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The Truth Behind Happiness

By Yuan Cheng

Highlights:

  • Caused by parts of the brain and neurotransmitters/hormones

  • Certain activities stimulate the neurotransmitters and cause happiness

  • Happiness is not permanent

Introduction


Happiness is a universal feeling. It could be from something as simple as watching the sun rise in the morning, or from something major, such as a work promotion. But people rarely think of its scientific causations. In fact, the rise of positive psychology (the studying of positive as well as negative aspects of the human psyche) did not arise until post-WWII. So what is the neurological chemistry for happiness? What ongoing activities in the brain make us feel happy? Let’s find out.


Neurological Process


Neurotransmitters and parts of the brain are responsible for an individual’s happiness.


Parts of the brain that can cause a rise in one’s mood includes the amygdala, the hippocampus, as well as the limbic system. The pursuit of happiness is driven by the cooperation of the more complex parts of the brain and the primitive crave for pleasure.


There are four main neurotransmitters that contribute to the feeling of elation: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. Dopamine is a hormone closely related to rewards: it connects feelings of pleasure with different activities, and affects learning and memory. Endorphins are pain-relief hormones, and are exacerbated by relaxing activities in response to anxiety. Oxytocin’s fluctuation is caused by physical touch, and it can help build trust in relationships (especially parental). However, too much Oxytocin can cause negative feelings towards those who are not in the “bond” or relationship. Serotonin is directly linked to an individual’s mood, and can influence one’s diets, learning, and ability to memorize things. Additionally, cortisol and adrenaline can also cause happiness.


Activities That Cause Happiness


There are certain activities that are almost guaranteed—scientifically, that is—to make you happy.


Exercising frequently can cause endorphins releases, attenuating negative emotions. Not only that, exercise (especially in the sun) can raise dopamine and serotonin levels as well; group exercise further accentuates such benefits, according to research.


Eating certain foods can also change your mood. Chocolate has been shown to improve the mood, and spicy foods are linked to endorphin releases. Dopamine releases can be caused by a variety of food such as yogurt, beans, eggs, almonds, etc. Some foods—kimchi, sauerkraut, and such—have probiotics in them, which can trigger hormone releases.


Listening to instrumental music can also cause more dopamine to be created in the brain. Getting a good night’s sleep (around 7-9 hours), interacting with a pet, getting a message, and meditation can all stimulate one’s neurotransmitters.


Conclusion


Happiness is not a permanent state for the brain to be in, despite all of our efforts to stay positive. It is tiring to be continuously happy, and it’s best to view happiness as a goal rather than the brain’s default mode.


Fun Fact


Research suggests that people tend to remember negative experiences more vividly than positive experiences, most likely because of an evolutionary defense mechanism.


References


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