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The Pursuit of (Understanding the Science Behind) Happiness

-Aryaditi Jena, Dhanush Veeramachaneni

Happiness, as the Brazilian poet Vinicius de Moraes put it, is “like a feather flying in the air. It flies a light, but not for very long.”

Happiness is an emotional state characterized by feelings of joy and fulfilment. The term is also used in the context of satisfaction, subjective well-being and Eudaimonia. The concept of happiness is subjective and hence has always been a topic of debate. Daniel Kahneman, the famous psychologist and economist, has defined happiness as "what I experience here and now". Happiness has been defined as an important emotion by some; some have described it as a state of mind; however, some others have vouched that happiness is a lifestyle. In renowned actress Meryl Streep’s opinion, “The formula of happiness and success is just being actually yourself, in the most vivid possible way you can”. So have you ever wondered where all of this happiness comes from? What causes you to be happy, and most importantly, how is your brain involved in the process?

A “DOSE” of Happiness

There are four major chemicals in the brain that influence our happiness (DOSE):

1. Dopamine

2. Oxytocin

3. Serotonin


Dopamine is what we normally think of as the happiness drug. However, that’s a big misconception. Dopamine is actually involved more with anticipation than the actual “happiness” feeling. Oxytocin is the neurochemical that has allowed us to become social creatures. It makes us feel empathy which helps us feel close and bonded to others when it’s released. Serotonin is a mood-regulating neurotransmitter. So, if you’re in a good mood, you’ve got serotonin to thank. If you’re in a terrible mood, you’ve got serotonin to blame. You might know Endorphins to be the “flight or fight” hormone. That is not all it does, endorphins are also responsible for masking discomfort. When it comes to the neuroscience of happiness, endorphins help you “power through” the unpleasant times.

Can you locate “happiness” in the brain?

Evolution has shaped happiness closely linked to reward and pleasure. Reward and pleasure are multifaceted psychological concepts. Major processes within reward (first column) consist of motivation or wanting (white), learning (light grey), and—most relevant to happiness—pleasure liking or effect (grey).

Can we quantify happiness?

Like most things on the planet, researchers have been trying to quantify happiness too! Some of the brightest minds, spanning several centuries have been on a quest to develop a scale to numerically assess how happy an individual is. Happiness has long been considered as the positive extreme on a hypothetical scale of mental health. In 1780, the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed that as happiness was the primary goal of humans it should be measured as a way of determining how well the government was performing. Some of the well known “scales to measure happiness” are The Subjective Happiness Scale (SHS); The Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS); The Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS); The Cantril ladder method.

Since 2012, a World Happiness Report has been published. Using these measures, the report identifies the countries with the highest levels of happiness. In subjective well-being measures, the primary distinction is between cognitive life evaluations and emotional reports.

But why is it so important for us to quantify an emotion? Does this mere emotion affect us in more than one way? Let’s find out.

Physiological Impacts of Happiness:

Recent research suggests that your state of mind has serious physiological repercussions. Happiness promotes a healthy lifestyle. It may also help combat stress, improve cardiovascular health, boost your immune system and reduce pain. It is also incredibly important for the brain to maintain its cognitive functionality as scientific evidence suggests that depression and stress can actually shrink the hippocampus of the brain which is responsible for memory and learning.

The balance of emotions

Everyone experiences both positive and negative emotions, feelings, and moods. Happiness is generally linked to experiencing more positive feelings than negative ones. Our emotions are tangled and at times contradictory. Research has shown that positive and negative emotions and their effects can coexist in the brain relatively independently of each other.

It’s very important to remember that the millions of years of evolution have not designed us to be consistently happy. Instead, we are designed to adapt and survive adversities. These are difficult tasks, as we are meant to struggle and strive, seek gratification and safety. The model of competing emotions offered by coexisting happiness and unhappiness fits our reality much better than the unachievable bliss that the “happiness industry” of the modern world with social media is trying to sell us. In fact, pretending that any degree of unhappiness is abnormal or pathological will only foster feelings of inadequacy and frustration. So, let us never forget the old concept of yin-yang this World Happiness Day. Here’s to making it through the unhappy days in the hope of happier ones!