Posts on mai 2009

The chemistry of happiness

Bretagne

<Little souvenir from my stay in Brittany where I enjoyed my peace of mind >

Our body is a machine, a fined tuned machine, an unbelievable partner. I don’t know how you see your body but its mechanics are amazing. I ask “pull tongue to little boy” (bad bad girl), “shake but on dance floor”, “take fork, bring food” and you know what, my body does it for me! But that’s only one part! Once I have enjoyed that meal, he digests it and does all the work without me asking for it or even understanding how he is doing it. I may sound foolish but it is a miraculous thing to have a body. When I think about all what my body is doing for me, I often wonder why I am so cruel to him at times.

Anyway, that’s not the subject. My point today is to explore the chemicals of the body that induce happiness.

In the synapse, the space between two neurons, two neurotransmitters have been identified to be major players in affecting our moods: serotonin and dopamine.

Dopamine acts as a pacemaker: if we have too much, we are restless; too little, we are slow.
Serotonin acts as an antidepressant. If you produce a lot of it, you have a tendency to have a positive representation of the world. However, the production of serotonin obeys to a genetic determinant.  Certain genes produce long proteins, which enables them to carry more serotonin.

But if those neurotransmitters are the key to happiness why is there a gap between the day a patient swallows his pill and the effect? Why do antidepressants reduce negative emotions, such as anxiety and fear, but do not seem to boost optimism or extroversion?  (1998 study – Brian Knutson)

In addition to the neurotransmitters, hormones would also have their say in the mechanics of happiness. Among them, endorphin is a molecule secreted into the brain, blocking the transmission of painful stimuli. That’s why sport is key to happiness since 30 minutes of exercise will increase your endorphin secretion five times.
Other hormones might have a role to play such as estrogen or testosterone.  Even if they have clues , scientists are still investigating the chemistry of happiness.

If tomorrow, the pharmaceutical industry launched a pill that would trigger all the right hormones and neurotransmitters for happiness, would you take it? Isn’t happiness also the joy of overcoming difficult times? Isn’t sadness necessary?

Imagine that one day such a pill could be used to make everything OK. A dictator, a guru, any abusive person could drive users because you are happy, happy, stupid! I really doubt that the chemistry is our way to happiness just like the Dollhouse guy said, happiness is nothing without awareness or even will.

« Happiness is Love, full stop »

Happiness is a process and it’s fun (not dull?).

Dr Vaillant used a longitudinal method of research to conduct a great study. He followed 268 students from Harvard to understand how to live well.

I am so grateful for all the people who worked on that study for more than 60 years because it is as good as a good soap opera, only it’s not fantasy and you get to really learn from it.

The analysis is punctuated by a few biographies that make it very lively.
After reading the article I have this feeling of walking on a thread. Before, it was misty and I couldn’t see it. Now that I am experiencing a happy flow, I can feel the power it gives me but also its fragility.  Visualizing all those life was like looking at boat captains. Enigmatic, grandiose, free to wreck it boat captains.

Here are a few samples I found particularly interesting from « What makes us happy? »:

o    A little anecdote that really made me laugh and says much about happiness:
“Yet, even as he takes pleasure in poking holes in an innocent idealism, Vaillant says his hopeful temperament is best summed up by the story of a father who on Christmas Eve puts into one son’s stocking a fine gold watch, and into another son’s, a pile of horse manure. The next morning, the first boy comes to his father and says glumly, “Dad, I just don’t know what I’ll do with this watch. It’s so fragile. It could break.” The other boy runs to him and says, “Daddy! Daddy! Santa left me a pony, if only I can just find it!”

o    And that’s what they have identified as being healthy characteristics:
“The healthiest, or “mature,” adaptations include altruism, humor, anticipation (looking ahead and planning for future discomfort), suppression (a conscious decision to postpone attention to an impulse or conflict, to be addressed in good time), and sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like putting aggression into sport, or lust into courtship).”
“Employing mature adaptations was one. The others were education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, and healthy weight.”

o    About positive and negative emotions:
“In fact, Vaillant went on, positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs—protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.”

Is happiness dull?

A video used to be embedded here but the service that it was hosted on has shut down.
Can we be mistaken on the appearance of happiness?

First, what is the definition of Happiness?
In an online dictionary, that’s what you find:
“hap·py
1. Characterized by good luck; fortunate.
2. Enjoying, showing, or marked by pleasure, satisfaction, or joy.
3. Being especially well-adapted; felicitous: a happy turn of phrase.
4. Cheerful; willing: happy to help.”

Just like in french, the word comes from good fortune. Happiness comes from luck?! Is a happy guy, a lucky guy that has everything going his way?

According to Dr. Seligman, founder of positive psychology, happiness is made up of three segments:

1. Positive Emotion or experiencing pleasure.
2. Engagement in life or losing oneself in meaningful activities.
3. Meaningfulness or participating in meaningful activities.

Activities! That doesn’t seem dull.

Have a look at the wikipedia page on happiness and you realize that, even though happiness is a common human theme, we didn’t come to a unified definition yet.
How can we achieve happiness if we are not able to define it, if we don’t know what it looks like?
Could happiness seem dull from the outside? May be we judge of our happiness with a twisted set of believes.

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