The Journey Within: The Neuroscience of Happiness

Whether you’re happy, sad, angry, creative or stressed, it ultimately comes down to your neuroscience. The wiring and chemistry of our brains defines our every experience and behavior. As such, the best way to unravel and understand any aspect of the human experience is to study the brain.

This is particularly useful if you want to improve your mood and be consistently happier. What is going on inside your brain when you feel truly content and at peace? And what can you do to get your stubborn brain to be like that more often?

Happy FamilyUltimately our mood comes down to chemistry – specifically, neurochemicals or neurotransmitters, which are produced in the brain in response to certain other activities in the brain. When you think of or experience something that is happy, sad, scary or stressful, the brain responds by producing the relevant neurotransmitter, such as serotonin, cortisol, norepinephrine, dopamine, oxytocin, adenosine and many others.

When it comes to happiness, we want to increase the “feel good” neurotransmitters such as serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine. These chemicals make us feel alert, happy, content and even loved. On the other hand, we want to reduce ones like cortisol, which makes us feel stressed.

How to Control Neurochemistry
At this point, you might be wondering how you can control your neurochemistry. One way, of course, is with drugs and that’s where recreational drugs and antidepressants come in. Antidepressants often work by increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain or GABA, which makes us tired but also reduces cortisol.

MedicationThe problem with changing brain chemistry directly though is that the brain is all about adaptation. If you add a certain amount of particular chemicals to your brain, it will often respond by producing less of those chemicals naturally. This can then lead to tolerance, dependence and withdrawal symptoms — worsening depression and triggering addiction.

You can also alter your neurochemistry through lifestyle changes. Diet impacts which neurotransmitters our brain can create, while things like sleep, exercise and social interactions can also boost our mood.

Ultimately though, the very best way to control your mood is to change what you focus on and how you react to what you focus on. Remember, your neurotransmitters are released in reaction to your subjective experiences. Change your experience by changing your beliefs and you can improve that neurochemistry.

Does Happiness Really = Reality / Expectation?
Many different factors can influence our psychology and psychologists are constantly trying to put their finger on precisely what these things are. There are many different ideas of what describes happiness and many different formulae.

One example is:  Happiness = Reality / Expectation

The idea here is that no matter how happy you should be, you are still always going to compare your current situation to your idealized version of how life should be, and this can actually result in being unhappy. We hear this saying repeated regularly but the question is: is it really accurate?

Theoretically, this happiness formula does make a lot of sense. After all, if you get a bonus, but it’s not as high as you thought it was going to be, then it can be very hard not to be disappointed. On the other hand, if your expectations are low and you get paid a much bigger bonus, then chances are you’ll be thrilled.

BrainIt also makes sense when you consider it alongside the “social comparison theory.” The premise here is that our happiness is based on the perceived happiness of others and how we compare ourselves to them. If you’re more successful than your friends, you’ll be happy; even if, objectively speaking, you still aren’t very successful.

In fact, if you’re going to get philosophical about this, you might say that everything boils down to comparison. This is essentially the underlying principle of the theory of relativity.

But this theory is not perfect either, and it’s certainly not always “useful” in a practical sense.

For instance, even if your expectations are incredibly low, you still aren’t going to be happy if you’re homeless. Furthermore, you won’t be happy if you’re unfortunate enough to have a neurological disorder that results in depression. If your neurochemistry isn’t happy, then you won’t be, regardless of your situation.

At the same time, this saying appears to suggest that we should “set our aims low” so that we aren’t disappointed by the outcome. Is this really a good way to go about living life? Should we not be entitled to have high expectations?

It’s not that we shouldn’t have high expectations but rather that we should learn to appreciate our current situation as well. Fortunately, there are ways to accomplish this. And we’ll explore these in our next blog.

The Journey Within: The Neuroscience of Happiness
Skip to content