Most people have been taught that if they work hard to achieve success, then they will be happy. But what if this formula is totally backwards? The truth is, if your happiness depends solely on achieving goals and success, you’re in big trouble, my friend. Why is this commonly prescribed formula for happiness all wrong? Because your goals, your desires, and your personal vision of success will always change. Once you achieve one goal, you’ll just create a new goal, and once you’ve attained one level of success, you’ll just aspire for a higher level of success, and once you acquire the material things you want, you’ll just tire of them and desire new things. Now, don’t get me wrong. Having goals, wanting nice things, and striving for success is an important part of a healthy life. The problem is, if you postpone your happiness until you reach “X” (fill in the blank) and “X” is always changing, then happiness will always be just out of reach, pushed to an unreachable point in the future, and you will never be happy for an extended period of time. The key to everlasting happiness (and your future success) is to be happy NOW–right where you are (while working on daily goals and future aspirations). So the question then becomes, how can you be happy right now–without having to achieve or acquire anything and without getting addicted to things, activities, or people who provide only temporary happiness? The answer has everything to do with the physiology behind our emotions. Scientists know that it’s the release of chemicals in the brain that creates the feeling of happiness.
The four major chemicals that contribute to the feeling of happiness and affect learning, memory, cognition, and emotion are:
- Dopamine: Dopamine is the feel-good neurotransmitter that’s released in the brain when we’re rewarded for something or anticipating a pleasurable event.
- Serotonin: Serotonin is another chemical that acts as a neurotransmitter and communicates messages from one area of the brain to another. 80-90% of neurotransmitter serotonin lives in the gut, so these levels are largely influenced by food we eat, particularly foods containing tryptophan, a building block of protein.
- Oxytocin: Oxytocin, commonly known as the brain’s “love drug,” is a hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter which is released through physical as well as social bonding when we feel cared for, safe, and secure.
- Endorphins: Endorphins are opioid neuropeptides that produce a morphine-like chemical that creates a sense of euphoria and is often released during intense physical activity.
Yep, it’s all about brain chemistry. This explains why, when you achieve a goal, or buy something new, or do something super fun, or cuddle, you feel great—because your brain is flooded with feel-good chemicals. However, that feeling is short-lived. The “high” of achievement wears off because once you reach one goal, you just set another one. The excitement of buying something new–no matter if it’s a pair of shoes, an iPhone, or a car – eventually wears off and you just want something else. The super fun activity always comes to an end, and you find yourself longing for the next exciting event. Your cuddle partner disappears, and you feel lonely, and so on and so forth. So, if the feeling of happiness is fleeting (because it’s caused by a temporary release of chemicals in the brain), how can you feel happy every day, even when you’re not achieving a big goal or buying something new or doing something super fun? How can you be in control of your feelings and get daily doses of happiness as you need them?
Well, science has proven there are a number of activities that flood the brain with one of the four aforementioned feel-good chemicals (or a combination thereof). Some of them are:
- Exercise (anything that gets your heart rate up for sustained periods of time - dancing, hiking, bike-riding-brisk walking, etc)
- Acknowledging things you’re grateful for on a daily basis (or daily gratitude journaling)
- Participate in fun & healthy activities such as sports, yoga, or artistic endeavors
- Meditate (find ideas for various forms of meditation on You Tube or the web)
- Perform conscious or random acts of kindness
- Create daily to-do lists with goals that can easily be checked off (as opposed to only having big long-term goals for the future)
- Practice creative visualization, wherein you imagine yourself living out your ideal scenarios
- Listen to positive, uplifting music
- Repeat positive affirmations (find ideas for positive affirmations on You Tube or the web)
- Read inspirational/texts and quotes
- Create a “Life Purpose” and learn something new every day related to that purpose
- Practice compassion and show empathy towards all people (even those you don’t particularly like)
- Volunteer at a local charity, library, or animal sanctuary or shelter
- Laugh – lighten up, don’t everything so seriously
- Learn to play an instrument
- Give/receive long hugs
- Cuddle/play with an animal
- Engage with positive, healthy social networks. If you don’t have positive healthy friends, join an uplifting community group that meets at least once a week (such as a youth group, Boy/Girl Scouts, church, writing group)
- Eat foods rich tryptophan, tyrosine (amino acids), and polyphenols (micronutrients) that boost dopamine and serotonin production in the brain such as almonds, kiwi, bananas, kale, apples, green tea, strawberries and blueberries, dark chocolate, & beets
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to restructure itself by forming new neural connections. Neural pathways and new neural connections in the brain are created through repetition, which means any thought, behavior, or action that is repeated often enough eventually becomes “engrained” in your brain, thus forming a habit. Therefore, if you do the healthy activities listed above on a regular basis, they will eventually become effortless daily habits, which means you get daily doses of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins ….which means happiness becomes a “habit”!!! Ya-hoo! J Yes, happiness is both a habit and a skill that can be learned. So, instead of thinking “someday I’ll be happy when…” just make the decision to be happy now! Start by choosing at least 3-4 of the things listed above and commit to doing them on a daily basis. Before you know it, those activities will become an automatic part of daily living. As you become a master of your own happiness, you can add a few more healthy activities to your daily routine, which will increase your happiness level even more.
So, the next question is, how can being happy (first) help you to be more successful? Psychologists and neuroscientists know that happy people are:
Better at problem-solving /critical thinking
More adaptable to change
Have more self-confidence/self-esteem
More pleasant to be around
Have stronger interpersonal and intrapersonal skills
There is no disputing that this skill set can help one to be successful, but remember, feeling happy as the result of “success” is short-lived. Lasting joy is what you really want. Therefore, when you think of happiness being your ultimate goal, know that you can have it now. Right now. Starting today. And the sooner you start, the sooner will also achieve success...
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