‒ Dear students, today’s lecture will be on the science of Happy. What is Happiness, how do you enter Happy mode and, most importantly, how do you hold your Happy status?
‒ By the end of this class you are expected to explain the convoluted science of Happy to a layman/laywoman with your own words. The latter is the skill you covet and that will segregate you, the analytical intelligent, from the books-smart, socially awkward nerd, quoting percentages and statistics like a mobile Wikehpedia.
Wouldn’t everyone want to enroll in a 101 course on all of the above? How about we take a seat on the inspiration bench and dissect this topic with me throwing in some real facts every here and there but mostly with me rambling around a subject that obsesses every human being. Scientists, we get our kick from finding theories explaining natural phenomena that are neat, reproducible, easy to grasp and leave little room for doubt. Then, once we feel confident enough, we create graphs to predict their future evolution. Yes, we predict the future! And most of the time quite accurately, I must add! Well ok, unless you are in grad school; then your coefficient of regression is always below 0.6 (bad linear fit, bro!) and your relative standard deviation of reproducibility is close to the 100%. In that case, you are lucky if you can even predict your graduation year…
Denis Waitley, motivational speaker
Since we are now seated here together on the inspiration bench, let us look at the biochemistry of Happy. Your body comes pre-equipped with the bio-factories to produce oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin and the endorphins. These are the (main) known biochemical compounds that are proven to make the human body tremble with ecstatic joy, cry of elation, dance like no one is looking and do other things that I can’t write about here.
Oxytocin or the ‘cuddle hormone’, is released in high quantities by women during childbirth and breastfeeding. It facilitates the formation of strong social bonds. In a recent article conducted on two groups of healthy adult men, when compared to the control group, boosts of intravenous oxytocin have been shown to increase fidelity, with single men in monogamous relationships being less prone to interact flirtatiously with single women. In a different article from the Biological Psychiatry Journal, the authors call oxytocin the mind-reading hormone and they provide an excellent explanation of the neuropsychological effect of oxytocin on social interaction. Apparently, the hormone has the capacity to ease inference of the affective mental state of another human and, thus, reduces ambiguity in social interactions (e.g. social awkwardness). This way, “social approach, affiliation and trusting behavior are encouraged indirectly”. In simpler words, this is the situation of: I can read your emotions so that I can empathize with you, therefore I feel comfortable enough to let my guard down and open up to you.
Dopamine is a precursor for noradrenaline and adrenaline synthesis. It is released in those parts of the brain that are associated with the reward system. That is, when you achieve a goal, set a new personal record or engage in that which I cannot write about here ;-), a small dose of this neurotransmitter is released in the brain. This helps with reinforcing psychological pleasure from completing a set task, ensuring that you will come back for more.
Serotonin is another neurotransmitter with effects in maintaining a mood balance. This is your promiscuous and happy hormone, as it is single and ready to mingle with a multitude of neuro-receptors, thus performing a plethora of distinct functions in your body. A deficit of this biochemical is believed to lead to depression.
Lastly, we have the family of endorphins, with its most famous member, the beta-endorphin. Endorphins are also neurotransmitters, meaning that they facilitate neuron communication and site activation by binding to specific parts of the nervous system and kicking it into high gear. They are opiate-like chemicals and can be thought of your own narcotic stash. There are many outside-world activators triggering the production of endorphins. Primarily, these are stress and pain, since endorphins’ main effect is to relieve pain. Let me rephrase that, (beta-) endorphins are the Mack Daddies of pain relief. They act with a factor of more than 20x more efficiently than morphine! Apart from stress and pain, foods and physical activity are also believed to help release the neurotransmitters.
Adapted from ©Cornelia Grey, Devil at the Crossroads
Let’s recap. We have pinpointed four bio-chemicals that can lead the pathway to Happy. These are either hormones or hormone-like compounds produced in extremely low amounts, are highly regulated from synthesis to transport to action, and are usually limited to very specific areas where they can deploy their benefits. Some are also short-lived species (< 6 mins) and have low solubility in the blood system. So why is it that your body is intentionally making the path to Happy so tedious? Does your own body hate you? Let’s be honest here, it does have the perfect biochemical machinery to make you Happy and keep you exhilarated in Happy mode for the rest of your life.
I think your body loves you very much and wants you to be very Happy, but it acts as a sort of tough Buddhist monk type of teacher for your psyche – it will make you work for it! As long as you are willing to seek out adventure and new experiences, it is willing to reward you with an infusion of a biochemical cocktail that will fly you to cloud nine. Through that type of teaching, it creates the desire of habitual repetition. That is almost as if your cells are commanding for new exhilarating life experiences and thereafter reward you with a little Scooby snack every time you obey.
“A hug is like a boomerang. You get it back right away.”
Bil Keane, cartoonist
So go out there and feed on new experiences, be Happy on purpose, push repeat for those things that made you Happy, separate big goals into smaller mile stones and, just before finishing a previous goal, set another. That will give a constant influx of Happy hormones. And if you are interested in hacking the Happy system, there is a dopamine precursor (tyrosine) in the peel and fruit of ripe bananas, chocolate releases endorphins and so do hot peppers due to their capsaicin content. Excess of caffeine blocks synthesis of serotonin while simple prolonged sun exposure increases it. Furthermore, Dr. Paul Zak (a.k.a Dr. Love) recommends eight hugs each day for a quick boost of oxytocin.
‒ Class dismissed.
Alexandru Avram is a PhD student in the Chemical Engineering Department at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. In his free time, when his office desk is not piled up with homework for grading or chemical engineering related journal articles for reading, he enjoys jogging on a sunny weather and reading philosophy or psychology literature. Read full bio Comments welcome.
– Journal Articles:
Barnes, N. (2011). 5-HT: The promiscuous and happy hormone. Current Opinion in Pharmacology, 1-2.
Domes, G., Heinrichs, M., Michel, A., Berger, C., & Herpertz, S. (2007). Oxytocin improves Mind-Reading in Humans. Biol Psychiatry, 731-733.
Guastella, A., Mitchell, P., & Mathews, F. (2008). Oxytocin Enhances the Encoding of Positive Social Memories in Humans. Biol Psychiatry, 256-258.
Sharp, T., & Cowen, P. (2011). 5-HT and depression: is the glass half-full? Current Opinion in Pharmacology, 45-51.
Wise, R., & Rompre, P. (1989). Brain Dopamine and Reward. Ann. Rev. Psychol., 191-225.
 Had to change the name of the famed site to refrain from advertising. Unless the famed site reads this and decides to reward financially for the advertisement, case in which the author would be Happy – no pun intended! – to restore the website’s correct name.
 Last post I said I’ll explain what that is; I beg patience from the reader, for that moment hasn’t come yet.