Some things in life, we get fundamentally wrong. One of those things is happiness. Once we were happy, now we’re not, and we want to know how to be happy again. The obvious answer is to find happiness, and so we go on a journey to find it. If we find it, we hold on to happiness in eternity. We capture it and put it in a box. Safe, forever – mission completed. But it never lasts.
Happiness will slip right through your fingers like fine sand. It doesn’t matter how hard you squeeze when you open your hand; it’s empty. What do we do when the grains of sand reunite with the desert, and we’re left empty-handed? We get on our knees and dig with everything we’ve got. We fill our hands and take as much as we can, but the inevitable will happen again and again; empty hands. We set out to find happiness, but never find it.
We never find it, not because it isn’t there, but because happiness isn’t something to find or achieve, it’s a side-effect. A fleeting side-effect that vaporizes in thin air once the side-effect fades out. In search of happiness, searching is the worst thing you can do.
What is happiness?
Big brother Google says: “Happiness is that feeling that comes over you when you know life is good, and you can’t help but smile. It’s the opposite of sadness. Happiness is a sense of well-being, joy, or contentment. When people are successful or safe, or lucky, they feel happiness.” But why? Because you’re a chemical factory wired to survive, that’s why.
To understand happiness, we need to get scientific for a moment. Bare with me while we go Stephen Hawking on this shit. The four chemicals that affect happiness are endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. Each of these chemicals responds to a trigger and functions as a response that rewards survival, in their unique way, leading to four kinds of happiness:
1. Endorphine happiness
We experience the release of endorphins as euphoria. The feeling of euphoria only happens occasionally, and that’s a good thing. It’s our natural supply of morphine, used to mask pain, for when a Tyrannosaurus Rex is chasing us while our collar bone is sticking out. While euphoria is a nice feeling, being in a constant state of it, makes us not only morphine junkies, we’re also unable to act when shit hits the fan. In short: endorphin is your reward for getting the fuck out and survive.
2. Dopamine happiness
Dopamine is your equivalent of Dominic Toretto’s (The Fast and the Furious) red NOS (Nitrous Oxide System) button in his Dodge Charger that makes him go super-fast for a short while. When your goal is near, your brain releases dopamine, giving you an extra shot of energy. Again, the body only releases it for special moments, just like Dominic pushes the button at the right time. Keeping the NOS active the entire race would blow up the Dodge Charger’s motor, and you don’t want any of that in your brain. In short: dopamine is a reward to reach your goal when it is in sight.
3. Oxytocin happiness
Here’s where shit gets romantic. Oxytocin is the love hormone, triggered when we trust the people around us. Because being surrounded by people we trust is good for survival (they got your back). On a more private level, it’s also released for bonding between parents and their kids, and some good ol’ heated sex. The supply of oxytocin is also limited because if it were always on, we would trust every single person in the world, which is – as you might know – a bad idea, In short: oxytocin is a reward you get when you bond with the right people.
4. Serotonin happiness
Serotonin helps regulate your mood and social behavior. It’s released when we feel we’re important. When we’re in a position where we are the one calling the shots. It makes you feel like a bad motherfucker when we’re in a fight, and the odds are in our favor to take home the belt. The brain constantly analyzes the situation we’re in. If we have a leg up, serotonin is released, and we go in for the kill. If it’s likely we’ll lose the fight, serotonin drops, our moods shift, and we try to get out of the conflict.
A lack of serotonin results in negative thoughts, anxiety, depression, and other sorts of shitty things. In short: Serotonin is your reward when you’re the baddest motherfucker in the room ready to take the win. Happiness is a mechanism for survival. Being high on happiness chemicals all the time, means we don’t have the right tools in the bag to use when shit hits the fan. It’s delivered in bursts when we need it. Stephen Hawking out.
Why can’t I be happy?
On a fundamental level, we have three basic needs: safety, satisfaction, and connection. If we fulfill these three basic needs we:
- Feel authentically save;
- Have enough;
- Have meaningful relationships with others.
When we tick the three boxes, we feel quite happy most of the time. Most of the time, because the four happiness chemicals are only released some of the time, which is a good thing.
This is an excellent moment to let go of the idea of being happy all of the time. It’s biologically impossible. Sorry. In this modern-day-era, feeling safe, having enough, and having meaningful relationships is easier than ever. The possibility of a Tyrannosaurus Rex chasing you on your bike ride to work is pretty much non-existent, we have so much abundance we have no clue what to do with all our stuff, and technology made connecting to other humans so easy, it’s hard to find some time for yourself.
But, depression is at an all-time high (bring on the serotonin!) and the world is filled with people, safely cuddled up in a blanket, surrounded by enough stuff to entertain a small country, with Facebook profiles hitting the friends limit, that weep, and wonder day in and day out “how can I be happy?”.
While the question of how to find happiness or how to be happy again haunts you, you opt for the things that the world tells you that make you happy. You consume everything that gets in your sight, and while consuming, you wonder if there isn’t something better to consume. While trying to find the answer to how to find happiness with yourself, you become greedy. And in your journey to be happy again, you end up with a lot of pain because you confused happiness with pleasure.
Pleasure is pain
Greed is causing unhappiness because we’re not satisfied with what we have now, creating a feeling of being unsafe. We compare ourselves with other people and decide that what we have now is just not good enough. We want more, and we want it now. When you operate from greed, you pursue things that give you pleasure: money, power, possession — all driven by fear of not having enough. And if you live in fear of not having enough, it doesn’t matter what you gain; it’s just never enough.
Greed gives you short bursts of hedonistic pleasure, but you mistake it for happiness. It fades quickly, and you feel sad. But, the next big thing will be your ticket to everlasting happiness. And so the cycle continues. Day, after day, after day. We constantly crave more. We feel restless, and dig our hands deeper into the sand, like a wild boar hunting truffles. We’re in constant fear of missing out (FOMO). With every opportunity we get to enjoy the now and actually engaging in some real happiness, our minds drift to what better thing we could do now.
We seek pleasure nonstop and replace everything we do and have with the next best thing. In search of happiness, we end up paranoia. We end up as dopamine junkies. With every high pleasure brings, we end up with the pain that inevitably pops up when the high fades away. It’s not pleasure or pain; it’s pleasure and pain. In search of happiness, you got pleasure and ended up with pain. And the same question keeps haunting you: “How can I be happy again?”
How to find happiness
The old question of how to find happiness has a short and straightforward answer: you don’t. Happiness isn’t something to achieve; it’s the result of doing things that matter to you. The universal dream of one day being rich and not having to do anything seems like the ultimate destination of happiness, but it’s not. People aren’t meant to just sit around and be happy.
We are meant to go out there with a clear sense of purpose and doing what matters most to them. People are meant to contribute to something greater than themselves. How to find happiness in yourself? Pursue something with a sense of meaning and purpose. Work on it every single day and forget about happiness altogether. Surround yourself with people on the same mission as you, challenge yourself to get better, do bold things, and make it to the finish line, again and again.
Do this, and without thinking about happiness, you follow a balanced diet of the four happiness chemicals. If you’re able to undergo discomfort, effort, and a great deal of pain, you’ll feel happier in the end and have a lasting sense of fulfillment. IKEA built its entire business model around this principle. It’s called the IKEA effect, and what it basically boils down to is that the harder you struggle to assemble your new Billy bookshelf, the happier you’ll be in the end.
How to be happy
You won’t find happiness. Do the things that matter, and happiness will find you. Forget about the pursuit of happiness, and live by the happiness of pursuit. And while you’re out there with a great sense of meaning, reassure yourself that:
- You are authentically safe;
- You have enough;
- And you have meaningful relationships with others.
And at one point, without ever having thought about being happy, someone asks you: “Are you happy?” And you wait, let it sink in, smile, and gently answer: “Yeah, I believe I am”, (Unless you’re in the middle of assembling your IKEA Billy bookshelf, but that’s another story).
Photo credit: Ben White