“Happiness isn’t possible without understanding, compassion, and love.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
Many of us are redefining happiness as our favorite activities and social gatherings have been canceled or altered. You may be finding yourself wondering if you’ll ever be able to do your favorite things again. My tight spot on this is international travel. I love to explore foreign cultures and immerse myself in foreign languages, but I’m beginning to wonder when that will be available again and under what limitations. Some people based their happiness on the accumulation of wealth and possessions and are wondering if the economy will ever thrive again while others based their happiness on their status and success and are wondering where they will be able to find them. This is a great opportunity to reexamine what it really is that makes us happy. Were those things really offering you a sustainable peaceful sense of happiness?
What makes you happy? This is a more complex question than one may think. There is more to consider than simply the instant feeling of satisfaction. Depending on how we attain that pleasurable feeling, it may be quick to fade leaving us wanting more and more. There are many different neurotransmitters and hormones involved in “feeling good.” One of the main ones associated with today’s definition of happiness is dopamine. Dopamine is a reward based motivator. It is released when we sense a possible rewarding outcome of an action pushing us towards completing it. It is based on short term satisfaction and leaves you wanting more.
This is the type of pleasure seeking we see most often in society today. It is triggered by likes on facebook, wins in a video game, addictive drugs, the initial feeling of falling in love, and reward based successes at work and school. In his book Weapons of Mass Instruction John Taylor Gatto explains that a dopamine based society is “training kids to organize their time around spasms of excitement and amusement, or escape from punishment. It addicts children to prefer thin abstraction and dull fantasies to reality.” (3) This type of reward based motivation keeps us on a constant quest for our next “happiness” hit but always leaves us wanting more. It is a never satiated desire that becomes quite exhausting.
Because novel situations trigger an arousal state that releases dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin (6) we can understand why people are never satisfied with what they have and always need something new and exciting to stay “happy.” This leads to serial dating, constant job changes, hyper-consumerism, infidelity, drug addiction, and more. It is an insatiable beast always needing more and more to make us “happy.” In his TED talk The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor, advocate of positive psychology and founder of GoodThink inc, described the no-longer functional approach to happiness which was to work hard, gain success, prove it with our possessions and status, and then be happy. He says that with this approach to happiness, we never arrive. Once we get to the next marker of success, instead of finding happiness, we find the increased desire to have more. He says that rather than looking to our external circumstances for happiness we should look inward as “ninety percent of our happiness has to do with the way our brain processes the world, not with what is actually in the world.” (1)
The Danes have been found to be the happiest population in the world. Not because they are more successful than any other nation, but because they have developed a way of being in the world that promotes comfort, togetherness, and well-being. (7) This can be summed up in one word that is unique to their culture, hygge. Hygge is a state of well-being brought on by a quiet, peaceful, and cozy environment shared with a few close friends dressed in worn clothing drinking a warm beverage and eating a homemade treat by fire light. This simple scene will not trigger the release of dopamine but a far more calming “happiness” neurotransmitter, oxytocin, which is released in social bonding. Oxytocin induces a calm warm mood that increases tender feelings and attachment and may lead us to lower our guard leading to a feeling of trust. It allows the brain to free itself of old patterns and habits opening us to change and adaptability. (2) It is a more stable and long lasting state than the quick hit of excitement given from arousal.
In the 2020 World Happiness Report, the happiest countries were the ones in which the social environment was described as having someone to count on, having a sense of freedom to make key life decisions, generosity, and trust and where well-being was relatively equal between all citizens. (5) All of these characteristics are linked to the “happiness” brought on by a more stable subtle condition rather than a quick hit of excitement that leaves you craving more.
So where does this leave us with the pursuit of happiness? It means that all we need to do to be happy is to shift our perspective of what happiness is, especially right now. If we depend on our jobs, our possessions, our status, our accomplishments, and our adventures to make us happy, then we may be very fearful of what this next stage of societal change may bring. However, if we can find happiness in the peace and stillness within us, in the bonds of close friendship, in the trust and generosity of humanity, then we can rest assured that happiness will always be with us. David Hawkins says that “a spiritual attitude may help us to look at life not as a place to acquire gain but as an opportunity for learning, which abounds even in the smallest of life’s details.” (4) If our relationship with life becomes one of gratitude seeing every experience as an opportunity to learn and grow in our spiritual world, then happiness is possible everywhere.
- Achor Shaw, (2011) The Happiness Advantage, retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXy__kBVq1M
- Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. United States: Penguin Publishing Group.
- Gatto, J. T. (2010). Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling. United States: New Society Publishers.
- Hawkins, D. R. (2013). The Eye of the I. (n.p.): Hay House.
- Helliwell, John F., Richard Layard, Jeffrey Sachs, and Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, eds. 2020. World Happiness Report 2020. New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
- Ledoux, J. (2015). The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. United States: Simon & Schuster.
- Wiking, M. (2017). The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living. United States: William Morrow.