The Definition of Happiness

Today is International Day of Happiness!
Happy “Happy Day”!

T

his got me thinking a lot about the concept of happiness; how you find it, how you know when you have it, what it means that it fluctuates, is it dependent on the happiness of those around you, is it an individual phenomenon, what enhances it, why is it seemingly easier for some to achieve than others? I honestly don’t know the answers to any of those questions so I started looking to see what other people had to say.  

First I looked up the definition of happiness in the Merriam-Webster dictionary and this is what I found:

  1. A state of well-being and contentment.
  2. A pleasurable or satisfying experience.

I think those are pretty average definitions and probably don’t provide anything that we don’t already know.  But it’s a start!  Next I looked at what science has to say.  The biology of happiness reduces our human experiences down to measureable, tangible, physical objects (neurochemicals) and they certainly have their place in a larger definition.  This is the consensus.  There are roughly 7 major players in the neurochemical milieu of happiness, they are:

  1. Endocannabanoids (the “bliss” molecules), which are found in cannabis (marijuana) and made by our bodies and are responsible for the “runners high”  
  2. Dopmaine (the “reward” molecule), which is released whenever we do something pleasurable
  3. Oxytocin (the “bonding” molecule), which is released when we are in the presence of someone we love
  4. Endorphins (the “pain killing” molecules), which are released through physical exertion and have an analgesic effect, both for physical pain and emotional pain
  5. GABA (the “anti-anxiety” molecule), which acts as an inhibitor to neurons firing unltimately slowing us down, this is released during meditation, yoga, etc.
  6. Sertonin (the “confidence” molecule), which is a major player in our brain chemistry but on a basic level relates to our sense of purpose and in high levels is correlated with lower sensitivity to rejection
  7. Adrenaline (the “energy” molecule), which is the “fight or flight” mediator.  When it floods your blood stream you feel a surge of energy and exhilaration.  

All drugs, both prescription and recreational, have some impact on a particular neurochemical.  Anti-depressant medications trigger the serotonin system, morphine and heroin trigger the endorphin system, cocaine and methamphetamines trigger the dopamine system, benzodiazepines trigger the GABA system, etc.  There are genetic predispositions to certain neurochemicals being too low or too high and that definitely plays a role in the natural ability one has to feel happy.  Having said all that, human beings are way more complicated than their biology so based purely on science, there is still a gap in what happiness actually is.

So lastly I asked some people in my life what happiness was to them and this is what they said:

  1. “Someone to love and something to look forward to”
  2. “Being fulfilled in life, being loved and being respected”
  3. “Being content with oneself, something, life..”
  4. “It’s not a permanent state, happiness is an emotion found in the moments… spending time doing something we truly love, being with someone we truly care for, feeling truly grateful… but being human pulls us in and out of that emotion…”
  5. “A feeling of joy or satisfaction”
  6. “A temporary state of positive emotions, and it’s distinct from peace”
  7. “Feeling well in mind and body to chase the opportunities you have ahead and knowing your family and friends have the same happiness”

It seems that everyone’s individual understanding of what happiness is, is totally unique and is correlated to their values and their experiences, their personalities, their relationships, really everything that makes a person who they are!  This definition of happiness seems the most complete to me.  

When we aren’t feeling as happy as we would like to be, it’s important to address the basic components from a biological level by making sure the building blocks (neurochemicals) are there and in the proper amounts.  But the next part and probably more important part is discovering what makes us happy as an individual and then doing more of those things.  I wonder if it could actually be that simple?

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