The pursuit of happiness is part of the human condition. We’re constantly buying things in the hopes that they will make us happy. Or we’re pursuing new experiences in the hope that they will make us happy. But the joy we get from them is often short-lived.
To understand why happiness seems so elusive, it’s necessary to understand the difference between pleasure and happiness.
Pleasure versus Happiness
Pleasure is often confused with happiness, but there is a distinct difference. Pleasure is the fleeting feeling of joy that you get when the brain’s reward center is activated. When you eat a decadent meal or binge-watch your favorite Netflix series, you experience pleasure.
Happiness, on the other hand, is a profound feeling of calm and contentment, it’s a journey. When you have a deep conversation with your significant other, for instance, you experience happiness.
Here are some critical differences between pleasure and happiness:
- Pleasure is short-lived, while happiness is long-lived.
- Pleasure is exhilarating. It causes elevations of your blood pressure and heart rate. Happiness, on the other hand, is more even-keeled and calming. In fact, it causes your heart rate and blood pressure to fall.
- Pleasure comes from getting something, e.g., winning the lottery. Happiness comes from giving, e.g., giving of our time or money.
- Pleasure is often a solitary experience. Happiness is often connected with others.
- Pleasure is often obtained by using substances. These include sugar, caffeine, and drugs. Happiness is connected with deeds or success, such as watching your child graduate from high school.
Why Seeking Pleasure Can Be Damaging
The reward system evolved to promote activities necessary for our survival. These activities include activities such as eating food and sexual reproduction. Eating food activates the reward system, causing the release of dopamine. Dopamine, also known as the feel-good hormone, creates a pleasurable, enjoyable sensation. This makes it more likely that we will repeat this survival-enhancing behavior.
However, overstimulation of the reward system can be damaging. The more you stimulate the reward system, the more dopamine you release. This causes less serotonin to be produced. Serotonin is a hormone that helps you feel calm. Too little serotonin production leads to depression. So, ironically, the more pleasure you seek, the more depressed you feel.
Types of Happiness and Effects on Your Health
According to researchers, there are 2 main types of happiness: eudaimonic and hedonic happiness.
Eudaimonic happiness is the happiness you achieve from having a profound sense of purpose and meaning in life. Work and putting effort into tasks contribute to eudaimonic happiness. When you’ve completed a challenging task, you often feel a deep sense of satisfaction and pride.
Hedonic happiness, on the other hand, is happiness that is not associated with a purpose. Instead, it is the presence of positive feelings and the relative absence of negative emotions. Engaging in leisure activities contributes to hedonic happiness.
Studies show that both types of happiness lead to lower depression levels. However, individuals with eudaimonic happiness have more favorable gene expression profiles than those with hedonic happiness. Specifically, they have low levels of inflammatory gene expression. They also had strong expressions of antiviral and antibody genes.
So, does this mean one should give up hedonic happiness in favor of just eudemonic happiness? Definitely not. Both types of happiness have their place in our lives. According to researchers, hedonic happiness is likely vital for motivating us to take action in the short run for survival purposes. On the other hand, eudaimonic happiness likely encourages more social interaction, which is also beneficial. After all, we are social beings.
Here are some ways you can increase your happiness:
Connect with others
In today’s modern world, we’re often glued to our screens. We’re logging on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram being social. But new research suggests that those who spend over two hours a day on social media platforms are twice as likely to feel isolated as those who spend less than 30 minutes a day on them.
These feelings of isolation can be due to various factors. First of all, when you spend more time on social media, you have less time for real-world interactions. Also, posts on social media are highly idealized – they typically don’t reflect what is really happening in other people’s lives. But when one is exposed to these highly idealized posts, one can feel envious and discontent.
So, log off your social media and make time to interact with friends and family face-to-face. Doing so will fuel empathy and serotonin production, something you can’t get with emojis.
Contribute to others’ wellbeing
The greatest satisfaction you can have in life is a life well-lived, a life of service. At the end of your life, you’re probably not going to wish that you had accumulated more things. Instead, you’ll look back and want to feel that you left the world a little better than it was before you existed.
You can make a difference in the world by engaging in little acts of kindness. Volunteer at your local Food Bank, give to charity, help a senior citizen cross a busy street. You’ll be helping not only others, but yourself as well. That’s because contributing to others’ wellbeing improves feelings of self-worth, increases contentment, and lowers your blood pressure, heart rate, and stress levels.
Care for your wellbeing
In our modern world, we often run ourselves ragged. This results in being chronically stressed. Chronic stress, in turn, can lead to depression.
Exercise, on the other hand, is a great stress reliever. In fact, in some cases of depression, exercise can be as effective as antidepressants. When you engage in high-intensity exercise such as running, your body releases feel-good chemicals known as endorphins. When you engage in prolonged low-intensity exercise such as walking, your body releases proteins known as nerve growth factors. These proteins help your nerve cells grow, forming new connections. This enables you to feel better.
Also, stop multi-tasking and be more mindful, i.e., be more present in the moment, practice mindfulness or mindful framing. Research has shown that mindful people are significantly happier than those whose minds are distracted and wandering. In fact, people who keep their minds in the present moment are even happier than those whose minds wander to pleasant things. But why is this?
One reason is that mindfulness also encompasses acceptance. Acceptance simply means allowing your experiences to exist without judgment or clinging to them. Acceptance can make us happier because it leads to a shift in mindset. Instead of focusing on what we don’t have or what might happen in the future, we can let go and be okay with things just as they are. And that is true happiness, isn’t it?
It’s also important to watch what we put in our mouths. Highly processed foods such as sugary foods are often eaten because they may improve your moods in the short term. However, research shows that processed foods don’t promote happiness in the long term. In fact, they may lead to depression.
Instead, you want to focus on whole foods that are rich in B vitamins and omega-3s. Folate and other B vitamins are vital for the methylation cycle that produces BH4. This substance is essential for making dopamine and serotonin. Without the methylation cycle, you’re more likely to suffer from depression and heart disease.
Omega-3s are also crucial for the brain. In fact, when you don’t have enough omega-3s, serotonin action is decreased, making you less happy. Good sources of B vitamins and omega-3s include seafood and fish.
Life is full of many shiny objects that promise happiness. However, they often give us a temporary high – and leave us disappointed and wanting something else. By connecting with others and caring for our and others’ wellbeing, we will find true fulfillment and happiness.