Hunting for Happiness
Rev. Kat Carroll
Life can sometimes seem pretty grewsome. According to data collected by the Pew Research Center, 62% of American adults reported getting news on social media, compared to 49% in 2013. Disaster news and news about money and the economy ranked higher in user interest. Conflict news, stories about war and social tribulations came in third. Bad news gets readership, and many publications feature more of this negative news. Why? “If it bleeds it leads”. This is like the morbid curiosity we see when drivers slow down to observe a car wreck. Many are addicted to trauma and they do not even realize it.
There are many health issues associated with this behavior. For one, you place your body in a constant state of fight or flight. You are only watching the show but that is not how the hormones in your body perceive and react to negative stimulus. Adrenaline is only one of the chemicals your body produces during real or staged threats and a constant barrage of stress hormones will eventually wear you down and can even cause disease by weakening your immune system. It certainly does not make you happy.
Health and Happiness
Happiness is an emotion we recognize in all beings, across all countries, cultures, and even species. Animals express joy and happiness all the time through their play and our pets through their interactions with their owners. Who doesn’t feel joy just watching animals playing?
There are tremendous health benefits to being happy. Lowered blood pressure, a healthier heart, and obviously, less stress and a longer life. (Maybe that’s the secret to an elephant’s long life.)
There are many ways to experience or create happiness in yourself and others. One tool is particularly helpful in these crazy time we’re living in is actively looking for good news and the positive actions taken by people to help others or the environment rather than focusing on negative headlines.
Let me share what else I found in my hunt for happiness… It’s always within YOU and you can tap into that feeling anytime you choose. Happiness is literally and figuratively found inside of you through elector-chemical processes but it’s also inside of you through the thoughts, feelings and actions you choose to embrace.
The Chemistry of Happiness
Oxytocin is the love hormone produced during childbirth, intimate relations and even through simple contact such as giving or receiving a hug or cuddling your kids or pets. Oxytocin is responsible for the growing feeling of trust and love.
You can increase the “love” hormone through physical contact. In addition to spending time with family and friends, cuddling and playing, you might try getting a massage that will not only produce oxytocin but relax your muscles.
Human contact is natural and a healthy requirement for social development and why handshaking is also important for engendering trust in business transactions. You have probably noticed that people who hug are often happier than those who avoid touching or have been forced to social distance such as during the 2020/2021 pandemic.
Dopamine is the pleasure hormone that is triggered when we accomplish certain tasks or goals. Gamblers will stay in casinos for hours for repeated dopamine hits. Even getting a thumbs up or a in social media platforms can trigger a bit of the happy hormone which is why it is so addictive. However, there are much healthier ways to find happiness.
Setting goals: Exercise tends to raise both dopamine and serotonin levels. If you have a goal in time, distance or how much weight your lifting, reaching that goal will stimulate dopamine production.
Completing a project: Working in the yard, house cleaning or completing a chapter in a writing project are examples of ways to produce dopamine, especially when you look at your accomplishment with pride. Dopamine is your reward for a job well done.
True and lasting happiness will not come from technological devices. Happiness that lasts comes from healthy relationships with people, animals, and the environment. It also comes from loving and caring for yourself and others. The memories and accomplishments created in those interactions will last a lifetime, rather than for the minutes or hours that you’re busy pressing buttons, staring at monitors and ignoring the rest of the world.
Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter. Those lacking it are prone to depression and irritability. Serotonin plays an important role in memory, cognition, and feelings of happiness.
Serotonin is synthesized by a tiny gland in your brain (the pineal) to make melatonin, the hormone related to healthy sleep and dreaming. Healthy sleep is required for healing the body and regulating your mood. You can give yourself a boost of serotonin throughout the day by doing the following:
- Get your daily dose of vitamin D either from the sun itself or taking supplements in the darker winter season.
- Low intensity or anerobic exercise, such as walking or yoga, will produce endorphins which stay in your system even after exercise. High intensity exercise will produce endorphins that block pain for a time. Both are “feel good” chemicals.
- Eat foods high in tryptophan, an essential amino acid needed for growth, development, and the production of both serotonin and melatonin. Food’s rich in tryptophan include chicken, turkey, red meat, pork, tofu, fish, beans, milk, nuts, seeds, oatmeal, and eggs. Tryptophan converts to serotonin but carbohydrates aid in the conversion so don’t skip the carbs. Get a good night sleep for the healing and the mood regulation it provides.
- Laughter and smiling are quite impressive and have a substantial impact of the levels of serotonin and other endorphins in the body. Attitude is everything and laughter truly is the best medicine. Spend time with happy people.
- A quick way of producing serotonin is through meditation, visualizing happy memories (or imagining them) and feeling positive emotions such as gratitude, love, and compassion.
- Positive activities that create serotonin.
- Looking for good news rather than to the politics and current fervor of the day.
- Do something nice for others like volunteering your time.
- Random acts of kindness and compassion will make you feel as good as the people you help.
Music to your ears and soul
Music is ancient and has been used in tribal and communal settings into the modern era. Music may soothe the savage beast, but it does so much more for your brain. An October 2020 article by Harvard Health Publishing revealed that music had some astonishing benefits. They showed a survey from AARP had returns from over 3,000 people in the US who reported higher scores for mental wellbeing, brain health, higher rates of happiness and good cognitive function. As this was just a survey, Harvard decided to look closer into why music lovers had such high reports on mental health and overall happiness.
Music activates some of the broadest and most diverse areas of the brain. The parts of the brain involved in emotion are not only activated during emotional music, they are also synchronized. Music also activates a variety of memory regions making it easier to recall moments when you listened to your favorite songs, even from years in the past. When music plays, every head bopper and toe tapper feels the rhythm of the music activating their motor system. In fact, it has been theorized that activation of the brain’s motor system allows us to pick out the beat of the music even before we start swaying or tapping our foot to it!
Music is helpful in keeping brain pathways and neural networks strong, including those involved in well-being, learning, cognitive function, and quality of life. In fact, there is only one other situation where so many brain networks can be activated at once, and that is when you participate in social activities.
The study went on to say that those who actively listened or played music showed the strongest benefits and even those who listened to background music benefited. Music can lift your mood when you are feeling blue and upbeat music can motivate you to get moving. Combining music with an aerobic or social activity (like dancing) will give you maximum health benefits while also having fun. It also makes boring tasks less tedious.
Happy people seem to have more energy, their smiles are pleasant to see, and they tend to make others happy, just by being near them. Though your mood may wax and wane depending on the circumstances of the day, you can always take a few moments to recenter and generate these feel-good hormones.
The universe has a way of reflecting back what you express in the world. Therefore, I encourage you to put on a happy face, look for the good in the world, laugh, hug someone, get your sunshine, enjoy music and move that body. You’ll be happy you did!
RKC April 28, 2021
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