What is true happiness?

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Much of what we believe about the causes and sources of happiness, simply isn’t true. People overestimate how much impact both good and bad events will have on them in the future. People believe that if good things happen they’re going to be ecstatic and that that joy will last a very long time, in fact they are ecstatic but the joy quickly dissipates. People believe if bad things happen like losing a lover, losing an expensive possession, losing a job that they will be devastated for a very long time. In fact they are devastated for a very short time. In general people do really good when things go really bad.

There is no such thing as pleasure without pain, of whatever sort emotional or physical or otherwise. Your nervous system is a differential engine. It looks at differences, it looks at contrast. That is all it cares about. It integrates information by interrogating a bunch of little differences in things. There is a general concept, that all adversary is bad and scientific research doesn’t really support that. One of the key ingredients to happiness is being able to recover from adversary more quickly. So it’s not that people who are happy don’t respond to adversary, they actually do. But that they show an appropriate response and that they come back down to base level happiness more quickly.

Any discussion of happiness centers around Dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter in your brain. Dopamine is responsible for emotions such as happiness and pleasure it’s often called the reward chemical. It’s one of the chemical signals that pass information from one neuron to the next in the tiny spaces between them (the synapse). But how does it exactly work? electrical impulses come down the nerve and then hit the connection. This then causes a  release of chemicals, the chemicals fuse to the next nerve cell and then they bind to receptors of the nerve cell. Pretty much as you age from about adolescent years onward you start to slowly lose Dopamine synapse and probably Dopamine neurons as well. As far as we know no one has observed those regenerating. If it’s too severe you end up with Parkinson’s disease. The body adapts to what it needs to do, so the use it or lose it philosophy probably applies to some degree in the brain as well. As a result, the recommended course of action would be to seek out experiences that release Dopamine or that you need Dopamine to do. The things that are best at doing that interestingly enough involve physical activity. So aerobic exercise is probably one of the best natural releases, for Dopamine.

We’re told in in our society that the way to be a happy person is to make a lot of money. In the last 50 years economic growth has gone up a lot. In America for example we’re about twice as wealthy as we were 50 years ago. But national representative surveys of people’s happiness show that happiness has remained stagnant. People aren’t any happier than they were 50 years ago. Even though they’re living in a lot bigger houses they have more cars and generally access to better wealth options. Maybe the national goal shouldn’t be GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita but GHL (General Happiness Level) per capita. What should be more important for a country isn’t the amount of money made but should be the amount of happy citizens. This very topic has been the subject of debate for many decades, it’s been assumed that when GDP is high that the GHL is also is high.

But can money really buy happiness? Anyone who says money doesn’t buy happiness should go talk to someone sleeping on a park bench but anyone who says money does buy happiness should go talk to Bill Gates. Neither of those things is actually true. When money buys us out of the burdens of homelessness of not knowing where your next meal will come from it changes your happiness dramatically but once you have basic needs met more money doesn’t seem to buy more happiness. The difference in happiness between a person who earns five thousand dollars annually and fifty thousand dollars annually is dramatic. But the difference between someone who earns fifty thousand dollars annually and fifty million dollars annually isn’t dramatic.The reason is because of a notation called the Hedonic treadmill. Which says that whatever level of wealth or material goods you have you will eventually adapt to and that you always want more, always needing the next level and never being happy with what you have. That’s what the Hedonic tredmill is. The Hedonic adaptation is one of the main enemies of true happiness.

There is a distinction between the two main types of goals or values which people might pursue in life, they are intrinsic goals and extrinsic goals. Extrinsic goals are when you focus on something external for happiness, examples are when someone is focused on getting rewards, getting praise, glory, and focused on getting stuff. The three main extrinsic goals are:

  1. Money as in having financial success
  2. Image as in looking good and having the right appearance
  3. status as in popularity or position held

Now that we understand extrinsic goals we contrast them with intrinsic goals, intrinsic goals are inherently satisfying in of themselves because they have to do with internal physiological needs that all people have. The three main intrinsic goals are:

  1. Personal growth, trying to be who you really are and the best version of you there is
  2. Having close connected relationships  with friends , family  and colleague
  3. community engagement, having a sense of wanting to help the world wanting to make it a better place

When we compare both intrinsic and extrinsic goals, it becomes very obvious that intrinsic goals are on the exact opposite side of the value system in comparison to extrinsic goals. They’re in complete opposition with each other. Through decades of research science has shown us that people who are more orientated towards money and status always report less sanctification with their lives. They are more depressed, more anxious, feel less vital and energized in their day to day life. On the other hand intrinsic oriented people are more happy they also report being more vital, less depressed and less anxious.

Happiness is an active process that you work towards your entire life, it’s not a state of reaching and then staying in. But similar to swimming to get your head above water. It’s something you actively work towards, enter into and fight to stay in. Fight to get into happiness and stay there. Remember also that living is a struggle for every organism on this planet, they have to fight to survive. In a similar way as humans we must constantly be vigilant, always moving and jumping towards joy and away from despair.

“Shared pain is lessened. Shared joy is multiplied. Thus we refute entropy.” – Spider Robinson

When we look back in history at all the spiritual leaders, advocates of peace and truly happy individuals one theme always comes up. That theme is that true happiness is found within or as we’ve come to learn, true happiness or sustainable happiness is only found through intrinsic values and goals. Maybe that’s why the founding fathers in the constitution wrote “the pursuit of happiness” and not happiness itself. In conclusion, we should start to think about happiness as a skill learned, like any other skills it takes practice to become good at.


I’d like to give credit to the following experts in their respected fields, for the information used to compile this blog post: Marci Shimoff, Gregory Berns, Richard Davidson, Ed Diener, Sonja Lyubomirsky, and Michael Pritchard.

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