Why We Seek Happiness

Do you want to be happy? Most members of the human race do. The pursuit of happiness is common across the globe. Why is that? Is there a greater purpose in the human desire to be happy? I think so. It seems to me that seeking happiness is built into our evolutionary requirements. I think we are hard wired to seek happiness.

Darwin agreed, according to Psychology Today article Happiness: ultimately it’s genetic! when they quoted from his autobiography:

“pain or suffering … is well adapted to make a creature guard itself against any great or sudden evil. Pleasurable sensations, on the other hand … stimulate the whole system to increased action. Hence it has come to pass that most or all sentient beings have been developed in such a manner, through natural selection, that pleasurable sensations serve as their habitual guides.”

On a more modern note, the author of The Neurochemicals of Happiness explains it in terms of the biological processes in the human body:

“Life in the human body is designed to be a blissful experience. Our evolutionary biology insures that everything necessary for our survival makes us feel good. All animals seek pleasure and avoid pain. Therefore, our brain has a wellspring of self-produced neurochemicals that turn the pursuits and struggles of life into pleasure and make us feel happy when we achieve them.”

He goes on to discuss the roles played by several of those neurochemicals, such as the endocannabinoids that probably give us a ‘runners’ high; dopamine, which is responsible for reward-driven behavior and pleasure seeking; oxytocin; which is a hormone directly linked to human bonding and increasing trust and loyalty; and others that help us seek happiness by calming us or relieving pain.

Consider what most folks say makes them happy.

Social interactions and relationships with other people.

The human race is the most involved and evolved social animal on the planet. We survive as a species because of it. We enjoy relating to others because it is essential (in evolutionary terms) to our survival.

When one of us is ostracized from the pack, that individual is in greater danger of lacking basic necessities.

That is why, according to some studies, we favor experiences over things.

Ryan Howell, assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University is quoted by CNN as to the reason:

“When people spend money on life experiences, whether they also take someone with them or buy an extra ticket or whatever, most of our life experiences involve other individuals, people were fulfilling their need for social bonding while having these experiences”

This also may be why expressing gratitude and forgiveness creates happiness for us. These actions grease the wheels of social interactions, making the group function better and members of the group more apt to want to protect each other.

Likewise, giving to others, makes us happy. Studies have shown that the brain releases dopamine (a reward chemical) and that bonding chemical (oxytocin). How is this conducive to the survival of the species? The Wall Street Journal article Hard-Wired for Giving reported on this saying:

“…two complex schools of scientific thought have emerged. One argues that altruism exists because it helps ensure the survival of close kin. Various researchers have also highlighted the merits of the view that helping may maximize the survival odds of each member of a society. That would mean that behaving less selfishly isn’t just a way of protecting close family members; it might also be a way for individuals to improve their own prospects by contributing to the well-being of a strong collective.”

Accomplishing goals.

In USA Today article: Psychologists now know what makes people happy the author acknowledges the sense of fulfillment we get in pursuing and accomplishing goals:

“Life satisfaction occurs most often when people are engaged in absorbing activities that cause them to forget themselves, lose track of time and stop worrying. “Flow” is the term Claremont Graduate University psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced cheeks-sent-mee-hi) coined to describe this phenomenon.”

Our species has survived and thrived due to members of the human race devoting them-selves to the pursuit of a goal – whether that be pure knowledge, pushing the limits of the human mind or body, or inventing a labor or life saving device.

Exercising.

Exercising can make us feel good, even happier. Our bodies produce endorphins when we exercise. These act as opiates to relieve pain.

Endocannabinoids are self-produced cannabis which show up in humans (and dogs by the way) after sustained running, producing a self induced high.

Yoga and meditation may produce a molecule labeled, dubbed the “The Anti-Anxiety Molecule” by the author of The Neurochemicals of Happiness, who goes on to say:

“GABA is an inhibitory molecule that slows down the firing of neurons and creates a sense of calmness.”

Are some folks really happier than others?

You all probably know a person or two that just sees their glass half full most of the time. Could they have evolved with the genetics that actually cause them to be happier more often than other people?

Studies by Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, James Fowler, and Bruno Frey have shown that there is an inheritable gene linked to happiness (with the catchy name of 5HTT, a gene with a more efficient serotonin transporter).

Other studies of populations reporting the most ‘happiness’ (Denmark and the Netherlands) showed that there was a higher percentage of people in those countries with the more efficient gene and that descendants of people from those countries in America also were happier.

But, all of this doesn’t mean that you are doomed to an unhappy life if you didn’t inherit this ‘happy’ gene.  Other studies show that this genetic gift only accounts for up to half of our tendency towards happiness.

So, we really can control our own happiness, and the pursuit of happiness is worthwhile.

 


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