The science behind being happy

What makes you feel so good after a run? Why does eating that sugary snack fill you with joy? What gives you that pleasure after an intense orgasm? Well, it turns out it’s all in your head – or rather, your brain.

The feeling of happiness we experience when we feel or see or experience something enjoyable is caused by chemicals produced in our brains and, surprisingly, our gastrointestinal tracts. The two main chemicals which cause our brains to feel happiness are called serotonin and dopamine.

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How do they work?

Serotonin and Dopamine are what give our bodies the physical pleasure of happiness. They light up the pleasure centers of our brains, sending signals saying that whatever is being done at that moment – running, eating, making love, etc – is good, encouraging us to do these things, and driving us to do them more often.

Why do we need this drive?

When our ancestors were hunter-gatherers several thousand years ago, early humans needed to know what types of foods to forage for, types of animals to hunt, needed to feel happy when getting fit, and needed to derive happiness from passing on their genes from one generation to the next. All of these primal desires, done in order to produce these happiness producing chemicals, enabled early humans to survive in the wild and pass down their genes. Basically, without these chemicals in the brains of early humans, we wouldn’t be here today.

The happiness chemical addiction

Sometimes, we as humans are able to manipulate our brains into producing more dopamine and serotonin. Illegal substances and adult beverages are able to increase the amounts of these chemicals in our brains, giving us that same feeling of reward and pleasure. This can cause addiction in some people, as the chemicals inside drive people to consume more and more to get that same happiness fix. Sometimes after this artificially induced flood of dopamine and serotonin subsides, people are left feeling down, and then go off and search for that next hit which will bring them those intense feelings of happiness.

Happiness to the extreme

There are some people whose brains don’t have the same amount of chemical receptors that make the average person happy. Perhaps you have seen them – always seeming to be bored, always wanting to do more or something crazy. Perhaps they are BASE jumping enthusiasts, extreme backcountry skiers, or just love traveling to dangerous parts of the world. These thrill seekers’ brain’s’ pleasure receptors don’t light up when they are eating something as banal as chocolate or after having a nice easy jog like most people. Their brains actually need more stimulation in order to produce the same amount of dopamine and serotonin.  For them, skydiving gives them the same amount of happiness as eating an ice cream cone does for the average person.

It is important to note that being happy isn’t the same as being fulfilled, although the two are very similar. Being happy, and the chemical reactions which come with it, is a survival mechanism our ancestors developed in order to survive and deal with the realities of living in a harsh and unforgiving world. Happiness, and the chemical processes therein, are part of what makes all of us human.