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Don’t Try to be Happy on International Day of Happiness

Why spreading kindness is better for you than seeking happiness

For centuries, and in the last few decades in particular, the buzz has been all about happiness. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Do what makes you happy. Don’t worry, be happy. The list of happiness-focused quotes, poems, songs, books, and articles is seemingly endless. Book on kindness? Not so much...

Eva Ritvo
Source: Eva Ritvo

We’ve always simply taken it as a given that our ultimate goal should be happiness. However, recent discoveries in neuroscience and human behavior suggests that happiness is not the most effective goal after all. The science says this: Be kind, and you will be rewarded with far more happiness than you could ever get by focusing on happiness by itself.

Did we take a wrong turn with our focus on happiness? Yes and no. We were right to bring focus to happiness, in that happiness is an essential component of well-being. Happiness is a good thing, but it is not the only thing, and too much of a good thing can actually be unhealthy. Kindness goes beyond happiness and should be the next step in our collective social evolution. Kindness is happiness all grown up.

If you really want to celebrate International Day of Happiness, try spreading kindness. Nothing generates more happiness than kindness, for both the giver and the receiver.

The Well-being Trifecta

There are three primary neurotransmitters that are involved in what I call the Well-being Trifecta:

  1. Dopamine
  2. Oxytocin
  3. Serotonin

While well-being (feeling good, content, valued, proud, etc.) involves a mix of all three of these neurotransmitters, happiness is largely a dopamine-focused state. Dopamine is the key component of our brain’s major reward pathway. Dopamine is triggered when spending money, using cocaine, encountering novelty, looking at attractive faces, gambling, and viewing porn. That little buzz you feel when you log into social media and see that you have several notifications (messages, likes, etc.) is dopamine. When you see a neat article title and click on it, you get a little burst of dopamine. When you hear a new song you like, you get a nice dopamine jolt.

A key feature of dopamine is that you can produce tons of dopamine all by yourself and not having to interact with anybody. And wIth enough dopamine, you will feel “happy.” But happiness is a fleeting mental state, because the effects of dopamine don’t last very long at all (measured in seconds to minutes for each “hit,” actually).

If you think of your brain as a furnace, happiness/dopamine would be like crumpled up newspaper--it burns fast and bright, but it won’t heat the place up for long. On top of that, our cultural obsession with smartphones, social media, and the internet in general all provide a never-ending supply of readily available dopamine triggers. The reason we constantly consume digital media is that, in a sense, we have become addicted to constant dopamine rushes. One more click, one more click…click, dopamine, click, dopamine…

When you engage in a non-stop, dopamine-surging activity like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or Tinder, you’ll assault your brain with an excess of dopamine. If you want the furnace burning slow and steady for the long haul, you need something with more substance.

Oxytocin & Serotonin Complete the Well-being Trifecta

Oxytocin is a truly wonderful neurotransmitter. It is referred to by many endearing nicknames: the love hormone, the cuddle hormone, and nature’s marijuana. You get a burst of oxytocin when you touch others (hugging, kissing, shaking hands, etc.). New mothers are flooded with oxytocin, which helps form the mother-child bond. Oxytocin creates that warm feeling you have when you hug a loved one, cuddle with a child, and make love. It creates a lovely feeling of warmth, safety, and trust.

Serotonin is produced when you help others, bond with others, and when you feel healthy pride in a job well done. We get a surge of serotonin when those close to us achieve something meaningful, such as the feeling of a parent when the child graduates high school or wins an award. Serotonin comes from being connected to something beyond ourselves, and it is produced when we feel confident (in life or work) that others have your back, and you have theirs. Close-knit combat troops with good leaders are bursting with serotonin and end up with life-long bonds, while those with poor leaders have almost none.

Serotonin is what social animals (like us humans) use to glue ourselves together into teams and communities, and this neurotransmitter makes you feel very good, in a way that is decidedly unlike simple happiness. Serotonin is so essential for wellbeing that there is an entire class of psychiatric medications dedicated to enhancing serotonin--the SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor).

Think of dopamine as a thrill-seeking teen, oxytocin as a young adult, and serotonin as the wise parent. In simple terms, dopamine is triggered by novelty, oxytocin by touch, and serotonin by meaningful connections with others.

Real Life Examples of What the Well-being Trifecta Feels Like

Here are some examples of what I mean by the feel-good Well-being Trifecta, which is entirely different than simply feeling happy. For a moment, imagine yourself being present for these moments:

  • You smile as you meet the kind doorman at your apartment building who has worked there for years. He greets you by name, shakes your hand, and asks how your day has been.
  • You volunteer at a women’s shelter, and you give plates of food to a mother and her two young kids. She smiles at you, hugs you, and says a tearful “Thank you!”
  • A friend is ill, and you drop by with a nice dinner. While you’re there, you see that his laundry has piled up. You spend the time and energy washing, drying, and folding the laundry. At the end, you look at the nice, organized stacks of clean clothes, and your sick friend has gratitude written all over his face as he comes over to hug you.
  • You hear your daughter’s name called at the graduation ceremony, and right after she grabs her diploma, she spots you in the stands and smiles. Your spouse is beaming with pride and kisses you.
  • The crosswalk light comes on, and you begin to walk. There is a young girl walking in front of you. You suddenly notice that a car is gunning through, oblivious to the pedestrians. It is heading straight for the little girl. You hear the mother scream in terror from a few steps behind you. You quickly grab the girl and yank her back to safety in the nick of time. The mother rushes to her little girl and hugs her while she gazes at you with extraordinary relief.

The emotions you would feel in these moments go far beyond simple happiness and dopamine, because now you’ve got oxytocin and the super-powerful serotonin going strong in your brain. You feel meaningful. You feel connected to others. You feel appreciated. You feel like you belong. And guess what? The people who received kindness in the examples above feel the exact same list of good feelings. You all feel good. When the buzz of happiness subsides, you will still feel good.

How to Celebrate International Day of Happiness

The best way to celebrate International Day of Happiness is to spread kindness. Kindness can take on many forms, from the simple to the complex: smiling at others, volunteering, giving to charity, visiting a friend or loved one, or just about anything that involves giving kindness to another human being, yourself, or animals. If we can make the world a kinder place, there will be plenty of happiness that comes along for the ride.

On this special day to celebrate happiness, I hope that you will remember this complicated mix of neurotransmitters and incorporate happiness AND kindness into your day.

We can all be kinder.

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