How to Find Happiness in an Unhappy World

Circuits of Reward Source

Circuits of Reward

Dimensions of Happiness

Happiness is almost never where you think you will find it. If you become too impatient — if you never learn how to set the table and allow happiness to come to dinner — you may set off down the chemical “path to happiness” that rarely reaches a happy destination.

Chemical Happiness

The brain utilises a number of chemicals which can be involved in pleasure, reward, and happy feelings, so it is natural that many people attempt to short-circuit the normal brain pathways in order to obtain a “quick-fix happiness” that cannot last.

A lot of people get addicted to chemicals — alcohol, cocaine, amphetamine, heroin, and nicotine. Why do they do that? And why aren’t they happy? It is because brains have a variety of chemical systems that regulate their electrical activities in waking and sleeping, and the addictive drugs artificially stimulate those systems, but the feelings are not those of joy. __ Source

The body’s natural chemicals of happiness are too numerous and complex in their interactions to discuss here. But six “chemicals of happiness” in particular are often discussed in the popular literature, and are worth mentioning:

A natural high – Six major hormones and chemicals associated with emotion

• Dopamine

This neurotransmitter feeds the reward pathway in the brain, and is involved in motivation, drive, pleasure and addiction. Abnormally high levels of dopamine are linked to loss of contact with reality, delusions and lack of emotion, while low levels have been associated with addictive behaviour and risk taking.

• Noradrenaline

Chemically related to adrenaline, this neurotransmitter is a stress hormone that co-ordinates the fight-or-flight response. It mediates many of the physical components of emotion, including raised heart rate, and also acts in the brain enhancing alertness, cognition and decision-making behaviour.


Gamma amino butyric acid (GABA) is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain – it decreases nerve transmission, allowing neurons time to recover. Increased GABA activity in the brain relieves anxiety and reduces stress.

• Serotonin

First recognised for its ability to constrict blood vessels, serotonin has become widely known as the “happiness hormone.” Chemically known as 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), increasing the available serotonin level in the brain is the main target of the most commonly used antidepressants.

• Beta-endorphin

Endorphins are natural opioids, produced by the body in response to pain, excitement and even exercise. Beta-endorphin binds to the same mu receptors as the pain-relieving drug morphine. These receptors, present on nerves in the brain and spinal cord, modulate the activity of nerves, causing mild sedation, relieving pain and giving a sense of wellbeing.

• Oxytocin

Often described as the “bonding hormone”, the “trust hormone”, or sometimes even the “love hormone”, oxytocin is unique to mammals. Although research is still in its infancy, oxytocin is thought to play an important role in human intimacy, childbirth, sexual arousal, trust and pair bonding.

__ Independent


The deeper story is far more complex and interesting, of course. The number of chemicals involved is far greater, and they are incorporated into a body-brain dynamic and time-linked system of past-present-future memories, perceptions, and anticipations. But most people prefer to oversimplify, and as long as humans confuse chemicals with happiness, destructive addictions are likely to play a prominent role in the lives of many readers and their loved ones.

Economic Happiness

The economics of happiness involves cognitive calculations of gain and loss, of novelty, of anticipated pleasure or comfort, and much more. “The Joyless Economy” by Tibor Scitovsky, is an intriguing look at the economics of happiness which provides a depth to the topic often neglected by more popular works on happiness.

From the table of contents of “The Joyless Economy:”

  • Between Strain and Boredom
  • The Pursuit of Novelty
  • Comfort vs. Pleasure
  • Necessities and Comforts
  • Income and Happiness

All of those topics lead into more technical economic discussions of happiness and the human experience. Scitovsky looks at the delicate balance between boredom and excessive strain, discusses the innate drive toward novelty, confronts the common conflict between comfort and pleasure, and continues ever more deeply into economic issues that impinge on human happiness.

The book may be previewed on Google Books and Chapter 5 is available in PDF form.

Brain Circuits of Reward, Pleasure, Learning

Brain Circuits of Reward, Pleasure, Learning

Genetics of Happiness

Results of studies on genetic factors indicated an average effectiveness of genetic about 35 -50 percent on happiness. In spite of difficulties in finding special genes, several genes distributed to emotion and mood. Neuroscience studies showed that some part of brain (e.g. amygdala, hipocamp and limbic system) and neurotransmitters (e.g. dopamine, serotonin, norepinefrine and endorphin) play a role in control of happiness.

… In a comprehensive investigation, happiness (subjective well-being) was measured in a birth-record-based sample of several thousand middle-aged twins using the Well-Being scale of Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire. Socioeconomic status, educational attainment, family income, marital status, an indicant of religious commitment could not account for more than about 3% of the variance in well-being. However, from 44% to 52% of the variance in well-being were associated with genetic variation. When twins have been retested after few years, authors found that the heritability of the stable component of subjective well-being approaches 80% (6).

… Davidson and his colleagues have reported large individual differences in baseline levels of asymmetric activation in prefrontal cortex, related to a person’s typical emotional style. Individuals with a positive emotional style show higher levels of left than right prefrontal activation at rest (using EEG or fMRI), while those with a negative emotional style tend to show higher levels of right than left prefrontal activation at rest (18–20). Davidson and colleagues have also reported that, independent of emotional style; induced negative mood increases relative right-sided activation, whereas induced positive mood increases relative left-sided activation (21).

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Genetic predispositions are naturally influenced and often overwhelmed by early childhood environments, and the child’s observations of the effectiveness of coping mechanisms of persons around them.

Limbic System

Limbic System

Happiness Thinking

The habits of thought influence levels of happiness and unhappiness in a powerful and almost perpetual manner. Such habits are crucially important because they are central to life satisfaction — and they are amenable to conscious change when a person is motivated.

Being focused on negative thoughts effectively saps the brain of its positive forcefulness, slows it down, and can go as far as dimming your brain’s ability to function, even creating depression. On the flip side, thinking positive, happy, hopeful, optimistic, joyful thoughts decreases cortisol and produces serotonin, which creates a sense of well-being. This helps your brain function at peak capacity.

Happy thoughts and positive thinking, in general, support brain growth, as well as the generation and reinforcement of new synapses, especially in your prefrontal cortex (PFC), which serves as the integration center of all of your brain-mind functions.

In other words, your PFC not only regulates the signals that your neurons transmit to other brain parts and to your body, it allows you to think about and reflect upon what you are physically doing. In particular, the PFC allows you to control your emotional responses through connections to your deep limbic brain. It gives you the ability to focus on whatever you choose and to gain insight about your thinking processes. The PFC is the only part of your brain that can control your emotions and behaviors and help you focus on whatever goals you elect to pursue.

Optimistic people tend to have better moods, to be more persevering and successful, and to experience better physical health. One factor may be simply that optimists attribute good events to themselves in terms of permanence, citing their traits and abilities as the cause, and bad events as transient (using words like “sometimes” or “lately”), or the fault of other people. In addition, optimists:

Lead happy, rich, fulfilled lives.
Spend the least amount of time alone, and the most time socializing.
Have good relationships.
Have better health habits.
Have stronger immune systems.
Live longer than pessimists.

__ Your Brain on Happiness

As we have seen, genetics plays a strong role in determining where a person naturally falls on the optimism-pessimism spectrum. But by utilising tools of mental habit formation, a person can consciously learn to lead his own mind into more optimistic patterns of thinking on a long-term habitual basis. For a pessimist to alter his defeatist thinking patterns is no easier nor any more difficult than for an addict to turn away from his object of addiction. In fact, escaping an addiction usually involves breaking out of defeatist patterns of thought, sooner or later.

Mind over Misery: The fascinating story of how David Burns MD escaped the conventional psychiatry trap and helped fuel a revolution in non-drug treatment for depression.

Non-Drug Approaches to Being Happier, for Unhappy People

Cognitive mood therapy is relatively inexpensive, and a good place to start. It avoids the potentially serious side effects of antidepressants, and can often move a depressed person to a far more tolerable level of mood.

Hypnosis, mindfulness meditation, and/or neurofeedback can be very useful adjuncts to cognitive mood therapy, for persons who want to generate deeper levels of subconscious healing and bad habit breaking. Of those three, mindfulness meditation is least dependent upon the expertise of a therapist.

Conventional psychoanalysis should most often be seen as a relatively painless but enabling way of giving money to someone who is likely more screwed up than you are yourself. But occasionally a brilliant and eclectic analyst may fall into your path who is able and willing to help you find more effective roads to happiness than you have found to this point.

The World Can Be a Very Unhappy Place

But You Do Not Have to Add to the Unhappiness

The human condition is a story of loss. We cannot escape pain and loss in our lives, no one can. But we can make choices that allow us to experience a great deal of joy and happiness in our lives, in spite of suffering and loss. Unless you were lucky in your genes and your upbringing, it is not necessarily an easy task. Best to make it a group project.

Bonus Happiness Checklists

  • Ask “What am I grateful for?”
  • Explore the amazing transformational world of gratitude

  • Label those negative emotions. Give it a name and your brain isn’t so bothered by it.
  • Bring those tormenters into the light where they can be seen for what they are

  • Go for “good enough” instead of “best decision ever made on Earth.”
  • “Good enough” decisions allow you to move on beyond the “sticking point”

  • Hugs, hugs, hugs. Don’t text — touch.
  • Human contact works wonders


  • Listen to music from the happiest time in your life
  • Musical time travel helps transition to happier moods in the present

  • Smile…
  • Better yet, laugh!

  • Think about your goals: It changes how you see the world and releases happy chemicals in your noggin.
  • Setting goals and moving toward tells the deep brain to anticipate good things to come

  • Get your sleep: Depressed people don’t sleep well. And people who don’t sleep well get depressed.
  • Good sleep, good food, good exercise, lead to good health which is an important component of happiness

  • Beat procrastination by reducing stress and doing a simple thing to get started: Listen to those happy-era tunes and then assemble all the materials you need to get cranking.
  • Some people find it helpful to jump in the shower and cycle from hot to cold repeatedly! Then assemble your tools and materials and get to work.


The brain dislikes loose ends and hanging threads — things that hold you back. The brain likes moving ahead, past milestones of achievement and competence, meeting rites of passage with mastery and flair.

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5 Responses to How to Find Happiness in an Unhappy World

  1. Pingback: Drawing On The Right Side Of Your Brain Exercises

  2. Jim says:

    I wonder to what extent happiness is that strongly selected for. If depression and unhappiness had no biological value and the “up” emotions were uniformly beneficial natural selection would have eliminated depression and unhappiness long ago. Everybody would be constantly “up”. The persistence of “down” emotions suggest that they have important biological value in survival and reproduction.

    • alfin2101 says:

      These are two different things. Chronic defeatism is quite different from normal negative emotions that come and go in the course of everyday living.

      Normal negative emotions are an integral part of every healthy person, and need to be accepted as such. “Sentic Cycles” are a type of emotional exercise and calibration which take this integration of emotions into account.

      Biological evolution does not work in the manner that you suggest, although sometimes thinking as if it does helps to generate interesting ideas.

  3. Don O'Brien says:

    What causes any psychological addiction is unimportant. Perform Sentic Cycles at least five times. During the Hate phase hate every aspect about whatever addiction you want to stop. You will soon no longer have the urges, and will actually notice the absence of urges. As you continue to do cycles regularly, your mixed up emotions, often caused by lying to yourself, will sort themselves out very soon, too.

    I worked for Manfred Clynes in Sydney in the eighties, and over the decades have taught dozens how to cure their own addiction quickly…without a relapse. While performing sentic cycles, you become your own best therapist, because you cannot lie to yourself comfortably while doing one.

  4. Pingback: The Stable Core at the Heart of Every Effective Risk-Taker – The Dangerous Child

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