What even is happiness?

Success, money and fame—do these give you happiness?

What even is happiness?

On a long car journey I decided to listen to The Happy Brain by Neuroscientist Dean Burnett and boy have I been enjoying it.

He asks the very apt question. What is happiness and where can you find it — from a neuroscientist’s point of view that is.

The short answer is — it’s complicated. The definition of happiness is even questionable, let alone discovering how it exists in the human body.

But I have my own thoughts on it which I want to share in today’s article.

When things don’t go bad

I have this feeling that happiness isn’t a state of things going well, but really a state of when things aren’t going bad.

When things go well, you may have an influx of neurotransmitters that express enjoyment (dopamine, serotonin and endorphins). These are temporary experiences and can’t last indefinitely.

But when things don’t go well, you may have an influx of the stress neurotransmitter adrenaline or the hormone cortisol.

So my question is, can you be happy when you’re stressed, anxious or unsettled?

Feeling calm

When we have few disruptions in our life, we reduce the stress hormones in our body and allow our mind to relax and not have to continually look out for threats.

This can happen when we have a safe place to be, such as our own home. It’s where we feel comfortable and have the privacy from the outside world. It’s where we have the people around us who we love and trust. It’s where we have a job that gives us the security for the future. It’s where we have our health and feel like the rug won’t be pulled out from underneath us.

When I’m in this calm safe space, with the people I love, and can look forward to the future, that’s when I feel most happy.

Happiness isn’t about money, success or fame

It’s almost like there’s a conspiracy in life. When we grow up we seem to have a normal desire to be rich (have a good job), successful (get good grades) and in some cases fame (progress through the social ranks).

It’s like we’re being told that this is what brings happiness — by being successful.

It’s a lie. On some level, it can help remove some stresses (health, shelter, etc). But we see people fall for the trap of chasing happiness by some arbitrary measure of success. They’re stuck on the hedonic treadmill.

The hedonic treadmill

This is a trap where you are continually chasing one pleasure after another. You never feel satiated with your current achievements and continually seek to achieve the next one.

This happens because the surge of happiness after one success drops back to it’s normal level and you’re left hungry to fill the void with a new one.

Happiness is about…

I’m starting to believe that happiness is about the following:

  • Feeling safe — a safe home, healthy and with no external worries to be a threat
  • Being surrounded by healthy relationships — love, family and friends
  • Having control over your life — a sense of purpose, autonomy and creativity

To put it simply, it’s that everything is just… ‘ok’ and nothing is pulling you down.

On a personal level, I believe you might have other things that would give you a sense of fulfillment. For me, these are:

  • To have interests that give you solvable challenges
  • To have purpose that is of service to others

To summarise, the ‘ah-ha’ moment of this issue is that happiness isn’t something that you seek by adding to your life, but rather is the result of removing the things that threaten your safety, relationships and control.

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