Let’s Talk Happiness
In today’s video, we are tackling the category of emotions under the umbrella of Happiness. This large range of emotions all operate using the same biological processes, and we can use the same skills to increase or decrease each of the emotions in this category. In this video/article, you can learn what happiness does for us, what it does for other people, how to recognize happy emotions in ourselves and others, and what happens when we have too much happiness.
What Are Happiness Emotions?
Each of the various emotions included under happiness falls into a subcategory of emotions. When we experience emotions in these subcategories, it’s important to remember that everyone experiences the biological responses differently, but also that everyone associated different words with each feeling, since the words are a way of interpreting emotions. This means that they aren’t absolute truths, but are subjective. The categories used here mainly focus on the intended purpose of the emotion, rather than our interpretations of any given emotion.
Connection emotions help us build relationships with other people, and reward us for building those connections. Connection emotions are vital for humans because we need other people in order to thrive. In today’s society, one could theoretically get by with very little interaction with others, but that ability has a foundation of medicine, technology, and infrastructure, which are all a result of having a community in the first place. Words we use to describe Connection emotions include:
- Caring for someone
- Liking someone
- Attraction (physical, emotional, intellectual, or romantic)
Emotions in the Appreciation subcategory are a result of seeing the world as it is, and liking it. We cannot fully feel Appreciation emotions if we have to justify why something isn’t “that bad” or is “good enough.” Words used to describe Appreciation emotions include:
Interaction emotions can be looked at like a biological social lubricant. These emotions reward us for successfully navigating social situations, and sometimes make it easier to interact with others. These emotions are tied into our memory of feeling happy in the past, and help us find patterns from previous social interactions that were beneficial. The ways we experience these emotions often mean that we are also taking some sort of action as part of feeling the emotion. Ways people describe feeling Interaction emotions include:
Celebration emotions are what we experience when things go unexpectedly well. Any time you or someone else achieves a difficult goal, completes an important task, or is surprised by a stressor being relieved, you have the opportunity for Celebration emotions to be involved. The ways someone might describe feeling Celebration emotions include:
- Pride (being well pleased with an accomplishment, person, or attribute)
Causes of Happiness
There aren’t that many unique criteria which need to be met in order to feel Happiness emotions. We can sum up all of happiness in three ways. The first interpretation is required for the second and third causes, but can also happen on its own.
The first method is feedback from our brains. We feel Happiness emotions when our brain appreciates something we have sensed, done, or felt, or appreciates the same in someone else. Critically, Happiness emotions generally only appear when our brain wants us to have those experiences again in the future. This is 100% a matter of interpretation, and has nothing to do with how we feel about a given topic, fact, or event, or whether that thing is socially, morally, politically, or religiously considered to be “good”.
A secondary cause of Happiness emotions includes proximity + time. If we spend considerable time close to someone, we are more likely to feel bonded with them, especially in situations when we have fewer Happiness emotions overall. This formula applies to romantic and platonic relationships throughout our entire lives. When we are kids, we are more likely to be friend with kids who live nearby, or are in the same class as us. If we move, or are in different classes later, we might find that our desire to be friends fades somewhat, because we no longer have the same proximity to them.
Finally, the third cause of Happiness emotions is having an abundance of something, whether that’s money, food, shelter, energy, time, or a sense of safety. When we have Happiness emotions because of abundance, we are more likely to share resources with others. I would note, however, that “abundance” is also an interpretation, not a discreet amount of any given resource. Someone with very little might be more likely to feel that they have an abundance when they put in a few extra hours at work. On the other hand, someone used to having high amounts of a resource might rarely feel as if they have an abundance, because they consider their normal level of that resource to be a baseline instead of “extra”.
What’s the Point of Happiness?
Happiness is a messenger from our brain that says, “more please.” The exact thing your brain is asking for more of will depend on the situation, but Happiness is usually a reward or request for more of the thing that our brain wants. This can look like repeating an action, continuing a path we are on, or to discover new things.
Repeating an Action
When our brain wants us to repeat an action, it attaches happy emotions to the memory as it makes them, which encourages us to do that thing again when we think of it next time. When humans were primarily hunter-gatherers, this might look like making a “happy” memory when we eat a good food, so that we will seek that food out again in the future. Today, this might look like playing with the same toys, watching the same movie or reading the same book, or spending time with the same people.
Continuing Down the Same Path
When our brain is trying to encourage us to continue down the path we are on, it’s usually seeing a pattern in what we are doing, and interpreting that path as beneficial. If we are in a career or studying a certain field, and it feels easy, comfortable, exciting, or useful to be on that track, our brain will encourage us to keep doing it, because it might benefit us to continue. Conversely, when our brain interprets our path as being harmful, futile, or even frustrating, we might lose the love we had for that track, and end up changing careers, degrees, living situations, and countless other things we do in our lives.
When our brain gives us happiness emotions for discovery or building new things, what it’s doing is trying to find new sources of safety, resources, convenience, or connection. Inventors, writers, and creative people throughout history have innovated major changes to the ways humans live, in part because they felt happy when doing so. Some of these things are universal to humans, such as telling stories, making clothing and tools, or looking for new places to hunt, forage, farm, or settle. Other things might be more niche to a specific culture, such as tools, armor, writing methods, alphabets, and food preparation. In the modern era, this can also look like making new personal or professional relationships, having a hobby, or surfing the internet in search of new entertainment.
Happiness, like all emotions, is a tool our brain uses to communicate with others, and that other people have to communicate with us. The messages our brain sends to us depend on the interpretation. In turn, our reactions to these communications (IE, our emotional responses) communicate to other people as well. When we are happy, we are sending messages to other people that encourage them to continue doing what they have just done. In the same way, their happiness in our presence tells us to do the same. Ultimately, this can become its own feedback loop that amplifies Happiness in everyone.
For example, if a coworker secures a big contract, and then is celebrated at work, you will see their happiness. When you next get to work with them, you will remember that happiness (success) from the previous contract, and are more likely to be excited to work with them. At this point, your excitement to work with them is likely to encourage them to try harder, to participate fully, and to be invested in the outcome of the new assignment. In this way, their Happiness make you happy, your Happiness makes them happy, and altogether, you’re more likely to enjoy working together, and to achieve your work goals.
What Does Happiness Look Like?
Happiness is a very personal thing, and most people describe their sense of happiness in their own way. However, there are universal features of Happiness whenever someone is experiencing it that make it easier to recognize in ourself and others. These features are based on the four “Happiness Chemicals” that our brain utilizes, which each cause us to take unique actions, or respond specific ways to situations. These chemicals are Dopamine, Endorphins, Oxytocin and Serotonin. The chemicals which are engaged will change how we respond to the Happiness emotion we are experiencing. For each chemical below, I’ll list the purpose of the chemical, the ways it makes us feel, and the things it makes us want to do (action urges).
Action Urge: The physical actions our bodies want to take in response to feeling an emotion.
Dopamine is our primary reward chemical. It is present, in some amount, in most Happiness responses. Dopamine tells us that whatever we just sensed, experiences, or thought about is a “desirable” thing, and encourages us to do more of that. When we get dopamine, we might feel warm, alive, electric, passionate, or satisfied.
Dopamine simply rewards us for doing something desirable, so it usually looks like smiling, laughing, dancing, hugging, and feeling more energetic or more calm. Dopamine is also responsible for the involuntary “mmm” sound we make when we eat something delicious, or the sigh we make when we put down something difficult.
Endorphins are the anti-stress chemicals that our brains produce when we need to get things done. Endorphins make us feel energetic and capable.
Endorphins allow us to push through a stressful situation, or do things that we might not have thought possible. It’s also responsible for the rush of energy we get right before a deadline that allows us to finish the assignment on time. When we have Endorphins, we might feel energetic, capable, responsible, relieved, or focused.
Oxytocin makes us feel warm fuzzy feelings, such as those we feel when interacting with other people or remembering special events. It’s sometimes called the “love drug” because it’s a vital part of building any relationship. It’s important to recognize, however, that this applies to platonic, professional, and casual relationships we have in our lives. Oxytocin rewards us for good interactions, and helps us perform well in social situations.
Oxytocin rewards us for spending time with others, or with things we care about, so the things we do when we have Oxytocin-based emotions usually involve doing something to someone or something else. Examples include hugging, kissing, holding the person or thing close, cuddling, petting, staring, and talking a lot.
Serotonin is responsible for our sense of wellness or wellbeing. It is produced alongside other Happiness chemicals as a reward, but is also necessary in order to feel healthy and capable when there are no current Happiness emotions being engaged.
Serotonin causes us to feel (or appear) more confident, capable, or optimistic. You might also feel invincible, courageous, warm, energetic, or calm.
Miscellaneous Happiness Responses
Some Happiness responses are caused by combinations or by multiple Happiness chemicals. These responses include feeling open, willing, optimistic, generous, kind, forgiving, or generous. You can also see that someone is happy with something when they do that thing over and over again, like practicing a hobby, playing the same game many times, repeating the same story, or any other repeated action.
It Goes Two Ways
You can use the actions and feelings above to recognize happiness in yourself, but you should also keep in mind that you can use them to recognize happiness in someone else. Conversely, other people can use the actions and feelings above to recognize happiness in you, even if you don’t recognize it. Be on the lookout for people who are taking a special interest in you, spending extra time with you, or complimenting you. These are all ways that a person might signal you that the thing they are happy about is actually you.
I have struggled with this over the years, as I have not noticed others paying special attention to me, and at other times, I’ve unintentionally signaled to them that I was interested in them because I shared something I was passionate about, or shared something I was making with them. Practice seeing how your emotions come across to others in order to avoid misunderstandings. Also remember, that this isn’t always about being romantically or sexually interested in each other, we express ourselves in very similar ways when we are trying to make friends, or get to know a new coworker.
Aftereffects of Happiness
When we look at the aftereffects of an emotion, the thing we are relying on is the fact that the aftereffects last much longer than the emotion itself, so identifying the aftereffects of the emotion can be a useful way to identify an emotion after it has passed. The aftereffects of Happiness include being courteous, friendly, or kind with others. You might feel particularly courageous, confident or optimistic. You might also feel more capable when dealing with stress, anger, fear, or conflict.
A vital component of the aftereffects of Happiness include reflecting on past Happiness and looking forward to future Happiness. This is because our brain tends to chain Happiness experiences together in order to find patterns and ways in which we may experience Happiness again. Unfortunately, there is a downside to this. If we are angry, sad, scared, or disgusted for too long, or have depression or dissociation symptoms for too long, it can be much harder to engage our Happiness, as our brain is out of practice with the emotion. If you are dealing with a sad event, grief, depression, or other symptoms, try to include occasional small Happiness events to help your brain stay ready for future Happiness.
All emotions have other emotions that they are capable of wearing down or are susceptible to. Happiness has its own paradoxical relationship with other emotions, in that Happiness can be used to remove Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust, but Happiness emotions can also be worn down or removed entirely by each of these categories as well. This is because Happiness emotions are the dictators of how attached we are to any given object, person, or idea. If we feel a very strong connection to the object, person, or idea, we can easily overlook any reason to associate Sadness, Anger, Fear, or Disgust associated with that person. However, if we have a weak attachment to the object, person, or idea, our Happiness associated with that thing can be overridden by any of the other categories of emotions.
When Happiness Goes Wrong
When we experience too much Happiness, we have a few possible things that can go very wrong in our lives. Each of these things has the potential to cause us great harm if left unchecked. These include risk tolerance, abuse tolerance, addiction
The first is risk tolerance. When we experience too much Happiness, we tend to take risks that are not safe or warranted by the situation. The second is tolerance of abuse. When we love someone very much, we will excuse or rationalize abuse from that person in order to maintain the relationship, and may find it difficult to identify the abuse in the first place. The next concern is addiction. When we experience intense happiness, or easily stimulated happiness, we run the risk of becoming addicted to the behavior which prompts the reward response. Unlike a typical substance addiction, there does not need to be an outside chemical for our body to form the addiction, because the addiction is to dopamine and other reward chemicals. Because of this, addictions to activities like gambling or social media are possible.
In some studies trying to identify how powerful the reward system was in the addiction model, mice were given buttons to press to stimulate a reward response via an electrode in their brain. In various tests, the mice would opt to press the button to the exclusion of eating or drinking. While humanitarian and ethical norms prevented the researchers from allowing the mice to kill themselves via starvation, the various tests have shown that the mice would continue to press the button no matter how food- or water-deprived they actually were, indicating that the mice would have allowed themselves to die of dehydration or starvation if given the opportunity. You can see a summary of one study here, where you can also purchase access to the full report.
Because mice and humans share the same reward systems, it’s easy to see how an activity like social media or gambling can keep you so engaged that you skip meals, fail to tend to relationships, or otherwise neglect self-care, which are all hallmarks of addiction.
Finally, when we have too much happiness, we begin to experience diminishing returns. This means that we need more and more of the same Happiness chemicals in order to feel the same (or less) amount of Happiness over time. It is critical to foster a balance of emotions in order to keep a healthy sense of Happiness engaged over time.
Want More Happiness?
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be covering Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. Once each of these introductory posts are available, I’ll start covering specific skills to increase or decrease Happiness, based on what your needs are. There will also be lessons on how to evaluate your emotions to see if you are, in fact, experiencing emotions warranted by and appropriate to your experience, as well as knowing whether the emotions are effective in that moment. These skills will apply to all forms of Happiness, since there are only a few interpretations and chemicals involved in Happiness responses.
If you have questions, shoot me an email at Rory@UpRoryUs.com
Thanks for stopping by, and remember to be kind to yourself and others.