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Happiness Isn’t Just a Feeling, It’s a Science

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We often chase happiness as if it’s a distant goalpost, always just out of reach. But what if we’ve been approaching it all wrong? What if happiness isn’t just a fleeting emotion but a science that can be studied, understood, and applied? 

What is happiness, really?

Happiness is a complex emotional state that has been the subject of philosophical debate for centuries. But it’s often defined as a combination of life satisfaction and the presence of more positive emotions than negative ones. It’s not just about feeling good in the moment but also about being content with life as a whole.

The biochemical basis of happiness

Our brains are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins play a crucial role in our emotional well-being. Dopamine, often dubbed the “feel-good hormone”, is associated with pleasure and reward. Serotonin regulates mood, and a deficiency can lead to depression. Endorphins act as natural painkillers and mood elevators.

A 2003 study showed that mindfulness meditation led to changes in the brain regions associated with happiness and reduced symptoms of stress. This suggests that activities promoting the release of these neurotransmitters can have a lasting impact on our emotional state.

The role of external factors

While our biochemistry plays a part, external factors like relationships, work-life balance, and even income can influence our happiness. But research indicates that once basic needs are met, additional income has a diminishing impact on happiness. A seminal study by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton found that emotional well-being increases with income up to about $75,000 per year, but not much beyond that. This challenges the popular notion that more money equals more happiness.

Can happiness be learned?

The concept of “learned optimism” suggests that happiness can be cultivated. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques, for instance, teach individuals to challenge negative thought patterns and replace them with more positive beliefs.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor, argues that about 50% of our happiness is determined by genetics, 10% by life circumstances, and the remaining 40% is under our control. This “40% rule” implies that we have a significant say in our own happiness, and it’s not just a matter of fate or circumstance.

The pursuit of meaningfulness

It’s not just about chasing pleasurable experiences; meaningful activities often bring us the most joy. Whether it’s pursuing a passion, helping others, or working towards a long-term goal, these activities provide a sense of purpose that contributes to our overall happiness.

The takeaway

Happiness isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula; it’s a complex interplay of biochemical, psychological, and external factors. While some aspects are beyond our control, a significant portion of our emotional well-being is within our grasp. By understanding the science behind happiness, we can make more informed choices that lead to a fulfilling life.


Felicity Greenway, PhD is a researcher in the field of positive psychology and an author.

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