Along with a myriad and already dodgy resolutions for 2018 I decided to be a “happiness hunter”. This does not mean discarding being a “Wisdom Warrior, (yes really!) that remains a lifelong quest, but does seem to be a better pursuit than sheer accumulation of monetary wealth something I don’t appear to be particularly good at.
It turns out that accumulating bucket loads of money can in fact go a long way towards happiness, as can I am told does living in Denmark, Singapore or Costa Rica.
Happiness is not as straightforward it seems, as walking around with a big grin. You have to first allow yourself to be happy. However, “like a candle to the wax of the hardest heart” the potentially imbecilic smile, however it is induced, is a useful thing for both yourself, it uses less muscles than a frown, and for others; all of whom get a little blast of oxytocin when they return the favour. More about the chemicals later.
Seems I had unwittingly started travelling this path earlier last year when I started reading “Stumbling on happiness” by Danial Gilbert. Dan is a very funny guy and a Harvard psychologist, he addresses some fundamental questions including “Why are lovers quicker to forgive their partners for infidelity than for leaving dirty dishes in the sink?
Why will sighted people pay more to avoid going blind than blind people will pay to regain their sight? It is actually quite a serious work and well supported with scientific studies pretty much about why we make bad decisions and yet I regularly laughed out loud. That made me happy and it seems that Dan is pretty happy because the book made the New York Times best seller list has been translated into over 30 languages, he got to make a TED talk and won a Royal Society prize for science books.
I also recently listened to an interview with Gretchen Rubin . While Gretchen doesn’t seem particularly happy this may be because she mostly lives in New York. In December 2009 The academics — Andrew J. Oswald, of the University of Warwick in Britain, and Stephen Wu, of Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. created a guide to American happiness and on the smiley scale, New York State landed on the bottom. Yep dead last. Without even moving to the scenic and lifestyle delights of Boulder Colorado Gretchen still has a lot to say on the subject of happiness, and managed to create the happiness project and, happily has had a New York Times best seller. She has a regular blog and if you don’t find that stuff too cheesy will send you a happy thought every day if you care to ask.
The more I hunt the more I find has been written on the subject. Marion Gropen tells us there are literally dozens published each year with a probable total of tens of thousands in total. These are probably written by people like me who want to scratch their own itch by writing on the subject. Committed hunter that I have now become I still don’t want to read that many books. The wonderful and ridiculously well-read Maria Popova gives a short cut at Brainpickings including one by the Dalai Lama himself which includes the remark: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” All about oxytocin once again.
This takes us to the chemicals.
Our bodies it seems are their own Doctor Feelgood, generating personalised eight balls in combinations of Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin and of course Endorphins, something that absurdly always makes me think of Flipper.
Dopamine is the reward chemical the one why all the naughty stuff makes us feel so good.
Dopamine is a motivator for action toward goals, desires, and needs, and gives a surge of reinforcing pleasure when achieving them says Thai Nguyen.
Sometimes called the “pleasure” Nuero-transmitter, happiness and pleasure are , as Happiness Hunters are well aware not the same thing.
Meanwhile the very busy and popular Dopamine also increases response to sex,drugs, and rock and roll. amongst a host of other things I tend to like. All abused drugs, from alcohol to cocaine to heroin, increase dopamine in this area in one way or another, and many people like to describe a spike in dopamine as “motivation” or “pleasure.” But that’s not quite it. Really, dopamine is signalling feedback for predicted rewards. If you, say, have learned to associate a cue (like a crack pipe) with a hit of crack, you will start getting increases in dopamine in the nucleus accumbens section of the brain in response to the sight of the pipe, because your brain predicts the reward. But if you then don’t get your hit, well, then dopamine can decrease, and that’s not a happy feeling.
The whole body especially the kidneys, pancreas and intestines benefit from Dopamine “holistic happiness” as it were and inevitably it has been bottled and it can be bought as a medication sold under the trade names Intropin, Dopastat, and Revimine, among others.
Too much of a good thing as always, isn’t a good thing, Dopamine problems are implicated in ADHD, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, depression, bipolar disorders, binge eating, addiction, gambling, and schizophrenia. Overly high amounts of dopamine can cause euphoria-which sound good, aggression-which doesn’t, and intense sexual feelings I am told. Hmmm…
Serotonin is nature’s own anti-depressant and for those watching the waist line is known to decrease appetite, possibly because 80-90% hangs out in the gastro-intestinal tract. It aids the liver, cardiovascular system, muscles, and various elements in the endocrine system.
Sufficient serotonin in the brain allows you to feel calm and optimistic and provides a sense of well-being, while serotonin deficiency has the opposite effect. Low serotonin levels (or abnormal serotonin function) is the most recognized underlying cause of depression.
Your body makes 5-hydroxy tryptophan, or 5-HTP, from tryptophan, and then converts it into serotonin. And once again you can buy supplements including Saint John’s Wort,
Kindly even insects as well as plants get to enjoy it
Serotonin release is supposedly triggered by feeling important or significant so it is relevant who you hang out with. Sunshine is pretty helpful as well.
Cuddly old mate oxytocin is also very much about your buddies. Both a neuro –transmitter and a hormone it is produced in the hypothalamus and secreted by the pituitary gland at the base of the brain Oxytocin is the reward buzz when you do a good thing and is happily viral even buzzing those that see the good thing happen. Oxytocin then impacts on group behaviour generally and in a good way including happy group memories and like serotonin social recognition. Unfairly females usually have higher levels of it than guys, this may be simply that their nipples are more sensitive, the stimulation of nipples is known to trigger serotonin release.
More likely though is its important role in childbirth and breastfeeding which are pretty fundamental to our future as a species. That glimpse of immortality is a happy place for me. As bottled happiness Oxytocin is used as a prescription drug under the brand name Pitocin.
Giving, at any level is a great trigger for serotonin and receiving even more. But the best and most available is a great big hug. Doctor Paul Zak the “love doctor” is an oxytocin expert and recommends 8 hugs a day.
Just be careful of any resultant testosterone increases fellas, it apparently negates good old oxy.
Endorphins the gym junkie’s addiction and are in fact an opioid. No wonder Flipper’s career crashed and burned. The main activity of endorphins is to inhibit the transmission of painsignals and happily in the process they also produce a high very similar to that produced by other opioids such as morphine. Equally happily for the fitness industry endorphins are currently, now at least, not a controlled substance. Laughter is also a great trigger and currently only banned in North Korea. The smell of vanilla and lavender has been linked with the production of endorphins and studies have indicate that dark chocolate and spicy foods can lead the brain to release endorphins as do sex and good music. Even alcohol gets a nod but then so does stress and pain which are not high on my happiness barometer.
Whilst excess Endorphins are linked with schizophrenia and manic depression the risks seem pretty much worth it
On the opposite end of the marathon running spectrum it seems doing very little may also be the key. Having spent the equivalent of a 3rd world nation’s GDP on psychotherapy; podcaster designer and all around creative Debbie Millman has decided the key to being happy is accepting yourself just as you are. So much for all those self-improvement books. Tara Brach tends to agree. Although she does write self-improvement books she “radically accepts” Debbie’s position on the subject.
As a good Buddhist however, she takes it one step further. I love her guided meditations and just this morning I heard her say “accept this moment exactly as it is”
Reminds me of those simple words of wisdom from Paul Mc Cartney to just “let it be”
Whilst totally determined on a beatific inner reserve of peace, serenity and compassion.
I am an Alpha male and a little overly driven to external activity. Inevitably I have come up with yet another to do list, this time detailing some of the bounty from the hunt so far.
For the moment, my list of things to do includes:
Make my bed in the morning,
Have sex (yes please)
Eat dark Chocolate (got that covered)
Make shit loads of money
Be more social- while carefully monitoring the 5 people who I spend the most time with who after all, are the ones I will become the average of.
Just as I begin to get happy all about this and cosy in Rumi’s thought that “what I am seeking is seeking me” Kyle Maynard one of the mast amazing athletes on the planet raises the bar “Thinking of what makes me happy doesn’t give me the same clarity as thinking about what gives me bliss”
Maybe a “happiness hunter” can be a “bliss beneficiary” as a by-product?
I will keep you informed as to my progress.
Feb 17 2018