Trying to understand and come upon happiness is something humans have been trying for as long as we have been on this earth. However, it has been only recently that science has begun looking into the nature of happiness.
The BBC recently devoted a series of programs interviewing scientists from all over the world to begin to study and ask questions about what happiness is in a new series called The Neuroscience of Happiness.
Researchers have been attempting to figure out how the brain creates feelings of desire, joy, and pleasure. And according to their million-dollar study, most of the things we believe will make us happy – don’t.
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The Science of Happiness
To their surprise, money didn’t make people happier. Neither did material possessions. According to research, even people who win a large sum in a lottery become as unhappy as they were after just a few years.
Because everything – from power, fame, sex and money – is fleeting.
Everything loses its appeal after awhile – even the things that had once made us happy – don’t. The new lover, or house, the dress or gadget all lose their glamour after the initial thrill fades away.
The hedonic treadmill is what scientists refer to as it. Something new for scientists but it has been around in the Buddhist traditions for centuries. The idea that everything is annica (impermanent). Every experience is a fleeting moment, and every pleasure inevitably fades and turns to dust.
Although we thrive on new experiences, when the novelty fades we begin looking for the next adrenaline hit, forever keeping us reliant on, dopamine hits, to make us feel alive.
This is because the mind is always desiring, always wanting – that is its nature.
Once the mind gets what it wants, it looks for the next object – be that a person, a place or thing. This cycle continues on and on. It’s what in the East they call Samsara. A continuous cycle of suffering. It doesn’t have to be all depressing, but it is what it is. I didn’t say it, it was Buddha who said in his 4 noble truths that – life is suffering. And people took him as being a pessimist. Ha! He just saw the human condition.
The mind can never be happy with what it has, it is always striving after what it doesn’t or cannot have. The mind exists only with a goal in mind, as its nature is always driven for acquiring. When the mind arises, so too does a goal or desire, almost simultaneously.
All goals achieved are but for a moment – the hope is that they bring us what it is that we are looking for. Though satiation exists for just a brief moment before the next new cycle of wanting and goal-orientated movement begins.
So what is it in the end that we are looking for?
Pleasure is not happiness
Happiness is different from pleasure. Pleasure comes from objects and things found in the world. Happiness however is not dependent on things, it is not conditional, but is independent of objects.
Happiness is a state of being, a feeling that comes only from within – and not from without.
The difference between pleasure and this happiness is that pleasure is an experience whereas happiness is an enrichment that lasts even when the music stops.
Because the body is caught in a world of duality, each pleasure is followed by its polar opposite. Day is followed by night, and death is followed by life. This is a vicious cycle – which the East called samsara.
Enjoyment follows suffering. Thus the Buddha so eloquently stated in his 4 Noble Truths, some centuries ago under a bodhi tree.
People are trying, in every possible way, to achieve happiness.
When you are experiencing pleasure – in it is built the seed of pain. You are afraid you are going to lose it – and inevitably you do. And when it’s gone, and pain arises, you suffer. And try as you might you can not get out of it.
Once more we try and escape pain in the pursuit of pleasure. And when pleasure fades we fall back into pain – and suffer.
We live from one pleasure to the next – rushing from one sensation to another. Dedicating our lives to these small thrills.
So, how to be happy?
What makes us happy?
Well, this might be the million-dollar question. And the answer may not be as simple and straightforward answer as we would like.
According to scientists, happiness is a state that makes us healthier and have a more fulfilled life – but you do not need a scientist to tell you that!
You then would not be surprised to read that happy people live longer. Professor Diener from the University of Illinois states,
“In one study, the difference in life span was nine years between the happiest group and the unhappiest group, so that’s a huge effect. Cigarette smoking can knock a few years off your life, three years, or if you really smoke a lot, six years. So nine years for happiness is a huge effect.”
So we know happiness could be something that we would want in our lives, but how to get there?
We may want to believe the self-development gurus and the Instagram quotes that promote, ‘doing what you love’, and ‘manifest your desire’ – thinking that is the answer.
However, if what we are truly looking for is not a product of an object then what is it?
There are some qualities that, if cultivated, allow for Happiness to find us. As we develop them, they ripen and like a shadow, Happiness follows.
The 4 Keys to Happiness
Scientists say friendship has a bigger effect on happiness than a typical person’s income.
Our health is also affected as happiness changes are neuro-physiology. Since having friends contributes higher levels of well-being it would also influence our overall level of health.
Many people actually never really know what friendliness is, as often it can be cloaked in hypocrisy and false politeness.
Altruism, or performing acts of kindness to others, is one of the main tenants promoted by those same scientists studying happiness.
It’s not so much the act of altruism or friendship that is important, but rather the state of being one inhabits when those qualities are present.
When we look at others, our thoughts are generally quite critical – forever comparing, criticizing, and breaking down other people.
Compassion accepts people as they are, faults and all. Without wishing them to be something else or other than they are, compassion allows them to be as they are.
When we feel compassion for others, we are able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and understand their situation.
When we do something kind for someone else, our brain releases oxytocin, known as the “cuddle hormone” because it makes us feel warm and fuzzy.
The act of compassion is a natural feedback loop that allows happiness to come and find us.
‘When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.’ An often-quoted phrase that does have truth to it.
Our perception of the world changes depending upon the state of mind that we have. If we look at the world through joy – the world does seem to be a joyful place.
Life has no meaning of its own – it all depends on the lens of perception.
Doctors now use laughter as a therapy for their patients in hospitals. Laughter has been studied and is now associated with many health benefits.
Not only has it been shown to help the body heal faster but it also increases the levels of dopamine and oxytocin – even changing the chemical composition in the brain.
In a world where we are constantly wanting, being appreciative of what you have, can give a sense of contentment not found in a new mini skirt.
Being grateful with what you have is powerful medicine.
If we can shift our attention toward gratitude we start to look at what we have, instead of what we don’t.
Complaining never leaves you feeling at peace anyways. So why not?
Gratitude is also emphasised by happiness scientists, who propose keeping a gratitude diary in which you record your blessings every day.
What Does it all Mean?
Happiness is something that we all desire and often chase after, but it seems that the act of chasing it, is what keeps it from us. If we can learn to cultivate some of the qualities that lead to happiness, maybe then happiness will find us instead.
Emotions are always an internal experience, though we may blame others for the way we feel – thinking it has an external cause – emotions are not dependent on an outside source.
So too does Happiness arise seemingly because of an outside event, though after careful investigation we might begin to see that Happiness was an inside job all along.
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Jake is a yoga and meditation teacher. He loves stream-of-consciousness writing, good coffee, and a quiet mind. Not necessarily in that order. You can find him pursuing that wherever he goes.