The Psychology of Happiness
And why it’s easier to be happy than you think.
Most people believe that happiness only comes with the perfect or ideal situation for them. “If I only was here ” or “If I only had this” are common sentences that excuse an individual’s lack of happiness. This denotes a larger obliviousness to the fundamental workings of happiness, and how everyone has the power to trigger feelings of appreciation and joy with a finely tuned awareness. While circumstances like severe poverty and the lack of basic human needs suppress the ability to expand awareness and therefore experience consistent happiness, many are currently living with all the comforts imaginable with less happiness than the average person.
I think it’s obvious to many now that happiness will not be felt through the acquisition of luxuries. When we buy a new belt, new shoes, or a new car, there is a short but significant rush of dopamine in our brains, causing feelings of euphoria, joy, and appreciation. When the initial rush of dopamine subsides after a purchase, we are biologically programmed to seek out more of that feeling. In America, this is usually accomplished through buying more and more until our credit cards are maxed out or another limit is reached. This behavior leads to a cycle of discontentment with our current state of being and an unrelenting craving for change. The widespread nature of this behavior can be somewhat attributed to the fetish of ambition in American society. People are taught from a young age through popular culture and advertisements to always work towards a more prosperous position in life, implying they should feel discontent with where they are. Constantly wanting more will eventually put one in a place where they forget to appreciate their current moment.
Many don’t realize that breaking this mindset is quite simple. The main methods to do so are twofold:
- Consciously seek out the things you have that deserve gratitude. You will find that the simplest things (like being able to walk, or the beautiful trees in your neighborhood) may give you a deep sense of appreciation
- Get involved with a community and make an effort to forge deep connections with others.
Practicing these two activities in your day-to-day life will vastly increase awareness and satisfaction. The first one breaks us out of the constant scramble for improvement and allows us to relax. This relaxation triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, decreasing outputs of the toxic brain chemicals cortisol and adrenaline. These brain chemicals decrease our ability to breathe deeply, digest food, empathize with other humans, and also raise blood pressure. The hustle and bustle of modern society is a really good environment for frequently triggering the release of these chemicals, making everyone feel wound-up and tense all the time. Simply living in the current instant and mentally seeking what deserves gratitude breaks this cycle and allows one to relax and feel at peace in almost any situation.
The second method for achieving happiness ties into our biological habits and our brain’s reward system. For millennia humans have needed to group together into small communities for survival, and from this we have evolved a mechanism that fills us with contentment, excitement, and positive emotion when we forge a new connection with another human. We’re simply wired to enjoy the company of other people. When we get sad, we can draw upon these connections for strength and energy. Getting involved with a community of people that share your interests will vastly improve your mental and physical health. In one study, it was shown that people with healthy social networks are much less likely to get sick. When you feel stuck in a rut, expanding your network will leave you with a fresh perspective and more contentment.
While these methods for reaching happiness are psychologically proven and simple, they may not be easy to apply. The key is persistence. While things in your life that deserve gratitude may be buried right now, keep digging and eventually they will surface. Even if you don’t connect with the first, second, or tenth person you reach out to, keep attempting to forge connections with a variety of people and one will stick. The key in acquiring happiness is to keep faith that it exists for you right where you are, and you simply need to become aware of it.
This article was inspired by positive psychology, a new psychological discipline that focuses on studying what makes people flourish as opposed to what makes them dysfunctional. If you want to learn more about the psychology of happiness, looking into positive psychology is a really good place to start! Thanks for reading :)