The Science of Happiness

The Science of Happiness
Table of Contents
Table of Contents

Unraveling the Mysteries of the Mind

Happiness. A word that triggers a flood of thoughts, memories, and emotions. But what is happiness exactly? How does it happen? Is it simply a state of mind or something more tangible? Today, we dig into the realms of neuroscience to explore these questions and more. Provide you with research conducted about this topic and a toolkit that can help you synthesize happiness in your life.

Fundamentally, happiness can be described as a state of mind and body. This state is influenced by a dance of chemicals within our brains. Neurotransmitters and neuromodulators, to be exact. These chemicals, while always present in our bodies and brains, exist in varying ratios and levels, contributing significantly to our state of happiness.

The Happiness Cocktail

Neurotransmitters and neuromodulators act as the chemical language of the brain, orchestrating an intricate dance that allows neurons, our brain cells, to communicate and interact with each other.

Among these are two key neurotransmitters, glutamate and GABA. Glutamate is the most abundant neurotransmitter and is involved in cognitive functions like learning and memory. It is an excitatory neurotransmitter, which means it stimulates neurons to fire. On the other hand, GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter, which calms neurons and prevents them from over-firing. The balance between these two neurotransmitters is vital for healthy brain function.

Neuromodulators, including serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine, and epinephrine, each play a unique role in our brain's activities.

Serotonin is often associated with feelings of well-being and happiness. It helps regulate mood, appetite, and sleep. An imbalance in serotonin levels is commonly linked with depression, which is why many antidepressants focus on increasing serotonin levels in the brain.

Dopamine, known as the 'feel-good' neurotransmitter, plays a crucial role in how we feel pleasure. It's also essential for motivating behavior towards rewards and regulating movement.

Acetylcholine is involved in learning, memory, and attention. It plays a major role in the peripheral nervous system, where it helps activate muscles, and in the central nervous system as a neuromodulator.

Finally, epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, is not just a neuromodulator but also a hormone. It prepares our body for 'fight or flight' during stressful situations by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and glucose levels.

These chemicals are always present in our bodies and brains, mixed together in a cocktail of different ratios and levels. The state of happiness, it appears, is largely the result of these ratios and levels. For example, people with a lower baseline of dopamine often report lower levels of happiness compared to those with higher baselines.

However, the state of happiness isn't as simple as having the right amount of dopamine. Consider the extremes: individuals suffering from addiction withdrawal or Parkinson's disease often have severely depleted levels of dopamine, leading to increased depression and decreased happiness. On the other hand, those experiencing a manic phase of bipolar disorder may have extremely high dopamine levels, resulting in an overly euphoric state.

What's crucial to understand here is the complexity of our brain chemistry and the subjectivity of happiness. There's no definitive chemical recipe for happiness, no single neuromodulator or combination thereof that guarantees a state of joy. For example,  while serotonin levels in some depressed individuals can be normal, drugs that increase serotonin often help alleviate their symptoms. This highlights the complexity of our brain chemistry and the elusive nature of happiness.

This exploration brings us to an important realization. Happiness, like other emotions, can be challenging to define precisely using language. When I say, "I'm feeling pretty happy," it might mean something completely different to you. As it stands, we don't have a universally accepted measurement for happiness akin to body temperature or heart rate. Our current methods of measuring neurochemicals in the brain and body only provide rough estimates.

We should embrace the recognition that language may fall short in perfectly capturing our emotions and internal states. While each person's happiness is a unique and personal experience, we can continue our data-driven conversation, striving to better understand this fascinating, complex aspect of the human brain.

Understanding the Factors that Drive Our Joy

When we think about happiness, a multitude of factors come to mind. Some might instantly think about their income and financial stability, while others might consider their relationships, creative freedom, or physical health. The study of happiness is a vast and fascinating field, with researchers employing different methods to understand what truly makes us happy.

Two primary types of research studies have been undertaken in this area. Short-term studies typically take place within a laboratory over the course of days or months, focusing on immediate and transient aspects of happiness. Longitudinal studies, on the other hand, examine individuals over a more extended period, sometimes spanning decades, offering a broader view of happiness over an individual's lifetime.

The Harvard Happiness Project

What does it take to lead a happy and healthy life? This question has been at the heart of human curiosity for centuries, and it was this very curiosity that inspired one of the longest-running studies of adult life spanning almost 80 years: The Harvard Study of Adult Development.

Initiated in 1938 during the throes of the Great Depression, researchers began tracking the health of 268 Harvard sophomores with the goal of uncovering clues to leading a fulfilling life. Little did they know that they were embarking on a study that would span nearly eight decades, providing a wealth of data on physical and mental health.

Among the original Harvard cohort, only 19 men are still alive today, all in their mid-90s. This group includes renowned individuals such as President John F. Kennedy and longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. The study's initial phase, dubbed the Grant Study, was exclusively male due to the all-male nature of Harvard College at the time.

The research expanded over time, incorporating the participants' offspring, who now number 1,300 and are in their 50s and 60s. This allowed scientists to explore how early-life experiences affect health and aging over time. The participants' life trajectories varied greatly, with some becoming successful businessmen, doctors, and lawyers, while others struggled with schizophrenia or alcoholism.

In the 1970s, the study broadened its scope even further by incorporating 456 Boston inner-city residents as part of the Glueck Study. Forty of these participants are still alive today. More than a decade ago, wives also began to be included in the Grant and Glueck studies, bringing a new dimension to the research.

Despite the diversity of the participants, the Harvard Happiness Project unearthed some universal truths about happiness. These findings challenge societal notions about the sources of happiness, demonstrating that it's not simply about income or success, but a complex interplay of factors including quality social connections, time for creativity, physical health, sufficient deep sleep, purposeful work, and a relationship with pets and nature.

Contrary to popular belief, the study suggests that the total amount of income, whether earned or inherited, does not directly correlate with the level of happiness. Once people reach a certain level of income that meets their cost of living, happiness does not scale proportionately with increasing wealth.

This is not to suggest that money is entirely irrelevant to happiness. Indeed, financial stability can act as a buffer against stress, offering the ability to pay for goods and services that facilitate quality social interactions. The ability to participate in social activities within one's circle can significantly impact happiness levels. If financial constraints hinder participation, it can lead to stress and lower levels of happiness.

So, what are the primary drivers of happiness, according to the Harvard happiness project? The key factors include quality social connections, time for open thinking and creativity, physical health, sufficient deep sleep (at least 80% of the nights of your life), purposeful work, and a relationship with pets and nature. The study also suggests a U-shaped function of happiness, with individuals being happier in their 20s, less happy in their 30s and 40s due to increasing responsibilities, and then becoming happier again towards their 50s and 60s. See all the graphs and data-points groups by demographic and age here.

Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System
General Social Survey
Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System
Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System

Interestingly, the total amount of time spent working does not seem to determine one's happiness. Nor does the day of your birthday bring consistent joy—people tend to report lower levels of happiness on their birthdays, possibly due to self-comparison and reflection on unaccomplished goals.

Substance use, particularly chronic nicotine and alcohol consumption, shows a negative correlation with happiness. This includes not only the users themselves but also their family members and romantic partners.

However, one element consistently appears to be a happiness booster: quality social connections. Be it a romantic partner, a friend, a co-worker, or even a brief but genuine interaction at a café, social connections can significantly elevate our happiness. It doesn't always have to be deep and meaningful conversations or shared experiences—just seeing faces in the morning or late afternoon can positively impact our emotional state. The fusiform face area of our brain, which processes faces, is tied to areas associated with emotionality, fear, anxiety, and well-being. Thus, even superficial social interactions, provided they are genuine and both parties are present, can enhance our overall well-being and happiness.

Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism. — Robert Waldinger

Acts of Giving

A remarkable study conducted by Dr. Elizabeth Dunn and her colleagues in 2008 offers insightful findings. The study, published in the esteemed journal "Science," was titled "Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness," and it delved into the intriguing relationship between our spending habits and our happiness levels.

The research was based on a simple but profound question: Do individuals who spend money on others, a concept known as 'prosocial spending,' experience more happiness than those who spend on themselves? The answer, quite surprisingly for some, was a resounding yes.

Participants in the study were given a certain amount of money. Some were instructed to spend it on themselves, while others were directed to spend it on others. The results were striking. Those who utilized their funds for the benefit of others reported a significantly higher level of happiness compared to those who splurged the money on themselves.

Dunn's team didn't stop there. They widened their research net, surveying a larger sample of individuals about their spending habits and general happiness. Once again, they found that people who spent more of their money on others, be it in the form of gifts or charitable donations, generally reported higher happiness levels than those who spent more on themselves.

One of the most intriguing findings from Dunn's research was that the happiness derived from giving was not confined to monetary gifts. It also extended to other resources, including effort and time. The act of giving, it appears, has a powerful ability to boost our own happiness.

But here's where it gets even more interesting. The degree of increase in our own happiness, according to the study, is in some way proportional to the extent to which the recipient of our giving genuinely needed the help and appreciated it. This adds a new dimension to the concept of giving—it's not just about the act of giving itself, but also about the perceived impact of our generosity on the recipient.

In an especially revealing experiment, Dunn's team found that employees who devoted a greater fraction of their bonuses to prosocial spending experienced more happiness after receiving the bonus. Surprisingly, the way they spent their bonus was a more critical predictor of their happiness than the size of the bonus itself.


In parallel to studies exploring the relationship between giving and happiness, a fascinating line of research delves into the role of gratitude and environmental conditions in shaping our happiness.

The link between gratitude and happiness has been a topic of investigation for many researchers. A compelling study by Dr. Mandich stands out in this domain. In the experiment, participants were invited into the lab and asked to listen to certain types of music while focusing on things they were grateful for and things they particularly enjoyed. This exercise of directing their attention and efforts towards positive aspects of life highlighted the interplay between personal effort and environmental conditions in fostering happiness.

Significantly, research has shown that gratitude, especially when received or observed, has a profound effect on our well-being. The study concluded that experiencing gratitude stimulates the release of neurochemicals and activates brain areas associated with prosocial behaviors, leading to feelings of well-being, including happiness. Interestingly, it was found that receiving or observing gratitude had a more potent impact on these positive feelings compared to expressing gratitude.

Its important to note the interplay between our emotional state and our environment. The feelings of well-being resulting from gratitude were more pronounced when the gratitude was received from someone who genuinely wished to express it. Similarly, the sense of well-being experienced by the giver was more intense when the receiver genuinely needed the assistance. Moreover, importance of being in a pleasant environment, such as a cheerful home or workplace, in augmenting the feelings of happiness cannot be understated. It appears that our surroundings can influence our emotions, reinforcing the idea that our mood doesn't exist in isolation.

Gratitude is not merely a feeling we experience. It is also an act we can consciously perform, like maintaining gratitude lists or expressing appreciation. Both receiving and expressing gratitude can evoke neurochemical changes associated with happiness and well-being. However, the positive impact is significantly amplified when the act of giving or receiving is accompanied by a genuine need or intention.

From this perspective, cultivating happiness requires both personal effort and favorable environmental conditions. As we take conscious steps to foster gratitude and positivity, our environment plays a supporting role in our pursuit of happiness. This makes the journey towards happiness a dynamic process, intertwined with our interactions with others and our surroundings.

When Wanting Is Better than Having

In the realm of materialism and happiness, another intriguing study has surfaced. Marsha L. Richins, in her research titled "When Wanting Is Better than Having: Materialism, Transformation Expectations, and Product-Evoked Emotions in the Purchase Process," delves into the complex psychology of anticipation and acquisition.

This study illuminates a fascinating aspect of our quest for happiness: the joy of anticipation often outweighs the pleasure of acquisition. It turns out that looking forward to something, be it a vacation, a new gadget, or even a savory meal, can produce a more significant spike in our happiness neurochemicals than actually obtaining the object of our desire.

So, what's the science behind this? Well, the process of anticipation stimulates our brain's reward circuits, prompting the release of dopamine, our 'feel-good' neurotransmitter. This is the same chemical that floods our brains when we eat chocolate, have a good laugh, or fall in love. It's not just the end product that matters, but the entire journey towards it.

This is not to say that material possessions cannot bring happiness. But, it's essential to understand that happiness tied to material goods often has a short lifespan, a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation. We become used to new acquisitions quickly, and the initial joy fades away. On the other hand, the happiness derived from anticipation is more prolonged and can be a source of joy even before the actual acquisition.

However, don't mistake this as a call to continually chase after new desires. The key to sustainable happiness might not be in the constant pursuit of new possessions but in savoring the anticipation, enjoying the journey, and finding contentment in the experiences along the way. After all, as the old saying goes, "Life is about the journey, not the destination".

A wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind

Another insightful study deserves our attention. Daniel T. Gilbert's research, "A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind," uncovers the substantial impact of mind-wandering on our happiness. This study suggests that a more focused mind is often a happier one, regardless of the activity at hand.

Gilbert's research found that a wandering mind, one that is not focused on the task at hand, tends to be less content. This is true even when the mind wanders to pleasant topics. To put it in numbers, people's minds wandered to pleasant topics 43% of the time, unpleasant topics 27% of the time, and neutral topics 31% of the time. The key revelation was that people were no happier when thinking about these pleasant topics than when they were engrossed in their current activity. This suggests that the mere act of focusing on what we are doing is a more powerful happiness inducer than anything else, even if we don't particularly enjoy the task.

This research reinforces the importance of mindfulness and being present in our activities. Moreover, Gilbert's study highlights the benefits of practices like meditation, which enhance our ability to focus. Work from Wendy Suzuki's lab at New York University has shown that even a brief meditation practice, such as focusing on one's breath for about 13 minutes daily, can significantly improve focus, mood, sleep, and cognitive function.

Try out Yoga Nidra meditation before you sleep.

Another study also touches on the role of attention in social interactions, specifically regarding eye contact. Contrary to common belief, ongoing eye contact is not critical to fostering a sense of connection. Instead, the natural rhythm of conversation involves shifts in and out of shared attention, marked by periods of mutual eye contact followed by looking away. This pattern of alternating focus helps to sustain in-depth, connected conversations.

In essence, Gilbert's research underscores the importance of maintaining focus and being present, both in our tasks and our social interactions. It encourages us to cultivate quality connections and be fully engaged in our environment, as these factors significantly contribute to our overall well-being and happiness.

The Paradox Of Choice

As we continue to explore the science of happiness, it is imperative to consider the role of decision-making and choice in shaping our emotional well-being. The process of making choices and sticking to them has been found to significantly influence our happiness, according to research conducted by Dan Gilbert and others.

In a series of experiments, participants were presented with a variety of options and monitored for their levels of satisfaction and happiness. A consistent finding across these studies was that maintaining a constant state of decision-making often led to decreased levels of happiness. When participants were compelled to stick to a choice, they reported greater satisfaction and happiness compared to when they had the freedom to change their minds. This phenomenon aligns with the concept of ego-depletion, which posits that intense focus on a task can exhaust our cognitive resources, thereby affecting our ability to perform subsequent tasks requiring impulse control and cognitive effort.

To further illustrate this concept, consider the act of purchasing an article of clothing or selecting a life partner. These choices, despite their varying degrees of importance, both lead to a dopamine surge, promoting feelings of reward, happiness, and well-being. However, if we allow ourselves to ponder other possibilities, our focus and attention towards the reward associated with our initial choice become divided. As a result, the neurochemical reward associated with our choice is diluted by the number of alternate options we consider, leading to a decrease in overall happiness.

Gilbert's research illuminates a crucial aspect of 'synthetic happiness'. He argues that limiting our choices after making them, and truly investing in the decisions we've made, not only contributes to our synthetic happiness but is also integral to our natural happiness. By focusing on our choices and disallowing constant evaluative decision-making, we can better harness the feelings of happiness associated with our decisions.

Therefore, extending the lessons from Gilbert's previous work, it becomes clear that happiness doesn't merely stem from being present and engaged in our tasks and social interactions. It also necessitates a certain level of commitment to the choices we make. By limiting our options post-decision and focusing on the choices we've made, we can pave the way towards a more content and fulfilled life.

Having fewer choices can promote happiness - Harvard Health


To conclude our exploration of scientific research around happiness, we now shift our focus towards the intriguing concept of allogrooming - a behavior typically observed among social animals, including humans, that involves mutual grooming. Allogrooming is more than just an act of cleanliness; it's a powerful tool for creating and strengthening social bonds. This behavior stimulates a particular category of neurons called the C tactile fibers. These sensory neurons, which are embedded within our skin, respond to light touch, leading to a sense of well-being in the person being touched.

Allogrooming has been found to stimulate the release of oxytocin, a hormone and neurotransmitter often referred to as the 'bonding hormone' due to its role in social bonding and trust. The surge in oxytocin levels during allogrooming tends to be even more pronounced than during other forms of touch, thus underscoring the significance of allogrooming as a potent, non-verbal bonding behavior.

Remarkably, this phenomenon isn't exclusive to human interactions. When humans pet dogs, for instance, this act of cross-species allogrooming triggers substantial increases in oxytocin levels in both the pet and the human. This mutual exchange not only deepens the bond between the pet and its owner but also generates feelings of comfort and well-being.

According to a study titled "The Influence of Interactions with Dogs on Affect, Anxiety, and Arousal in Children", it was found that these interactions with dogs could have a profound effect on children's emotional health, reducing anxiety and promoting a more positive affect. The simple act of petting a dog, akin to allogrooming, can be a powerful source of emotional support and happiness.

Thus, as we delve deeper into the science of happiness, it becomes increasingly clear that our interactions – be it with other humans, our environment, or even pets – play a crucial role in shaping our emotional well-being. These interactions stimulate a complex interplay of neurochemicals that not only make us feel bonded but also contribute significantly to our overall happiness.

Happiness Toolkit

Understanding the mechanics of happiness can empower us with a toolkit for cultivating personal joy and satisfaction. Happiness, as we've explored, can be broadly categorized into two types: Natural Happiness and Synthetic Happiness.

Natural Happiness is the emotional state we experience when we achieve desired outcomes or milestones in our lives. This could include earning a degree, finding a romantic partner, attaining a specific income level, or engaging in work that fulfills us. It's the kind of happiness that arises from external circumstances aligning with our desires and aspirations.

Synthetic Happiness, on the other hand, is a more powerful and accessible form of happiness that originates internally. It doesn't rely on the fulfillment of specific desires or the achievement of external milestones. Instead, Synthetic Happiness is about exerting control over our internal state, framing our perception of life events, and making deliberate choices about how we react to the world around us.

Two concepts important to understanding how to create synthetic happiness are: Hedonic Set Points and the Dopamine System of Anticipation of Rewards. Hedonic Set Points refer to our baseline level of happiness. Each person has a unique hedonic set point that they generally return to, regardless of positive or negative life events. It's like our happiness 'default setting'. While this set point can vary slightly due to life circumstances, a significant part of it is thought to be genetically determined. However, through deliberate efforts such as cultivating gratitude, maintaining focus, and engaging in prosocial behaviors, we can positively influence our hedonic set point.

The Dopamine System of Anticipation of Rewards is another key player in our happiness toolkit. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, often dubbed the 'feel-good' chemical, which plays a vital role in how we experience pleasure and reward. Intriguingly, our dopamine system is more activated by the anticipation of a reward than by the reward itself. This means that the process of working towards a goal can stimulate feelings of happiness even before the goal is achieved.

While we might not always have control over the circumstances that influence Natural Happiness, we can certainly harness the power of Synthetic Happiness by learning to control our internal states, adjust our perspectives, and revel in the journey towards our goals as much as the achievement of them.

Environmental Toolkit

Embrace Morning Bright Light: Incorporating regular exposure to bright light in the early hours of waking can have significant benefits on mood and sleep quality throughout the day. It is essential to seek natural sunlight or bright indoor lighting to help regulate our circadian rhythm.

Minimize Artificial Light at Night: Avoiding exposure to artificial light between the hours of 10 PM and 4 AM is crucial. Bright light during this period can negatively impact the dopamine circuits in our brain and body, potentially leading to depression and persistent low mood. If exposure to artificial light is unavoidable, consider dimming the lights as much as possible. Today, many individuals experience a lack of bright light during the day and excessive exposure to artificial light at night. To counterbalance this, create a bright working or home environment during the day and dim the lights from 6 PM to 10 PM. Additionally, spending 5-10 minutes in natural sunlight during sunset can adjust the sensitivity of your retina, mitigating the detrimental effects of artificial light on your dopamine system.

Optimize Your Surroundings: Adjust your home/work environment to create a cheerful and aesthetically pleasant atmosphere, as it has a significant impact on our happiness and productivity. A visually appealing and comfortable environment evokes positive emotions, reduces stress, and promotes relaxation. Personalizing the space fosters a sense of ownership and connection, while an organized and clutter-free setting reduces cognitive load and enhances mental clarity. By optimizing our surroundings, we can cultivate a positive mindset, improve overall well-being, and boost productivity.

Clean Your Room and Make Your Bed: Taking the time to clean and organize your living space is a valuable practice that can have a profound impact on your overall well-being. Imagine coming home from a day where nothing went the way you expected. However, as you enter your living space, you find that your bed is neatly made, and your house is clean and tidy. Instantly, you are greeted by a sense of calm and tranquility. The orderly environment provides a sanctuary from the chaos outside, allowing you to decompress, recharge, and regain a sense of control. It becomes a refuge where you can relax, reflect, and find solace, even in the midst of a challenging day. By creating a clean and organized space, you cultivate an environment that supports your well-being and becomes a source of comfort in times of stress.

Physical Toolkit

Engaging in physically demanding tasks, even when you don't feel motivated, can have transformative effects. Pushing yourself to do hard things challenges your limits and fosters personal growth. Additionally, it is crucial to be mindful of bad habits that flood your system with dopamine, such as mindlessly scrolling on social media or consuming sugary foods excessively. By limiting these habits, you regain control over your dopamine response and can redirect your energy towards more productive endeavors. Finally, having a hobby provides a creative outlet and a sense of fulfillment outside of work or responsibilities. Whether it's painting, playing a musical instrument, or gardening, investing time in a hobby nourishes your well-being and promotes a balanced and fulfilling life.

Mental Toolkit

Setting goals is a powerful tool for personal growth. Start by setting small, achievable goals and gradually build upon them. This allows for a sense of progress and accomplishment, motivating you to reach higher aspirations. Additionally, practicing mindfulness cultivates a state of present-moment awareness, enabling you to fully engage in tasks and enhance focus. Expressing gratitude for the blessings in your life fosters a positive mindset and appreciation for the present. To stay focused, avoid letting your mind wander and commit to being fully present in each task. Remember that comparing yourself to others is counterproductive; focus on your own journey and celebrate your unique progress. Streamline decision-making by limiting choices and committing to the choices you make. Taking more responsibility and accountability for your actions empowers personal growth and fosters a proactive mindset. By implementing these practices, you can create a more intentional and fulfilling life.

Social Toolkit

Spending quality time with family and friends is vital for nurturing relationships, cultivating happiness, and emphasizing the significance of strong social connections. The Harvard happiness project underlines the importance of such bonds in our overall well-being. In addition, giving thoughtful gifts holds even greater meaning when there is genuine desire and reciprocity involved. When someone receives a gift from someone who truly wants to give, and both parties reciprocate feelings of well-being, the impact is profound. Similarly, for the giver, the feelings of well-being are heightened when the recipient genuinely appreciates and benefits from the gift. These acts of giving and receiving foster gratitude and evoke neurochemical changes associated with happiness and well-being. By surrounding ourselves with people who express gratitude, cultivating meaningful connections, and appreciating even the briefest interactions, we create an environment that amplifies positive emotions, enhances overall well-being, and strengthens the bonds that enrich our lives. It is also essential to have a support network of individuals who will be there for you during difficult times. Even superficial interactions, such as a friendly chat with someone at a café or a brief hello accompanied by a smile, can have a lasting positive effect on overall well-being not just once, but consistantly. Being present and appreciating these interactions, no matter how fleeting, can contribute to your happiness. Lastly, being dependable and reliable builds trust and strengthens relationships, reinforcing a sense of connection and support. By embracing these principles, you can create meaningful and fulfilling connections with others, leading to enhanced well-being for yourself and those around you.


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