Updated: Apr 27, 2022
I grew up in San Diego whose ad campaign is all about happiness. “Your happy place awaits!” “Happiness is calling you back!” I also went to Disneyland a lot because we lived so close. And their ad is “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Perhaps my upbringing has something to do with my interest in Happiness.
Happiness is an emotional state characterized
by feelings of joy, satisfaction, and contentment.
Because of my upbringing, you would think I would be happy all the time! But as I entered my adult years, I often realized,” Hey! I’m not happy!” I had moments of happiness but it was not a continuous state of being. I did some research which showed that quite simply, in Western culture, we equate success with happiness. We live with the pressure of making our happiness dependent upon external situations, like work success, or meeting a goal.
Most companies and schools follow a formula for success, which is this: If I work harder, I'll be more successful. And if I'm more successful, then I'll be happier. This is the foundation that motivates our behavior. In the field of coaching, there is a model that helps people attain success through their SMART goals and measurements of accomplishment. This is all wonderful and effective BUT it is scientifically broken and backward for two reasons.
Every time your brain has a success, you just changed the goalpost of what success looked like. You got good grades, now you have to get better grades, you got a good job, now you have to get a better job. And the list goes on.
This myth that success breeds happiness doesn’t take into account that our brain has a huge influence on the state of happiness. Happiness lives in our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. These, in turn, influence the secretion of neurochemicals that build neuropathways out of our survival brains.
The short version of the brain’s role in happiness is that the brain secretes two happy neurochemicals when stimulated by something positive. These two chemicals are dopamine and serotonin, which enter our central nervous system and integrate our physiology with the thoughts and emotions that our brain is responding to. Examples would be when we cry because we’re so happy or we jump for joy. It’s an irrepressible physical experience and a clear sign that dopamine and serotonin doing their job.
Thanks to evolution the human brain is designed to pay more attention to negative thoughts and stimuli than positive ones. Negative thoughts get our attention because of threat possibilities. It helps keep us on alert. But the modern mind perceives threats in a different way than our primal ancestors. On the news, the majority of information is not positive. It’s negative. That is what sells. But very quickly, our brains start to think that’s the accurate ratio of negative to positive in the world.
Our work is to use our brain to build the capacity to experience happiness by being influenced more by positivity, than negativity. This is exciting news because we have control over that. We don’t have control over so many external situations. But we do have control over how we view them, what meaning we take from them, and thus respond to them. When we are positive, our brains are more creative, resilient, and productive at work.
When we can switch our idea of happiness from external influences towards a focus on internal influence, we can see where this switch is the key to understanding the science of happiness.
If we can raise somebody's level of positivity in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a happiness advantage. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise.
We can use our brains to become happy by cultivating habits that help our brains lean toward positivity instead of negativity. The Positive Intelligence founder Shirzad Chamine has developed a 6-week Mental Fitness Boot Camp that specifically works to develop the brain’s capacity to experience happiness, peace, and contentment.
Here are three quick exercises that you can start doing right now to build up the happiness advantage.
1. Memorize a list of happy words. When you force your brain to use positive words frequently, you make these words and their basic meaning more accessible, more connected, and more easily activated in your brain. When you go to retrieve a word or idea from your memory, positive ones can come to the top more easily.
2. Ask yourself if you are thinking positively. This is from Tchiki Davis, an expert on happiness technology. Asking yourself regularly whether you’re thinking positively will help you remember to focus on the positive.
3. Random acts of kindness are conscious acts of kindness. Write an email to co-workers letting them know how much you appreciate their work or who they are. Pay it forward in the coffee line. Commit every day to do a random act of kindness, then take a moment to notice how you feel afterward. You will experience the feeling of your brain being trained.