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“Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions” Dalai Lama XIV.
Happiness is so important to us humans that we make it the foundation tenet of government, spirituality (Dalai Lama, 1998), philosophy (Jeremy Bentham, 1789) and a burning desire for most of us to find a life well lived in perfect harmony, surrounded by the mythical ‘happiness bird’ chirping somewhere in a nearby rainbow shrouded tree.
Dr Robert H Lustig MD MSL, former emeritus professor of pediatrics, has an interesting take on happiness. The basis of happiness, he says, is not a will ‘o the wisp chase over hill and dale but grounded in the biochemistry of happiness – at least as the foundation, and a fundamental misunderstanding of what we are chasing anyway.
We confuse pleasure for happiness and the two states are not interchangeable, says Lustig. So much of modern life is about The Big Hit, much like a drug might give a pleasurable starlight burst of euphoria but has a nasty addictive sting in the tail. Humans seek short term pleasure and hormones which compel some of our most destructive habits. The hormone dopamine is the pleasure-seeking missile at work here; it addicts us to our phones, our food (sugar) and our drugs of choice. In times of scarcity or famine, seeking out pleasure might have had some survival mechanism at its roots, but in times of plenty seeking out more and more pleasure can be life eroding. Pleasure is something we seek outside ourselves to give us something we deserve. We live in a time where we THINK, THINK, THINK. The head is King, as opposed to making the connection that the body is connected to the body, and only pay attention when the body can no longer do its “job” of carrying the head.
All around us apparently successful members of the tribe seem to be involved in addictive, successful strategies (celebrity and money) and that pleasure must be what is right to pursue.
"If we only could be more beautiful, have more money and more of everything we could have it too".
Happy customers in Milliken's London Showroom.
Instead we should be nurturing the happiness hormone, serotonin, and oxytocin, the hormone that binds us to the community and our loved ones. Happiness is not an exploding firework but a contentment and is a state that is generated internally and does not rely on outside elements. Happiness is up to us it seems.
A handle on Happiness.
What can we do to give biochemistry the best chance of optimising an internal happiness landscape?
- Food and Nutrition
The connection between the gut and brain is well known. The microbiome will have a direct effect on our mood and hormones (Elizabeth Pennisi, 2019).
Nutrients including the B series of vitamins have a profound effect on the nervous system and mood. Minerals and essential fats are also ingredients in the recipe of happiness hormones and neurotransmitters.
Balancing other hormones such as insulin is also critical. A drop in your blood sugar can trigger the finger that stretches out for the chocolate, just as a drop of blood sugar can translate into a feeling of the blues.
Eating “real” food, as Michael Pollen (2006), likes to say, is a significant contribution to getting the right foundation fuel for good mood, functioning happiness hormones, and stable blood sugar.
“We tend to forget that Happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have but rather of recognising and appreciating what we do have” (Frederick Koenig, 1774 – 1833).
Are we permanently in the pursuit of happiness?
In an age where our desires, wants and anything in between are met with a click of a button, and accruing more stuff seems to satisfy a nagging dissatisfaction, unhappiness is a first world epidemic.
An old book “Affluenza” by de Graaf, Wann, and Naylor explains that our keeping up with the Jones’ obsession may be at the root of the emptiness.
“Mining the happiness might be found in moving your body but especially if that movement can take place in nature” (Paul K Piff, 2015).
Having a strong community that you contribute to can have a profusely positive effect on your happiness. The Okinawa people of Japan are well studied as being famous for being long lived and happy. A factor is a close bonded community bound by beliefs and culture *
Feeling happy in Okinawa
When we are feeling unhappy, looking outside ourselves and making others happy switches on purpose and meaning. There is nothing like knowing why we are here to stop striving and start living.
Whilst happiness might seem like trying to find the pot of gold over the rainbow, getting our foundations of happiness embedded is at least giving us a chance to work on it. Actually, desperately looking for happiness might be the wrong approach.
Is it waking up on a cold winter’s morning, sitting in front of a warm fire surrounded by family or loving pet, and realising what you have been seeking is there in front of you the whole time?
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*Okinawa, unfortunately has many US fast food outlets, partly due to the influence of the American military base stationed since 1945. The pockets of the old life are dying as the centenarians who own those secrets of Okinawa longevity and happiness die with them.
Header Image: Kate Cook, Corporate Wellness Expert, Speaker and Nutrition Expert, participating in Milliken's 'Chasing Happiness' panel debate during Clerkenwell Design Week