What is, and how do we have happiness?

What is, and how do we have happiness?

Are you happy?

Dr. Robin Reesal

For The Calgary Herald

Studies have found financial status has little to do with happiness, but access to education does appear to have an effect. These girls smile for the camera in Drass, in Indian-administered Kashmir, where they live in a mud house in the second-coldest inhabited place in the world.

Summer is in full swing and it’s the yearly opportunity for Canadians to enjoy some sun and down time. While you’re lazing in the lawn chair — slathered with sunscreen, of course — take time to reflect on how life has gone over the last year. Ask yourself: Am I happy with my life? What can I do to be happier?

What Is Happiness?

Many people over thousands of years have tried to define happiness. The list includes Buddha, Confucian thinker Mencius, Aristotle and many other philosophers.

Webster’s dictionary defines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment.” Wikipedia describes happiness as “an emotional or affective state that is characterized by feelings of enjoyment and satisfaction.”

Perhaps the most important part of these definitions is that happiness is a state of mind. This seems to imply that it is fleeting and elusive. But unlike rainbows, happiness is attainable.

The Biology of Happiness

There are certain brain areas and neurochemical systems that are linked with happiness.

The nucleus accumbens and the mesolimbic system are associated with happiness. Some refer to these areas as the pleasure centres or reward centres. The neurotransmitters associated with these systems include dopamine, serotonin and opiates.

Stimulating these areas has a strong effect in causing you to repeat behaviours. For example, this area may be responsible for addictions to drugs such as narcotics, which stimulate the opiate receptors. These areas are believed to be involved in gambling addictions and alcohol dependency.

Not surprisingly, being in love seems to activate the pleasure centres. The release of the neurotransmitters such as noradrenalin creates an amphetamine-like reaction. Thus, you experience that racing heart, rapid breathing, dilated pupils and sweating along with a blush. This reaction is the price of happiness.

The Benefits of Happiness

In a 2005 article in the Journal National Academy of Sciences, Andrew Steptoe and others studied the role of happiness and health in more than 220 British government employees between age 45 and 59. The happier people released less of the stress hormone cortisol. They had a lower heart rate. They released less of the blood clotting factor fibrinogen. Thus, they may be at lower risk for strokes and heart attacks. This study seems to correlate with clinical findings and the general belief that happiness may lead to better health.

The Adverse Effects of Unhappiness

The studies on the beneficial effects of happiness are in their infancy. There are more studies on the detrimental effects of unhappiness or depression. Medical evidence suggests that living in a stressed state can shorten your lifespan. When stressed, your body releases cortisol, a stress hormone, which can damage the brain and the rest of the body with prolonged release.

Magnetic resonance scans show that the area of the brain known as the hippocampus shrinks the longer you remain depressed. This area of the brain, which effects memory, learning and emotion, can regain its former size once the depression has been treated.

In his article, Steptoe identifies studies that say sad states are associated with increased risks for coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, strokes and mortality. There is also recent work suggesting that depression can lead to an increased risk of dementia in the older person. Therefore, staying in an unhappy state may very well be bad for your health.

Can We Buy Happiness?

In western society, the majority of people have a higher quality of life than the majority of those in developing countries. Does the accumulation of wealth lead to happiness?

Richard Easterlin, in an article titled Explaining Happiness published in the National Academy of Sciences in 2003, found little evidence to support a relationship between financial status and happiness. (Higher education, however, appears to be related to happiness.)

All the stress of deadlines, trying to do a perfect job and rise up the corporate ladder to achieve financial success may negate the positive effects of the extra money.

Likewise, comparing yourself to the neighbour can be stressful. “How can they afford that new car?” “How can they afford to send their child to a private school?”

These comparisons can cause you to lose sight of what you have. In other words, some people are losing their health trying to be rich and keep up with others. There needs to be a balance.

Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world. On a recent visit, I was struck by the happiness of the children there. They lived in huts and shanties, had little food and nothing to play with except sticks, rocks and each other.

Yet, they wore big smiles and took great interest in seeing a stranger. Seeing their picture on a digital camera brought them huge joy. In one orphanage I visited, the children were happy receiving attention and a hug. So little was needed to create a smile and giggle. While my story is anecdotal, it showed me that happiness is possible even if you have very little.

Helping educate the youth of developing countries may be worth more than money. Education can help others and their families achieve happiness and self reliance.

Achieving Happiness

Based on my studies in psychiatry and treating depressed patients for the last 20 years, I offer some tips that may help you achieve happiness.

– Those who are unhappy seem to have trouble adapting to their life circumstance. When a solution fails consistently, acknowledge this and pick a different one.

– Learn to change as your environment changes. Social attitudes may not be the same today as when you started to work.

– You may be overwhelmed by a workplace problem with a boss or co-worker or your marriage may be on the rocks. There are many solutions. Self-help books and the Internet can be enough for some. Talking to a wise family member or colleague may help others. Counsellors, employee assistance programs and health-care professionals are valuable resources. Take action!

– Stay connected. Social isolation rarely leads to happiness.

– We grow up in different social, cultural, educational and financial backgrounds. Use the resources that work for you. For example, some may find exercise is a great stress reliever. Others may find that talking to a friend is more helpful. Some turn to their spiritual side.

– Pursue your dreams. Sometimes, this is not possible because of the course your life has taken. But do something in your life that brings you happiness.

– Do not disempower yourself by saying “I can’t.” There will be enough people around you who will be unsupportive. Learn to be your own best friend. When all goes wrong, you cannot jump ship. Who would be left to save the ship?

– Forget what the neighbour thinks. One of the psychiatrists who trained me in behaviour therapy indicated that a great source of unhappiness is comparing yourself to others. There will always be someone better. Unfortunately, some people can only feel good when they put others down. Being your best versus being better than someone else may be a better approach for all concerned. You can only change what is under your control. Your neighbour is not under your control.

– You are not an inadequate parent because your child experiences periods of unhappiness. Teach them how to manage unhappiness and disappointment. This will be a valuable skill towards their future happiness.

Parting Words

Happiness is a state of mind. By living life and adapting to changing circumstances you may be able to release fewer stress hormones and more endorphins. Have a happy summer!

Dr. Reesal is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Calgary. He works as a consultant and educator