Neuroscience of Happiness
Collectively, we have become obsessed with our happiness, or lack thereof.
Like a single-serving dark chocolate square of fleeting fulfillment, happiness exists for many as an elusive possibility more than anything tangibly sustainable. Instead of simply choosing it, we search for it like lost keys in the clutter of our lives.
It evades and seduces with irreverent flirtation, retreating just out of reach and into the grasp of others. And when suddenly, happiness reemerges, our short-lived euphoria seems to smother all else. For a brief moment, we delight in our own sweet, intoxicating bliss – and then catch the first glimpses of its inevitable retreat. Like the passing aromatic burst of sweet jasmine on a warm summer day, happiness punctuates our lives with chance, hope and disappointment.
Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to several people hell-bent on finding happiness. (You know who you are.) What if happiness does not exist as a destination? What if it is not a prize to be found? What if, stripped down to its bare essence, happiness, was a choice – as simple as flicking on a light? Instead of trying to fill this perpetual void, what if happiness in its cosmic entirety, was simply a chain reaction to specific hormones released as a biochemical cocktail within our central nervous system?
It takes the romance out of finding it, but may reaffirm that joy serves the functional purpose of helping to keep us physiologically healthy.
Serotonin, endorphins, dopamine, and phenylethamine are hormones that naturally serve to jump-start a physiological response that results in sensations of joy. Neuroscience proves that we can boost and sustain high levels of happiness simply by engaging in activities that promote health and balance.
Here are ten simple ways to amplify the biochemistry in your brain to promote your own happiness:
1. Simply smile. Specific smiling muscles in your face are hard-wired to parts of your brain that trigger a release of happy hormones. Nothing to smile at? Your brain won’t know you are faking it, and other happy people will be attracted to you.
2. Allow yourself to delight in all of your emotional experiences. Sadness and the physical act of crying actually releases targeted hormones designed to make you feel better.
3. Laughter and being silly usually bumps reality into an entirely different plane of existence. Laughing is designed to require deeper breaths of oxygen, naturally giving you a sense of euphoria.
4. Interaction with nature and animals as well as healthy exposure to sunlight prompts your brain to pump happy hormones.
5. Helping others is a great way to fire up parts of the brain that generate positive emotion.
6. Intimacy is one of the healthiest things out there. We intrinsically crave the comfort of connecting with others and our brains go absolutely nuts for it.
7. Exercise may be the single-most comprehensive way to increase balance in developing a healthy disposition.
8. Hang out with other people who lift your spirits. Mood-sensitive mirror receptors in our brains naturally mimic what others are doing, so spending time with people who are positive will have a contagious effect.
9. Stop looking for something wrong. When we convince ourselves that we are unhappy, our brains sabotage our happiness potential by substantiating our suspicions that something is amiss. Let that go.
10. When we practice daily gratitude with intentional resolve, we fire up all sorts of autonomic functions that ultimately support the sentiment.
Of course, we are what we eat; a well-balanced, nutritious diet is the best pharmacy out there. When we choose actions in support of happiness, we naturally enhance the biochemical balance that promotes sustainably healthy lifestyles. Brain science may or may not be sexy, but for people looking for practical solutions to feeling better, this may help put the whole thing into context with what else is going on. When you choose happiness, you may find that it was there along.
Studies show that social media contributes to unhappiness. So, take a break, turn it off and go for a bike ride.