?

The human body/mind, as I mentioned earlier, is far from rational. We are impulsive, emotion-driven creatures; and this drives us toward a hedonism, or the pursuit of pleasure, however short term. And we’re wired to release these chemicals whenever we experience an achievement, ethical constructs aside. Dopamine is like a drug that we can’t get enough of, and one we keep on chasing. Interestingly enough, many addictive drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine act directly on the dopamine system. But that’s an extreme end of the spectrum. What I’d like to elaborate on it the middle ground, where a lot of us seem to find ourselves.

You know that feeling you have, when you feel like you’re on a roll; or a streak. Some call it a ‘zone’, others call it ‘Culture of Excellence’, and quite recently I heard Shonda Rhimes call it the hum of life. It’s that feeling you get when you consistently achieve something you’ve consciously or unconsciously assigned importance to. A simple example is that game you seem to be addicted to; every time you hit a new level, or unlock a new achievement, you feel good. Dopamine is released. You have unconsciously set this achievement as important, and hence you chase the next level/achievement.

It may not be a game for you, it may be something much more serious. Like your job, or even your relationships. Not every addiction is as evident as drug addiction, or alcoholism. Most things we’re addicted to, are much more subtle, and still socially acceptable. While you might still get that high you’re chasing, you might just be chasing the wrong high.

“You can fool yourself, you know. You’d think it’s impossible, but it turns out it’s the easiest thing of all.” 
― Jodi Picoult, Vanishing Acts

I can’t tell you what the right high is, that is only for you to decide. To each, his own, as they say. But it’s definitely worth devoting thought to.

What I can tell you, is what a 75 year research study on happiness has shown:

Happiness, has also been linked to self actualization; reaching ones’ true potential. However, self-actualization itself is a paradoxical concept. As you get nearer to self-actualization, the more skills you develop, and hence you continue to raise the ceiling for yourself.

But here’s another take on that.

Maybe it isn’t about the achievement. When Thomas Jefferson wrote down the Declaration of Independence, he put down life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as unalienable rights. Note, he wrote the pursuit of happiness, and not happiness itself. Maybe the pursuit IS happiness. Dopamine deals with motivation, and you can use it for whatever purpose you see fitting.
The pursuit of self-actualization is daunting task, and requires perseverance. To get to the top, you need to make the climb. After all, what’s the view without the journey?

So what’s your journey going to be?