We all want to be happy in our lives, don’t we? But what does it really mean to be happy and what is the science behind it?
For centuries, philosophers and scientists have grappled with the idea of happiness, and how you measure it in people. And although happiness is something we all look for in our lives, sometimes we find it tricky to describe.
Look at how we measure success: we use numbers, like Gross National Product (GDP), which tells a story about how rich (or poor) we are as a country.
But did you know one country, Bhutan, values happiness so much that it measures its success by how happy everyone is? Rather than counting up how much money everyone has, they find out how happy each person feels, leading to an overall measurement of Gross National Happiness. Pretty cool eh?
But what is the actual science behind happiness? What happens in our brains and our bodies to make us feel happy? And what can we do to alter this?
Happiness is partly genetic
The latest scientific research tells us that happiness is a mixture of how happy you are with your life and how good you feel day-to-day. These are generally pretty stable throughout our lives because about 50% of our general happiness is determined by our genes. That means that we inherit some of our ability to feel happy from our parents, via our genetic makeup.
The good news is that around 40% of our happiness is made up of things we have some control over. That means there are things we can do to improve our general happiness, but before we go into that, let’s dig deeper into those chemicals in our brains that are responsible for our feeling of happiness.
The chemicals in our brain that determine our happiness are not straightforward. There isn’t just one particular chemical in a certain amount that will make us happy. Instead, the levels of “happiness hormones” like dopamine and serotonin, are different in each person and will vary from one day to the next.
Let’s take serotonin first. This is a neurotransmitter which means that it’s like a chemical messenger. It’s created in the brain and in the intestines, but it’s circulated in your blood throughout your central nervous system.
Serotonin is a big part of the science of happiness and is often known as the “happiness chemical”, because the more serotonin you feel, the greater your feeling of confidence and well-being. On the flip side, people who have low levels of serotonin circulating in their bodies, are more likely to report low mood and even depression.
Serotonin is a chemical that is more abundant when you feel valued by those around you. As social animals, this feeling of connectedness is an important part of happiness.
Can you increase your serotonin levels? Yes! Getting lots of sunshine, exercise and cuddles all help to increase serotonin levels naturally. Likewise, you can even try visualising something that makes you happy and that might help you to feel those happy vibes!
Dopamine, another neurotransmitter, is produced in the brain and circulated around the body to affect your heart rate, your blood pressure, and even your experience of pain.
But unlike serotonin, dopamine is released by your body like a reward for something great, like when you’ve reached a goal or had an amazing game of football. You experience something wonderful and your body rewards you by rushing your body with this feel-good hormone, making you feel happy and fulfilled.
Can you increase your dopamine levels? The answer is, yes! Exercise is a great way to do this; so is getting enough sleep and eating healthily.
Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that’s released when you experience positive physical or emotional contact with another human being and fills you with feelings of calm, trust and security.
It’s the hormone that’s vital to parent-child relationships, particularly in breastfeeding, childbirth and early bonding, but it can also be experienced between friends and when you fall in love.
Can you increase your oxytocin levels? Yes, of course you can! It’s literally as easy as giving someone you love a great big hug.
Endorphins are the body’s natural pain relievers and are produced in the pituitary glands and the central nervous system.
And as if relieving pain wasn’t amazing enough, endorphins actually increase your experience of pleasure. Just like dopamine, they’re released when you’ve experienced something nice, like playing a great game or eating a delicious cake. When you do sport, you get a rush of endorphins which can make you feel a great sense of well-being.
Can you increase your endorphins? You bet! Best way is to do some exercise that you love. Maybe whack up the music and get dancing, or get your football boots on and go for a kick-about.
Happiness is about more than just chemicals
Although some of our ability to experience general happiness comes from our genetics, the great news is that happiness isn’t fixed.
That means that with effort and consistency, we can improve our happiness levels, a bit like how we can affect our overall health by getting lots of exercise and eating the right food.
There are certain habits that have been proven to change people’s levels of happiness chemicals. Practising gratitude, building close relationships, helping others in need, getting enough sleep and exercise and eating healthy food, are all proven to improve your brain chemistry and improve your day-to-day happiness.
What do you find makes you instantly happy? Does it give you that exciting buzz, or does it fill you with that lovely feeling of safety and calm?
Mindfulness has been proved to be a great way to keep happy. If you haven’t heard of mindfulness, it’s the practice of doing an activity you can get fully immersed in so that your mind calms down and you feel those lovely happiness hormones in your body.
Our “Think and Tinker” box has some amazing activities to fully immerse you, get your hands and brains focusing, and give you that rush of satisfaction when you’ve completed each task.
- A rubber band racing car kit – build-it then optimise its performance.
- Cool Catapults – build a variety of different types of catapults then see which one shoots the furthest.
- A go-slow marble run (Jumbo only) – see how slow you can make the marble go and time it with your collectable digital timer.
- Well, well, well (Jumbo only) – Create a pulley system for a well and see how fast you can scoop all the water.