SCIENCE & ART OF HAPPINESS

Am I happy ? Happiness is now viewed in various contexts and involves multiple disciplines as neurosciences, psychology, philosophy, economics and social policy. Further, it has several dimensions like social demography, physical health, sexual relationship, and cultural values. Happiness is not a state but an activity. Only you have to decide to become happier. Aristotle has written that the ultimate goal of human life is, simply, happiness. Happiness is achievable by every one – just decide. It is planning for happiness. Happiness is not merely a subjective experience but an objective state of well-being. There are elements of temporary pleasure as well as long term happiness. Sensuous pleasure is derived from the vices while happiness is achieved only by virtues. 

How can we achieve happiness in the age of social media where we are losing direct contact with human, highly competitive environment with one-up manship, chasing for material world and declining moral values. Expert says happiness at home and work is likely to give long term health benefits.    

Is happiness an art with morals and virtues or essentially dealt with scientific principles as a feeling governed by brain function, neurochemicals and hormones. Both art and science of happiness are synergistic and complimentary to each other. There are enormous articles written on the genetic basis of happiness. Interestingly twin studies indicated that genetic factors count for 35-50 percent of happiness. Not to underestimate the physical health and attractiveness as significant factors to influence happiness of an individual. 

Neurosciences studies have shown that certain part of brain and few neurochemicals control the happiness of a person. Happiness causes improved cognition, changes in facial expression, favourable gaze and better eye to eye contact. All these physical features evident in a happy person are ascribed to various hormones and brain chemicals. Hormones are chemicals that are released in the blood by specific glands to control metabolism and maintain homeostasis (state of equilibrium). These hormones are vital for health and well-being of a person. They control growth & development, metabolism (energy), mood, sexual functions, reproductive functions like pregnancy &lactation, sleep, stress, hunger, appetite, and emotions.

Part of brain and neurochemicals are equally involved in various subjective feelings and objective state of well-being. Amygdala represents primitive brain function responsible for emotions. It represents insecurity, indecisiveness, anxiety, self-criticism, ego, procrastination, low self-esteem, short term pleasure and loss of trust. Prefrontal cortex demonstrates higher brain functions and represents confidence, high esteem, leadership, and self-motivation. Neurochemicals (brain) & hormones (glands) related to the feeling of happiness are endocannabinoids (anandamide), dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, GABA, noradrenaline, melatonin, oxytocin, growth hormones, cortisol and sex hormones (estrogens & progesterone).  Anandamide or bliss molecule is a neurochemical release in the brain that bind to specific site to produce heightened happiness. Several studies have also shown its role to reduce anxiety, depression, pain, cancer and infertility. Dopamine is a reward molecule that self-motivates a person for his desire and goal. It gives a feeling of achievement and satisfaction. Oxytocin is a cuddle hormone that makes person loving and trustworthy. A simple hug or touch of  a person affect oxytocin levels and increase the bonding and reduce anxiety and stress. The mother child bonding during early infancy is due to the effect of oxytocin. Breast feeding by mothers not only provide essential nutrients to the baby but also strengthen the bonding, love and trust between them. Endorphins are pain relieving chemicals from the brain that works like opium. The feeling of euphoria after exercise, running etc are mainly due to surge of endorphins in the brain. Both serotonin and noradrenaline are associated with feelings of alertness, energy, confidence and enthusiasm. Depletion of these molecules lead to feeling low, loneliness, depression and suicidal thoughts. Estrogen and progesterone are female sex hormones that are responsible for feel good thoughts and happiness. The first two weeks of menstrual cycle is full of energy, enthusiasm and happiness die to increased levels of estrogen.                          

Does this mean that happiness is entirely an endogenous function that can not be  influenced by man or also governed by controllable exogenous factors. Good news is that the exogenous factors do have a significant role in contributing to the feeling of happiness. Broadly these exogenous factors are behavioural, socio-cultural, geographical, economical, life events and aesthetics. It is found that exogenous factors do play an important role in altering or modifying the endogenous functions related to hormones and neurochemicals in turn affecting the brain. David Nuven, a psychologist from Ohio University reported that people who identified a goal were 19% more likely to be happy and satisfied with their lives.

Happiness is highly wanted feeling among all people. The pursuit of happiness is universal feature and people are just chasing to be happy. Paradoxically it has been observed that more people striving for happiness feel isolated and lonely. People wanting to be more happy often feel lonely. It is universally told that happiness is a state of mind and does not depend on any external source. We find people with all luxuries, good jobs, social reputation and even fame do not feel happy contrary to those who have lost significantly in their lives but always motivated, enthusiastic and happy. How the state of mind differs in these two circumstance?.  Does this mean that brain responds differently to positive and negative stimulus or it has similar  response in both positive and negative situations. The studies have shown that happy people are not insensitive to environmental challenges or negative situation of life. In fact, these people may be tuned towards more important aspects of environment. This coping ability of happy people reflect higher degree of affective flexibility, allowing happier people respond adaptably to both challenges and opportunities. Happy people are more equipped to notice and respond appropriately to both opportunities and threats of their surroundings. These features have been successfully demonstrated by using fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) techniques.       

The pursuit of happiness is ultimate goal  of mankind. Whatever we do in our life be it education, career, business, fame all are to achieve happiness. In spite of increasing comfort and physical well-being people are increasingly becoming unhappy. We are the most comfortable generation of the time but least joyful. We are missing appreciation in small things in search of a larger stuff. We all feel happy at times or multiple times but unable to sustain the happiness.

There are several ways to keep the happiness sustainable by harmonizing the hormones and neurochemicals. Let us quickly glimpse through the elements of happiness. We can say these are sense of deep satisfaction (not pleasure), peace of mind, compassion (largely governed by brain centre), gratitude, forgiveness, purpose of life, and trust. There should be no feeling of jealousy, competition, judgement (primitive brain function), and fear. Living in present with mindfulness is the key to simplify difficult and complex situations.        

Happiness is a not just a mental well-being but a continued feeling of joy, enthusiasm and affirmation to changed environment. Focusing on present, self-worth and unconditional acceptance of situation attenuates psychological threats and makes person feel happy.  

Feeling of happiness can be sustained by few regular practices and habits. These are regular physical exercise, yoga, breathing exercises (pranayama), meditation, maintain good sleep hygiene, prayer, giving to society, enjoying nature, offload gadgets, and social connect with families, friends and people.                

In a study conducted at Harvard on various factors to maintain happiness it was found that social interactions and good interpersonal relationship are the most significant reason to be happy. With increasing social media and losing personal contact, people are now living in illusionary relationship and often rely on distant likes and appreciations.

 It is now urgently  required to take some time out of the busy schedule and meet people in person to discuss and share the feelings of joy, happiness and sorrow. This will not only help to enhance the general well-being and happiness but also reduce loneliness, frustrations, mental stress and risk of depression.            

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