Cover Story: Happiness

Happiness

Emotion, condition, attitude or occurrence – what exactly is happiness? Although it is a subjective sensation, scientists regularly try to measure happiness objectively and determine the circumstances under which humans are happiest. What is certain is that chemical substances have a significant effect on our emotional life. People who are newly in love, for example, produce increased amounts of the “happiness chemicals” oxytocin and phenylethylamine, as well as endogenous endorphins. Other important mood enhancers are serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline and enkephalin. But happiness is more than just the right chemical cocktail – it is the result of a complex system of interactions. Over the years, happiness research has therefore become an interdisciplinary field that is of interest not only to psychologists and neurologists, but also to economists and political scientists.

Happiness is doubled when it is shared. People in long-term relationships are on average happier and healthier than their single counterparts. Happiness researchers differentiate between moments of happiness – such as a wedding day – and long-term happiness – for example in a lifelong happy relationship.

Oxytocin
Oxytocin
Graphic: Hanauer Grafik Design

The first smile, the first steps, the unconditional love of one’s own child – great moments of happiness for new parents. Empirical happiness research has long since shown that being a parent is by no means a source of unadulterated happiness. But before the trials and tribulations of parenthood truly begin, the hormone oxytocin, which is released at greater levels in childbirth and during physical contact, promotes bonding and helps prevent depression. When physical contact lasts more than 20 seconds, endogenous endorphins are released in addition to the “happiness chemical” oxytocin – an effect that does not occur when we touch a 500-euronote for the same length of time.

Dopamin
Dopamin
Graphic: Hanauer Grafik Design

A city with an irresistible appeal: many have been drawn to Las Vegas in pursuit of happiness. But whether by means of gambling machines or chemical substances designed to replace the body’s own “happiness hormones”– attempts to bring about one’s own happiness artificially are doomed to fail. The search becomes an addiction, the low that inevitably follows the temporary high is all the lower. Drug addicts need an ever greater kick. Even millionaire lottery winners find that after initially skyrocketing, their happiness level soon returns to normal. Human beings adapt quickly to new circumstances. This is fortunately also true in the opposite case – even after a loss of social status or a disastrous life event, happiness can be regained.

Noradrenalin
Noradrenalin
Graphic: Hanauer Grafik Design

The first marathon, the final eight-thousander: outstanding individual achievements can provide great moments of happiness. Athletes produce higher levels of the “happiness hormone” serotonin, and during extreme physical effort also endorphins, which have similar effects to drugs and trigger euphoric states – for example the famous “runner’s high” that rewards long-distance runners when they put themselves through extensive physical torment. But the state of happiness that accompanies sporting success does not last for long. Outstanding achievements must quickly be followed by even greater feats in order to renew the state of happiness. Runner’s high can turn into a running addiction.

Phenylethylamin
Phenylethylamin
Graphic: Hanauer Grafik Design

“My house, my car, my yacht” – happiness is often defined in terms of the successful presentation of one’s own performance in life. But the happiest people are those who succeed in finding a balance between what they have or are able to achieve, and what they want. Here too, scientific research leaves no doubt: beyond a certain level, material prosperity no longer necessarily enhances happiness. As soon as one’s basic needs are met, the happiness curve levels out the more one earns. And once achieved, any success may very quickly become meaningless. New desires arise; perhaps one’s neighbour is even more successful and will soon have an even bigger house, car or boat.

Serotonin
Serotonin
Graphic: Hanauer Grafik Design

Shared experiences are felt more intensely; nothing creates as much happiness as being sociable and interacting with like-minded people. Happiness research shows that people are most often and most intensely happy when they are with friends and family. Even in this age of individualism, love, friendship, sociability and companionship are the best means to happiness. Happy people invest in their social relationships, receive support from friends and family, and feel valued and liked. Even happier are those who share their own happiness and help others.

Enkephalin
Enkephalin
Graphic: Hanauer Grafik Design

Religious people are happier people. Religious belief means hope, and people who have hope think positively. Surveys show that those who are confident in their religious beliefs are more resilient to life’s adversities. In addition, many religions have always been strongly linked to intensely experienced, intoxication-like states of happiness. Mystics, for example, describe the divine encounters attained through contemplation and meditation as an intense moment of happiness or ecstasy. The body’s own “happiness hormone” serotonin also contributes to this feeling, as its production is increased through meditation. Non-religious people may take comfort in the knowledge that it is not intoxication or ecstasy that are important for lasting happiness, but meaning and purpose. Anyone who recognises what is most important to him or her in life and concentrates on it can experience this “value-based happiness” that gives life meaning.

published in Humboldt Kosmos 97/2011