What IS Happiness, anyway?

What is happiness?

If you ask ten different people that question, you might get ten different answers.  You might ask, if we can’t even agree on what happiness is, how can we make suggestions about increasing it?  Is it even possible to measure something that is entirely subjective?

Let’s answer that last question first.  It is, indeed, possible to measure something that is entirely subjective. Recall your last visit to the optometrist: “Which is more clear…A? (click)…or B?”  The optometrist asked about your own visual experience, then compared it to a change you experienced. In the same way, our own subjective comparisons can be used to judge your levels of happiness. But in order to know your level of happiness, that question must be asked AND answered…even if you only of yourself.

The term ‘happiness’ can refer to moment-to-moment (daily) happiness, or it can refer to long-term happiness (how you describe yourself or your life). The distinction is important because it’s possible to have a ‘bad’, or ‘unhappy’, day, but still be able to describe your life or yourself as overall ‘happy’. And the reverse is also true!  But since it’s many daily experiences that add up to how we view our life, both views of happiness are important. But what IS it?

Feelings of Joy and Contentment are part of happiness

Feelings of Joy and Contentment are part of happiness


Positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her 2007 book, The How of Happiness, describes happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” In other words, we need to experience pleasure to be happy, but we also need a sense of meaning in our lives.




Social Connections are part of happiness

Social Connections are part of happiness


In addition, Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness, emphasizes the additional importance of ‘engagement’ to happiness, which means the connections we have to family and friends.




Putting that all together, ‘happiness’ is a sense of pleasure, joy and contentment during our daily experiences, combined with a sense that our life has meaning.  And to be happy we must share our life and our experiences with a network of friends or family. Now let’s look at those pieces separately.

Pleasure is the “feel good” part of happiness, and it usually refers to the daily, moment-to-moment experiences. Recent research indicates that it is healthier psychologically to have an ‘even-keel’ daily experience, rather than to experience great heights of happy mood, which then must always dissipate. When you think about it, people rarely refer to that day’s mood when asked about how happy their life is! But daily experiences do add up to a lifetime, so they are an important part of the equation. That’s why the small, daily habits that ‘feel good’ are more important to overall well-being that ‘big events’ like a promotion that give us a single boost that soon fades. Once they become habits, these activities actually change our brain chemistry) and help keep us on that ‘even keel’.

Train your brain for happiness

Practicing Gratitude and Kindness, and social connections, are all part of long-term happiness

The goal then, of increasing happiness, is to work on long-term happiness…the overall way you view or describe yourself and your life.  As discussed earlier, our genetics play a big part in where we start, but we have significant control of where we go from there. Think of this like another physical attribute many of us end up needing to work on: our weight. We all have genetic set points for weight, but very few of us win the genetic weight lottery with a set point that is perfect.  Some of us tend toward heavy and some of us tend towards skinny, but nearly all of us need to learn habits (diet and exercise) that push us in the direction we need to go from there.  Habits of good diet and exercise can take us to a healthy weight, but if we return to old habits, our weight will return to its genetic set point. Our levels of happiness respond in a similar way. We each need to develop, and maintain, habits that push us towards a more psychologically happy endpoint, and some of us have more work to do in that regard.

The sense of connection and meaning in our lives is also an important part of how we experience happiness in our lives, and that will be the subject of the next post.

Happiness Chemistry…can you change yours?

First, I’ll clarify that this post will only discuss chemicals that influence happiness that our body produces, not chemicals we add to our body.  That is a discussion for another time!

Information about the chemicals our body makes that relate to happiness can fill a whole book. Basically, ‘happiness’ is a chemical state in the brain, but it is not due to a single chemical. Happiness is the result of a complex interaction of at least 7 brain chemicals (neurotransmitters). Behavior, diet and sleep, and many other things, can change the levels of these chemicals.

How do neurotransmitters work? They are chemical messengers.  The neurotransmitter molecule is produced by a nerve cell, and waits at the end of the cell in little packets.  The packets are released into a gap (the synapse) that exists between one nerve cell and the next when a signal arrives. The neurotransmitter molecules float across the gap and are picked up by receptors in the next cell.  When the molecules ‘connect’ with the receptor it causes a new signal in that cell.

happiness neurotransmitter synapse

how happiness chemicals (neurotransmitters) send a signal


Your brain produces dopamine when you do something that results in a reward.  It’s a good feeling, right? Our ancestors got this dopamine boost when they were hunting for berries and found a good patch, or pulled in a big fish for dinner. We feel it when we snag a good deal shopping online, or score a few bucks with a ‘scratch and win’ lottery ticket. Other activities can increase dopamine too. Even anticipation of a reward can cause dopamine release. Dopamine can be boosted by playing sports, starting a new hobby, or even driving home from work a new way.

GABA is a brain chemical that slows down activity in the brain. This causes a feeling of calm. Anything that triggers the ‘Relaxation Response‘…getting a massage, meditation, listening to soothing music…causes your brain to release GABA. Some relaxing activities are more effective than others. A study in the “Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine” found that participants who did yoga for 60 minutes had 27% higher levels of GABA than those who read a book for 60 minutes.

Serotonin is one of the most common chemicals produced in our brains.  Its effects are also among the most complex. It has been called ‘The Confidence Molecule’ because it is involved with REDUCING anxiety. In other words, when serotonin increases, there is a feeling of calm accomplishment.  The reverse, a lack of serotonin, can cause feelings of anxiety.  A number of studies have shown massage is a good way to increase serotonin levels. Serotonin levels in pregnant women jumped 30% when their partners gave them twice-weekly massages for four months. A different studied showed serotonin levels in infants 1-3 months of age shot up 34% when their moms massaged them twice a week for 15 minutes for a period of 6 weeks.

smile on hand

Think happy…it increases serotonin!

Amazingly, just thinking about a happy event in your life can increase serotonin. Bright light, like sunlight, can have the same effect. This study also found that remembering sad events decreased serotonin.

The next post will discuss a few more of the neurotransmitters involved in feelings of happiness.

Three Quick, Easy Happiness Hacks

Happiness is a work ethic . . . . It’s something that requires our brains to train just like an athlete has to train.”

                                           Shawn Achor, Author of, “The Happiness Advantage”

In the previous post on ‘Mental Wealth” we saw how we could use the Tetris Effect to change our brains.  So let’s talk about ‘Happiness hacks’ that can rewire your brain for more happiness. Happiness can be learned the same way we learn anything else.  Through repetition. Think of it as a foreign language, or as physical skill, as Achor suggested in the quote above.  How do you learn a language or skill?  Through repetition and practice. So how do we learn happiness? Let’s start with three happiness hacks..  Simple ways.  Easy ways….to increase your happiness.

gratitude is a happiness hack

Showing gratitude is a ‘Happiness Hack’

Gratitude: There are at least 26 benefits to gratitude. Quite a number of studies show that increasing happiness is among them. At the beginning or end of each day….every day… write down three things you are grateful for.  They don’t have to be big, earth-shattering events.  Simple joys will do.  Did you have an especially good cup of coffee? Notice the shape of a flock of birds against the sky? Have a fun interchange with your child? The important thing is that you write them down. You can keep them in a note on your phone, or in a notebook you keep for that purpose. Or there’s an app for that, whether you have an iPhone or Android.  Another important point is to try to have unique entries each day…using the same ones over and over is cheating, because part of the skill is noticing new things you are grateful for.

kind words for someone else is a happiness hack for you

Kind words for someone else is a happiness hack for you

Random Acts of Kindness: The science of kindness is amazing.  Studies show that acts of kindness benefit both the receiver, the doer, and those observing! When you perform an act of altruism, or kindness, the levels of serotonin rise in your brain (and in the brain of the recipient, and in the brains of anyone observing!). Serotonin is neurotransmitter… a chemical in your brain…that causes feelings of calm, and reduces anxiety.  Many antidepressant medications work by increasing levels of serotonin, and this is a way of increasing that level naturally. Additional studies have shown that kindness is also contagious. People who observe acts of kindness are more likely to perform them in the future.  So spread the kindness…that’s something else to feel good about!  “A little kindness from person to person is better than a vast love for all humankind.” – Richard Dehmel, poet and playwright (1863-1920Smile: A 2009 study that measured brain activity while smiling concluded that it activated the part of our brain that processes feelings of happiness.  Just the using the facial muscles to produce the smile is all it takes.  You don’t have to be happy. We all know that happiness can produce a smile.  It’s awesome that it also works the other way around. Another study concluded that one smile produced the same amount of brain stimulation as 2000 chocolate bars!   And like the Acts of Kindness discussed above, it is contagious.  Researchers found that people observing a smile were less able to produce a frown.  Again….spread joy to yourself and others.  By smiling!

There they are…3 of the quickest and easiest happiness hacks…ways to rewire your brain to increase happiness.  The hard part is not doing them.  It’s doing them...over…and over…and over.  Because remember, repetition is the key to rewiring your brain.


Mental Wealth: Are your investments all in your head?


word cloud of happiness terms

Happiness can be learned…it is your ‘Mental Wealth’

That’s not a typo…I DO mean ‘Mental Wealth’, not ‘Mental Health’. ‘Wealth’ evokes images of abundance. It’s a ‘happy’ word no matter how you look at it. ‘Health’, on the other hand, can go either way.  You’ll see why that’s important by the end of this article.

Look around. Do you know people who seem to be upbeat, and ‘bad days’ are only minor speed bumps on their life road? But others have a bad day and it puts them into a ditch? Have you ever wondered what the difference is?  I sure have. It turns out some people have to work harder than others to experience ‘happiness’.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, a professor at the University of California, has studied the ‘Science of Happiness’ since 2001. Results of her multiple studies indicate that 50% of happiness is genetic, 10% is life circumstances, and 40% is within our power to change. This explains why improving life circumstances, like increasing income or changing appearance, does not make people sustainably happier.  That’s only 10% of the picture. And as of right now, we can’t change our genetics. That leaves us 40% to work with to impact our happiness. No problem.

Except there IS a problem.  We are hardwired to focus on the negative.  It is an adaptive, self-protective characteristic. As hunter-gatherers we needed to constantly scan our environment to pick out threats. We are rewarded for focusing on the negative. Noticing that giant predatory kangaroo meant we stayed alive. This easily turns into a negative feedback loop. The good news is that by understanding how the brain fashions connections we can break out of the negativity loop and fashion durable positive thinking patterns. We can harness the power of the Tetris Effect.

Use the Tetris Effect to increase happpiness

The Tetris Effect is named after the game

The Tetris Effect, named after the computer game where players manipulate falling cubes, illuminates what happens when we learn. MRI imaging of subjects who played the game for 1.5 hours a week over a period of three months showed increased thickness in their gray matter, and improved function in visual-spatial skills.  Amazingly, the amount of energy used in their brains while playing the game DECREASED from the beginning to the end of the study.  In other words, as their brains mastered the task, they became more efficient. The more you do something, the less ‘brain power’ it takes to accomplish the task.

The ability of the brain to rewire itself is called, ‘plasticity’, and we can use this ability to break the negative thinking cycle and develop new positive pathways.  New pathways are created by practicing positive thinking. Using that pathway over and over it causes it to become automatic.  You will begin to see the world in a newer, more positive way.  This is called, ‘Acquired Optimism.’

And that’s why the term ‘Mental Wealth’ is important.  The words we choose are one way we wire our brain for positivity, and ultimately, happiness. There are many others, techniques I call, ‘Happiness Hacks’. Stay tuned for what they are and how to implement them.