There is no denying it—humans have a complicated relationship with happiness. While Fluffy’s belly may tell her that happiness is table scraps, and Figaro finds happy time on a warm radiator, our pets (and other mammals) do not engage in paw-wringing over their level of happiness, or what is needed next to be happy. Like other non-human animals, they seem to live in the moment, taking life in stride when their basic needs are met. Chill. Relaxed. Basically happy.
Our species, on the other hand, seems to be positively obsessed with happiness. We buy stuff, change jobs, move to other countries or cities, get married—all to be happier. Heck, our founders even wrote it into the U.S. Constitution as an “inalienable right.” But what is happiness? And how has the definition of happiness evolved? Does happiness have a physical effect on our bodies as well as our psyches?
It’s worth mentioning that the definition of happiness has changed over time. In a 1938 survey of people’s responses to “What Is Happiness?” the top three responses were security, knowledge and religion. In a 2015 survey of same population, the top three were security, humor and leisure. And the 2016 World Happiness Report (which measures happiness in terms of GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom and corruption/lack thereof) was revealing. In the United States, where most people have access to at least some goods and services, happiness remains elusive; we ranked 13th in the world. This despite the fact that Americans only five percent of the world population, but are Number 1 in terms of consumption of goods and use a quarter of the world’s resources (coal, oil, natural gas), we fail to make the top 10 of happiness in survey after survey.
What is going on? Studies show that income and possessions are cited as the reason for happiness in only about 10 percent of people in Western societies. The West consumes at a break-neck speed, yet we are still not finding happiness. Individuals often face personal costs associated with heavy levels of consumption such as debt, the time and stress associated with working to support high consumption and the hours spent cleaning, upgrading, storing or otherwise maintaining possessions. Over-consuming also sucks up a lot of time, curtailing quality time that could be spent with family and friends.
This begs the question—can we create a national policy on happiness? That may sound ridiculous, but that is exactly what the tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan did. Wedged between China to the north and India to the south, Bhutan has a population of less than 1 million people with an average daily income of less than a dollar a day. In 2007, Bhutan became the first country in the world to have a happiness-as-a-state policy initiative, with the focus on a philosophy of collective happiness (in sharp contrast to industrialized nations such as United States, where the focus is on individual material wealth).
The Bhutan program was innovative in that it focused on people’s spiritual, material, physical and social needs; emphasized balanced progress that is ecologically sustainable; encouraged the pursuit of well-being in both current and future generations; and emphasized the importance of good health. The result? Between 2010 and 2015, 91.2% of the Bhutanese population reported being happy. And that means something else. The Bhutanese not only had a game change, but also had a brain change.
Recent research and advanced neuroimaging techniques have shown that happiness creates changes in the brain that are protective against anxiety and depression. Seven neuro-correlates of happiness have been identified to date, and achieving some or all of them can actually cause activation of “good” chemicals in the brain.
There is a caveat—up to 50 percent of happiness is predisposed by our genetic makeup, but 40 percent or more is a direct result of our intentional daily activities and the choices we make. That is a lot. That means we can devise strategies to “make” ourselves happy. We can be our own lab rat in the pursuit of happiness. So, what are these magical seven neural correlates of happiness?
#1 Mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of focusing non-judgmental awareness on the present moment instead of thinking about the past (what we have done) or the future (what we’re going to do). Studies show that being mindful has myriad benefits, including that it reduces anxiety and stress, increases self-awareness and enhances emotional intelligence. Another benefit is that it helps us to effectively manage painful thoughts and feelings, increases positive emotions, and decreases depression. People who practice mindfulness show a decrease in the markers for depression in the brain.
# 2 Gratitude. Your mother may have told you to “count your blessings”; if you laughed at that advice, think again. Writing down, on a daily basis, the things you are grateful for in your life makes your brain happy. Gratitude has been shown to significantly increase happiness, and is protective against stress, negativity, anxiety and depression. Studies have shown that simply writing down three things you are grateful for every day has a positive effect on our well-being.
#3 Happiness. This factor may seem self-evident—of course happiness leads to happiness! But there are strategies to feeling happy that are good for your health. People who focus on the “half full” portion of the glass, that is to say, let the small stuff go and focus on enjoying life, have better overall health and live longer. These individuals also show lower levels of anxiety, depression, pessimism and a lack of enjoyment, which are all associated with higher rates of disease and shorter lifespans.
#4 Altruism. Being a “Do-Gooder” is a vital component of happiness. Studies show that how we spend our time and resources is more important than the amount of money we make. Volunteering, donating to charity, helping someone at work or home learn a new skill or complete a task, finding opportunities in your environment to help others (e.g., assisting a blind person to cross the street) is good for our brains. Giving to others releases endorphins, which are chemicals in our brains that are associated with trust, pleasure and social connection. Studies have shown that spending money on others leads to higher levels of happiness than spending it on oneself, and that happiness, in turn, increases the chance of our being altruistic in the future, which creates a positive feedback loop of generosity and happiness that can spread into the greater society.
#5 Forgiveness. This concept is directly linked to self-knowledge; once we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with others, and be our authentic selves, we immediately increase our chances of having positive relationships and feeling socially connected. In this context, we are more able to forgive and let go of grudges, and research shows that letting go of negative feelings can change depressive chemicals in the brain to “happy” chemicals in the brain. Forgiveness also reduces tension, depression, anger and stress; it has a direct correlation to physical health. Reducing these negative emotions has been shown to boost our immune systems and improves our sense of connection to other people, allowing them to improve their connections to us.
#6 Social Connection. The human brain is hard-wired to be connected to other human beings; study after study has shown that people who are isolated from others have worse overall health, higher markers in the brain for depression and anxiety, and get sick more frequently. Having strong social connections can boost mental and physical health, increases our immune response, reduces stress hormones and makes people around us happier. Join a book club, local sports group or attend a networking event; it will pay off!
#7 Meaning, Purpose, Strength & Soul. This variable has far-reaching implications and is related to a sense of purpose and use of our personal strengths in life. Studies show that what is important about a job is not the amount of money one makes, but rather the sense of purpose the job provides. People are happier and perform better in environments where their strengths are emphasized. This, in turn, makes individuals more successful in their work. And research has also shown us that a happy brain is 31 percent more productive than a negative, stressed out one. Concentrating on meaning, purpose, strength and soul increases positive feelings and increases intelligence, creativity, energy, resilience and productivity. Being “up” causes dopamine, a “happy” chemical, to flood our brains, which expands our ability to learn new things.
Most people who strive to feel more “up” by focusing on the above factors will not feel an instant change in their attitude and health, but our outlook and brain chemicals do change depending on how we engage with our world. You don’t have to practice all seven of the tenets of happiness; improvement in any of them will improve your brain’s health.
Remember, every thought releases brain chemicals, and focusing on negative thoughts effectively saps the brain of its positive chemicals, slows it down and can go as far as dimming your brain’s ability to function, even leading to clinical depression. Help your brain work at peak capacity. Thinking positive, happy, hopeful, optimistic, joyful thoughts decreases cortisol—a destructive stress hormone—and produces serotonin, which creates a sense of well-being. Practice the Seven; your employer, your partner, your community—and most of all, your brain—will thank you.