Science of Happiness: What Makes Us Truly Happy?
Happiness, by definition, is often the feeling of contentment or pleasure in doing something you like. However, the formal definition of happiness and what it truly is may differ. In one study, the Harvard Department of Psychology tried to determine the role of morality in happiness. The participants were given an example of a hypothetical person named “Tom”, who rarely felt sad or lonely. This is because he felt satisfied by stealing from students and reselling the items he stole to buy alcohol. Most of the subjects agreed that Tom is satisfied, but not exactly happy. The way they attributed this was that one has to be good to be happy, and therefore morality plays a role in happiness. This was surprising because Tom was clearly happy with his decisions but was deemed unhappy by people who have never even known this hypothetical character. So what exactly makes us happy?
In another study conducted by Dr. Kringelbach and Dr. Berridge, they researched and found the exact neuroscience behind happiness and pleasure. They started by comparing the correlation between happiness and hedonia (pleasure) and the correlation between happiness and eudaimonia (a life well lived). Through this, they found that most people associated happiness more strongly with hedonia, which explains why Tom might feel happy about his actions. They then identified the hedonic hotspots in the brain, which include centers that produce “neurochemical modulators” and enhance a liking reaction. This pleasure that is experienced would then be translated into a motivational process that would lead to wanting, as it would increase dopamine (the neurochemical for pleasure) in the brain. By enhancing this connection between what makes you happy and the chemicals in your brain, you involuntarily strengthen actions that create pleasure through constant usage. An important note from this study is that “all pleasures seem to involve the same hedonic brain systems, even when linked to anticipation and memory.” This would lead individuals without certain “higher-order pleasures (such as monetary, artistic, musical, altruistic and transcendent pleasures)” to search for other ways to satisfy that biological need.
So how can we search for or create happiness? Dan Gilbert explains in a TED talk that happiness can be synthesized. He brings up the concept of a psychological immune system- a way for you to feel better about the world you live in. This may come in the form of morality, such as when the students from the initial study thought that the hypothetical person, Tom, could only be happy by being moral. It could also be the way Tom finds happiness through immoral actions. Gilbert explains that “the freedom of choice is an enemy to synthetic happiness.” Having a choice in what makes you happy creates a negative effect while being stuck with a choice makes you grow to like what you choose. Once the decision becomes a choice, the indecisiveness may become detrimental to your happiness. In order to be truly happy, you must simply stick to a choice and be happy about it.
If you have time, check out the TED talk below, as it is truly a great watch.
TED talk: What makes you happy?