How do we be happy?
Such a prevalent question across all of humankind.
And there are so many layers to the question. Is it just happiness that we want? Or is that too superficial? Maybe we’re searching for a deeper meaning?
And what is happiness in the first place? Is it a feeling or is it something deeper than just pleasure?
Because if happiness was just pleasure, then it seems that drugs, sex, and alcohol are the answer, but something about that answer feels deeply unsatisfying…
From a scientific perspective, we can turn to our hormones for clues as to what makes us feel happy. Not just ephemerally happy, but also fulfilled.
Here is the formula:
By breaking down the purpose of each of these chemicals, we can understand from an evolutionary perspective what makes us feel naturally happy and fulfilled.
Let’s dive into what each of these hormones do, then we’ll translate this equation into simple English.
Endorphins come into play during rigorous exercise and sex. When your body goes from an aerobic state to an anaerobic state, basically when you’ve used up your already existing oxygen supply in your body, your body has to become more efficient and find a way to keep going. It does this by suppressing the pain through endorphin release.
So ingredient #1: rigorous regular exercise.
Dopamine is the “motivation chemical.” It’s a reward hormone that motivates people to accomplish tangible goals and to stay focused on the task at hand. From an evolutionary perspective, this is essential for getting things done. Without dopamine, primitive humans wouldn’t be motivated to forage for food, hunt, gather, and take care of tasks that need to get done for survival.
There are a plethora of ways to increase your dopamine levels, in particular: meditation, exercise, spending time in sunlight, listening to music, physical touch, eating, drinking, having sex, making money…
But the most important and primary way is by achieving your goals.
And the only way you’ll be motivated to pursue these goals is if they are tangible.
The way to make your goals tangible is by being able to physically see them.
Here’s an example. Let’s say that your goal is to buy a Ferrari. The more tangible you make this goal, the more attainable it is. Most people dream about their goals, some write them down, but the people who are most likely to achieve this goal are the ones who go to the Ferrari dealership everyday and see and touch the car they’re going to buy.
Before becoming a successful actor, Jim Carrey used to go to the homes in the Hollywood Hills and imagine himself living in that neighborhood. By physically going to the neighborhood and walking the streets, he turned his dreams into goals. And eventually it became his reality.
However, dopamine can also be a dangerous chemical if you become addicted to it. Drugs, alcohol, smoking, sugar, fast food, and technology are common ways people become addicted to dopamine.
Nearly everyone in today’s society can’t go an entire day, let alone an entire hour, without checking their phones. Every time you check your phone and see a new text message, you’re getting a dopamine hit.
Thus, you have to maintain balance when it comes to dopamine. Let it motivate you towards your fulfilling goals, but don’t allow it’s pleasurable feeling to govern your life.
So here’s ingredient #2: Make your goals tangible and achieve them.
A quick side note: when I say to make your goals tangible, I don’t mean aim lower. You want to dream big and aim high. But make sure that you visualize the outcome regularly and take steps to bridge the gap between your imagination and reality. Visit the home you want to buy, the car you want to have, and the place you want to work at.
Serotonin is the leadership chemical. It brings us a sense of pride, self-esteem, and connection with others. People who have higher levels of serotonin are more resourceful, have more confidence in themselves, and connect with other people more easily.
The main way to increase serotonin levels is to increase tryptophan in your diet. Basically, eating low glycemic index carbs, such as brown rice and whole grains, and eating poultry, eggs, and fish. Increasing your insulin sensitivity through eating a more natural and less processed diet with less sugar will also improve your serotonin levels. Furthermore, better sleep, exercise, meditation, sunlight, and massages will increase serotonin too.
But the primary crucial aspect for maintaining your serotonin levels in the long-term is through creating a sense of belonging and purpose in your life by either belonging to or leading a tribe or movement. If you have a job that gives you a sense of meaning and your role in your work boosts your self-esteem, then you are raising your serotonin levels.
As Simon Sinek explains, this is why we have graduation ceremonies rather than just emailing each of the students their diplomas on graduation day. Bringing loved ones and important people together to celebrate achievement raises your serotonin, and, consequently, raises your self-esteem.
It unifies a group of people who have struggled through challenges and have collectively achieved something and turns them into a tribe.
Ingredient #3: Be part of a tribe and have a meaningful role in it.
Side note: When I say “meaningful role,” it has to be meaningful for you. If you strived for something or joined a team because you thought it would impress others, then you won’t have that same sense of fulfillment as being part of a team which you feel authentically connected to.
Oxytocin is the love chemical. Oxytocin is released when you cuddle with or hug someone, when you’re vulnerable with someone, and when you do altruistic and charitable acts. From an evolutionary perspective, oxytocin encourages collusion, collaboration, and bonds humans with one another.
This also ensures that a female will be bonded with the male she mates with, then with her children she gives birth to.
However, oxytocin also is released when you act kindly towards others. And you get an oxytocin hit even when you just observe a charitable act.
Ingredient #4: Have close bonds with friends and family and treat others with kindness.
When looking at commonalities between the factors that raise these hormone levels in particular, there are some common activities or things you can do to maintain a high level of happiness, which include sex, physical touch, spending time outside, and meditation.
Ultimately, generalizing these principles, we can distill these ingredients into four core tenets for a happy life:
- Physical health.
- Having goals to aspire towards, making them tangible and taking action on them.
- A sense of belonging and purpose which can be attained through work, sports and
- Close connection with others based from love and kindness.
I also provide a guide for my 5 steps for living an inspired life here.