Happiness Is Created, Not Found
The pursuit of long-lasting happiness is almost entirely mental. Happiness from external stimuli is fleeting due to the peculiarities of human neurochemistry.
In the 2006 film, “The Pursuit of Happyness” (yes, that’s how it’s spelled), Will Smith’s character is a poor, unhappy salesman. Through hard work and a bit of luck, he lands a high paying job as a stockbroker, is then able to afford everything he wants, and therefore becomes happy. It’s the same old premise: external stimuli make you happy. We’ve seen it in countless other stories, and it shapes most of our lives.
However, chasing external stimuli doesn’t work as well we think, due to the principle of hedonic adaptation. True happiness, rather, is found using our powerful frontal lobes to tweak our own neurochemistry.
Curse of the Hedonic Treadmill
In their original 1971 paper entitled “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society,” authors Brickman and Campbell coined the term “Hedonic Treadmill” to explain the tendency for humans to return to a baseline level of happiness. They said that after both positive and negative events, people’s emotions returned to more or less where they started. They showed that we have a baseline level of happiness that we eventually return to — or at least close to.
They demonstrated this in a separate 1978 study, in which they compared lottery winners and paraplegics against a control group. As expected, the lottery winners experienced a sharp increase in happiness after winning and leading up to them collecting the money. Their happiness plateaued, then declined, and then returned to near the same level as before. Likewise, the paraplegics experienced a sharp decline in happiness after their accident but eventually returned to relatively the same level.
Numerous other studies have confirmed the same results with other events, such as marriage, graduating from college, the death of a loved one, etc. So, regardless of what happens to us, we are trapped on the hedonic treadmill, as we chase one source of temporary happiness after another. Thankfully, though, the reverse is true, as unhappiness is only short lived.
Why humans do this is Nature’s way of stopping us from becoming complacent and helping us cope. This is a way of pushing us forward, as well as protecting us from mental collapse in the face of tragedy. However, it prevents us from reaching higher levels of happiness, much like running on a treadmill does not propel us forward.
Getting off the treadmill means tweaking our brain chemistry.
Your Happy Chemicals
Happiness is regulated by 4 neurotransmitters: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins.
Dopamine plays a major role in the body’s healthy functioning, as it is responsible for regulating your heart rate, helping your kidneys function, regulating sleep, helping you maintain focus and learn, sending messages throughout your brain, helping you process pain, and providing pleasurable feelings. The brain is always producing it, but we experience a temporary spike while anticipating something we have associated with pleasure, pushing us towards it.
In fact, dopamine is the cause of the hedonic treadmill. When we see an ad for a new phone, for example, we experience a rush of happiness, as we expect to buy it soon. This rush goes up on the way to the store, while we are standing in line purchase it, and while we unbox it. The dopamine rush continues as we explore all of the new features, download new apps, etc. However, a few days later, our feelings have returned to normal. We are bored with our new phone, and begin to look for other sources to give us a new dopamine rush, forcing us back on the hedonic treadmill.
Oxytocin is known as the love or cuddle hormone. It’s released when humans hug, kiss, have sex, and even during childbirth. When it’s produced, it stimulates bonding, reduces stress and anxiety, regulates the female reproductive system, etc. Those feelings of happiness you get when you’re in love? Well, that’s oxytocin (and a little vasopressin). In fact, it’s not just responsible for pair bonding, it’s responsible for closely connected families and communities. It may even be one of the driving forces behind civilization.
Serotonin helps regulate our mood, creates feeling of well-being, helps regulates our digestion and appetite, stabilizes our circadian rhythm, and improves brain function. It is mainly produced in our gut flora as a response to tryptophan. It’s also produced from exercise, massages, bright lights, and even when we feel important like after accomplishing a difficult task. So when you eat comfort food, your comfort comes from serotonin. When you get that self-esteem boost after you passed a test, thank serotonin.
Endorphins are well-known to athletes, as they help alleviate pain. When runners talk about a “runner’s high,” they are referring to an endorphin rush their bodies have released to compensate for the pain from strenuous physical activity. Laughing and the expectation of laughing also produces endorphins.
So, happiness is one or a combination of these chemicals. The key difference between them is that dopamine requires external stimulation, whereas the other 3 don’t. Oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins can be produced simply through changing how you think and what you think about.
Our Amazing Meat Machine
Nearly 2 million years ago, the free hand of evolution turned its attention to our ancestors’ brains. Around this time, brain capacity went from about 400 milliliters in chimpanzees to 600 ml in Homo erectus. 500,000 years ago our brains were 1000 ml, and today we sport a 1,200 ml, 3 pound, superpowered biological machine.
This increase is largely due to the expansion of the frontal lobe, which is associated with language, memory, emotional suppression, judgement, abstract thinking, creativity, etc. Essentially, this is what makes us human, and it’s also the tool we need to generate long-lasting happiness. Instead of chasing short-term dopamine rushes, the frontal lobe allows us to relive past moments, invent future moments, and reframe the moment we’re in.
Simply through thought, we can create a rush of oxytocin by focusing on and appreciating our connections to our family, friends, and our community. Whether they are around you or not — or dead or alive — is irrelevant, as our frontal lobe allows us to transcend these restrictions. Some people take this idea much further, in that they cultivate a feeling of connection to nature, the universe, God, or whatever else works for them. For example, Buddhist monks regularly meditate on their connections to all life, specifically through loving-kindness meditation, compassion meditation, and gratitude meditation. This study showed that saliva samples taken before and after such meditation resulted in significant increases in oxytocin. And this study found a 47% increase in oxytocin in participants that displayed greater empathy towards strangers. Therefore, our frontal lobes can be an oxytocin factory, if we know how to use it correctly.
Likewise, we can increase our serotonin production by utilizing our frontal lobes. As mentioned above, serotonin can be produced by being respected by others. A recent study found when using an ultimatum game “that the density of serotonin transporters in the dorsal raphe nucleus-a proxy measure for serotonin function-was inversely correlated with responders’ rejection rates.” In other words, the less rejected the participants felt (the more respect they were given), the higher their levels of serotonin. With this in mind, we can use our frontal lobes to remember times we were respected, to recognize and appreciate how we are respected now, and to envision times in the future that we will be respected, all of which will likely produce more serotonin. Furthermore, serotonin is produced through feelings of achievement, which essentially creates feelings of self-respect. Therefore, our amazing frontal lobes can be used to relive past accomplishments, better appreciate ongoing accomplishments, and to imagine future accomplishments, again producing happiness via serotonin.
Lastly, endorphins are produced not just through laughing but through remembering and anticipating laughing. One study found that “Social laughter led to pleasurable feelings and significantly increased release of endorphins and other opioid peptides in the brain areas controlling arousal and emotions. The more opioid receptors the participants had in their brain, the more they laughed during the experiment.” Furthermore, this study found that happy memories can release the same amount of endorphins.
So, what can we learn from all of the above? The frontal lobe, as far as we know, is an unprecedented evolutionary creation because it can manipulate itself. It gives us the ability to create future events, recreate past events, and gain further incite into current events, all of which will change the chemicals it produces. Sitting atop our shoulders is the greatest machine we’ve ever encountered (its 100 billion neurons can hold some 2.5 million gigabytes of data), yet we squander its potential on chasing passing dopamine rushes. And this can be seen pretty much everywhere we look: people spending hours on their phones, binge watching Netflix, buying one piece of crap after another on Amazon, spending far more time than they would ever admit watching porn, etc.
The conclusion: cultivate a pattern of thinking that promotes the production of oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins by taking full advantage of your frontal lobe, as this leads to a better world for you and others around you.
Avoid the temporary dopamine rushes. Get off the hedonic treadmill.
Originally published at http://thehappyneuron.com on December 23, 2020.