The Psychology Behind Happiness – “How To Be Happy” Series (Part 4)

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the psychology behind happiness

Are you one of those people who believes that you don’t need to read books about happiness because it’s something that comes naturally? What if it doesn’t? What if knowing the science behind happiness could allow you to live a happier life?

This week we’re going to talk about the science behind happiness. Sadly, happiness is one of the most important things in life, but few people understand the psychology behind happiness. Even fewer people take the time to study it.

Many people assume that we naturally know what makes us happy. Is this true? Well, it may have been hundreds of thousands of years ago, before civilization came along and we began to use our brains for mental masturbation. These days, I’d venture to say we don’t automatically know what makes us genuinely happy. Thus, understanding the psychology behind happiness has become essential for our well-being.

If the knowledge of what makes us happy were inherent, it would have to exist in a world where we aren’t conditioned by society regarding how to think and behave. Unfortunately, that world just doesn’t exist.

In truth, society has hijacked the definition of happiness by manipulating our brain’s use of dopamine. As a result, many people end up confusing happiness with other things. They chase happiness but never seem to catch it.

If you can seem to catch happiness, don’t worry, in this article we’ll explain the psychology behind happiness so that you can start reclaiming your happiness.

How dopamine is making you unhappy 

Okay, let’s talk about dopamine. Dopamine is the high that you get when you gamble, have sex, or eat great food. It’s what makes you check your Facebook newsfeed 100 times a day. It’s also what makes you feel great each time someone leaves you a nice comment or likes your stuff on social media.

Let’s explain briefly what dopamine is and what purpose it serves. Dopamine is the center of pleasure and was originally designed to ensure that we look for food so that we don’t die and search for a mate so that we can reproduce. Without dopamine, our species would likely be extinct by now. It’s a pretty good thing, right?

Well, yes and no. In today’s world, this reward system is, in many cases, obsolete. We don’t need to act each time our brain releases dopamine. We don’t need to constantly check our Facebook newsfeed just because it gives us a pleasurable shot of dopamine.

Today’s society is selling a version of happiness that’s making you unhappy. We’ve become addicted to dopamine largely because of marketers who are skilled at exploiting the way it interacts with our brains. We receive multiple shots of dopamine throughout the day and we love it. But is that happiness?

Dopamine can create real addictions. Research conducted at Tulane University showed that, when given permission to self-stimulate their pleasure center, participants did it an average of 40 times per minute. They chose the stimulation of their pleasure center over food! even refusing to eat when hungry.

Lee Seung Seop is an extreme case of these. He died in 2005 at just 28 after playing the game StarCraft for 58 hours straight with very little food or water and no sleep. It was concluded that the cause of death was heart failure induced by exhaustion and dehydration.

It’s easy to understand why marketers constantly look for innovative ways to stimulate our pleasure center. They want us to become addicted to their product. This isn’t particularly healthy. But it doesn’t matter to them, as long as we buy what they’re selling.

Sugar is a great example of this. Sugar can be an addictive substance, and our bodies aren’t used to it due to how recently it became available. Sugar’s addictive properties are part of the reason why it’s so prevalent in most of the food and beverages you find in the supermarket.

Unfortunately, if you want to decrease or remove sugar from your diet, you have to cook your own meals, or at least avoid processed food.

Society is designed to please your ego 

Society has manipulated your ego, which is another way in which it hijacks your happiness. This phenomenon can be clearly seen with branding. I’m not going to get too deep into what the ego is right now, as it’s not the main point of the article. If you’d like to know more about it, you can learn more about it in my article What is the Ego?

In the context of this article, the ego is a tool of marketers. The last thing companies want you to realize is that you don’t need most of the things they’re trying to sell you on. They must make you believe that you need them.

How? By triggering your emotions and manipulating your ego. They make you feel that purchasing their product means you’re important, smart, and part of a special group. You’re not like everybody else, are you? No! You’re much more than that. YOU are special. Unique.

Today’s overconsumption matches the workings of our ego surprisingly well. Guess what? One of the main characteristics of the ego is that it’s never satisfied. Your ego makes you feel as if you never have enough, and it always wants more. Does that  remind you of something? Perhaps it reminds you of some of the commercials that tell you that you need more of whatever you have or must upgrade to the latest version.

Yes, our need for more, more, more manifests itself as overconsumption. In my opinion, this is the reason capitalism has been the dominant economic system for so many years. It aligns perfectly with the wants and needs of the ego: more, more, and more! But guess what? Buying more stuff isn’t going to bring you lasting happiness, peace, or fulfillment.

I was shocked when I heard that, in the United States, lack of credit cards or loans has a negative impact on your credit score. You need to be in debt to be able to borrow more money. I couldn’t believe it. It encourages everyone to play the game of “more”, and gets many people into debt that they can’t repay.

External events have little impact on your happiness 

A big misconception is that you can buy happiness. It’s not what we find out when we look at the psychology behind happiness. Let me share a great study with you that will likely change the way you see happiness. This study, which was done on lottery winners and paraplegics, was very eye-opening for me.

The study, conducted in 1978, evaluated how winning the lottery and becoming a paraplegic influence happiness:

The study found that, a year after the event, both groups were just as happy as they were beforehand. Yes, just as happy (or unhappy)! You can find more about it by watching Dan Gilbert’s Ted Talk, The Surprising Science of Happiness here

Most of us tend to believe that we’ll be happy once we’ve “made it”, But, as this study on happiness shows, that’s simply not true.

No matter what happens to us, we revert back to our predetermined level of happiness once we adapt to the new event. That’s how our minds work, and why you should know the psychology behind happiness.

Does that mean that we can’t be happier than we are right now?  No. What it means is that, in the long run, external events have very little impact on our level of happiness.

In fact, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, 50% of our happiness is determined by genetics, 40% by internal factors, and just 10% by external factors. These external factors include such things as whether we’re single or married, rich or poor, and things of that nature.

Only 10% of our happiness is linked to external factors! That’s probably way less that you thought. The bottom line is this: Your attitude towards life is what influences your happiness, not what happens to you. Now that you better understand the psychology behind happiness, what are you going to do to life a happier life?

In the next article, we’ll discuss further the psychology behind happiness and see what you can do to influence the 40% of your happiness that you do have control over. Stay tuned!

Exercise – Notice how addicted you are

This week, let’s leverage your new understand of the psychology behind happiness to increase your level of happiness. This week’s challenge involves the following:

  1. Looking at the effects of dopamine on your life. Look for situations in which you feel an impulse to do something potentially addictive. It could be the urge to spend hours upon hours playing video games, watching TV, checking Facebook, or going through your emails. Start noticing the craving. When you do, you’ll realize how addicted you are to these things.
  2. Go on a cleanse. Select one thing you’re particularly addicted to. Then, go a full day (or at least half a day) without engaging in that activity. This could mean refusing to check your social media accounts, avoiding the television, or refraining from playing video games.

Previous articles in the “How to Be Happy” Series:

  1. Why Am I Not Happy With My Life? (Part 1)
  2. How to Combat Anxiety and Eliminate Problems (Part 2)
  3. What’s Your Personal Definition of Happiness and Success?  (Part 3)

 

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