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Hacking Happiness

Factors for sustainable happiness based on neuroscience

In an earlier article, I had talked about six attributes that I believe are required for success in an era of smart machines – Gratitude, Resilience, Humility, Curiosity, Empathy, and Responsibility. I ended with a teaser on ‘Happiness’, which I will explore further in this article. (It has taken a long while; but then what better time than the holiday season to publish this!)

‘Accidental’ wisdom

As I mentioned in my previous article, the wise words on ‘Success vs. Happiness’ that I heard on the first day of my first job left a lasting impression on me. However, it was not until a life-changing event that occurred a few years later that I really gave it serious thought. In 2000, I had a near-death experience – I miraculously survived a terrible road accident with no major injuries (although my wife strongly believes that there was some brain damage which went undetected!). This event led me to some serious soul-searching, questioning the very purpose of life. I came to realize that life was essentially a quest for sustainable happiness (a term I use broadly, with connotations of joy and fulfillment); and it suddenly dawned on me that the ‘utility function’ that economists refer to, is essentially happiness. My desire to understand this phenomenon led me to explore the fields of behavioral economics, psychology and finally neuroscience.

A ‘DOSE’ of neuroscience

I learnt that happiness is mostly impacted by four hormones (neurotransmitters in the jargon) in the human body – Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin and Endorphins (‘DOSE’ for short). For the uninitiated, here’s an (amateurish) overview of these chemicals:

  • Dopamine – the reward/pleasure hormone; triggered by achievements and pleasurable experiences
  • Oxytocin – the love hormone; triggered by physical touch, emotional bonding, acts of appreciation etc.
  • Serotonin – the mood hormone; triggered by a sense of gratitude and/or significance, and by food, sleep, sunlight, etc.
  • Endorphins – the pain/stress reduction hormone; triggered by exercise, laughter, and some types of food

I also learned about the concept of neuro-plasticity – that the brain can be ‘tricked’ to produce more of these hormones. For example, even an artificial smile can trick the brain to release serotonin, endorphins and dopamine; and hence make us feel happier. I was fascinated to realize that, by understanding the triggers for the ‘DOSE’ hormones, we could actually hack our brains to increase our happiness!

In addition to this research, I have been keenly observing people for over 15 years (in a non-intrusive and perfectly legal manner, I can assure you!) – at home, in the workplace, and in social settings. Based on my research and observations, I have come up with a list of six factors that I believe can lead to sustainable happiness – Gratitude & Generosity; Health & Mindfulness; Humor; Purpose; Relationships; and Experiences & Achievements. A prerequisite is of course that one’s basic physiological and safety needs are met (which I assume to be the case for anyone reading this article).

I will discuss the impact of these six factors on happiness below, along with some tips that I have learned to put these into practice.

Six happiness hacks

  1. Gratitude & Generosity: I believe that Gratitude is a necessary condition for sustainable happiness. As a wise man said, “we are no longer happy, so soon as we wish to be happier”! Gratitude stimulates the production of serotonin and dopamine, impacts our mood, and enables us to be the best that we can be. The human brain is evolutionarily wired to give more importance to bad news than to good news (which made sense in an era where we had to be on a constant vigil for attacks from predators); so it takes a conscious effort to develop an ‘attitude of gratitude’. In our family, we have a daily dinner-time gratitude ritual where we each talk about three things that happened that day for which we are grateful. Generosity is the external dimension of Gratitude. Ironically, when we try to help others by a generous act, we gain even more; as it triggers the release of serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. So we can become happier through more acts of kindness (but only if done in a genuine manner). Keeping this in mind, our family gratitude ritual includes answering the question – “Whom did I help or make happier today?”. We are also trying to inculcate a sense of giving in our children, though admittedly this is still WIP.
  2. Health & Mindfulness: It seems fairly obvious that a healthy body and mind are essential for sustainable happiness. Biochemically the way this works is that exercise produces endorphins and serotonin; and healthy meals and sleep produce serotonin. Mindfulness (breathing, meditation, or even a focused activity like music) works by increasing the level of serotonin. I don’t need to emphasize the importance of this in a world of digital overload. Both exercise and mindfulness also trigger the production of Gaba, a hormone that regulates other neurotransmitters. Also, both help in building immunity from disease, which in turn helps in sustaining our happiness levels. My playbook to exploit this happiness hack involves a regular exercise regimen, a daily focused breathing activity, a balanced diet, sound sleep, and the pursuit of music(I’m learning to play the flute).
  3. Humor: Humor and the associated smile/laughter contribute to happiness by the release of endorphins, serotonin and dopamine. I have found a sense of humor to be a handy tool to defuse stress, put things in perspective, and maintain a positive outlook. I strongly recommend a daily dose of humor; which I try to get through stand-up comedyshows or sitcoms (I never tire of Seinfeld reruns!).
  4. Purpose: Based on my observation of people especially in the workplace, I have realized that a key to sustainable happiness is to have a sense of purpose. I’m reminded of a Mark Twain quote, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why“. When we work on something we are passionate about, we tend to enter an absorbed state of consciousness that psychologists call ‘Flow’, where we lose sense of time. This leads to a shift in happiness level due to the release of dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin. However, I believe (with no scientific backing, I must admit!) that for this shift to be sustainable, we need to have a Purpose, which is aligned with our strengths and passion, but is also larger than ourselves and impacts others positively. For example, I have realized that my Purpose is to ‘unlock potential in others’; and this has made my job seem much more meaningful.
  5. Relationships: Harvard recently released a 75-year study that concluded that good relationships were the most important determinant of long-term health and happiness. This should not be surprising, given that human beings are inherently social animals! Good relationships contribute to happiness through the release of oxytocin and serotonin. What matters though, based on my research and observations, is not the gazillion superficial connections on Facebook; but the number and quality of real, deep and trusted relationships. I have personally been blessed with very caring and supportive family members and friends; and I prioritize quality time with this inner circle.
  6. Experiences & Achievements: While most of the above factors deal with intrinsic motivation, I realize that most people also require extrinsic motivators to maintain an optimal level of happiness. I recommend this through an indulgence in experiences rather than things; and through setting and achievement of goals. Both work by the release of dopamine (primarily) and serotonin. Experiences (like vacations and other activities with the family) tend to be more memorable and have a more lasting impact on happiness than buying things. Setting goals with small milestones and tracking progress towards them provides regular boosts of dopamine. Dopamine by nature is quite addictive (in fact, stimulants like opioids work by increasing dopamine levels); and hence this is a category where I prescribe caution. My recommendation (at the risk of sounding like my grandma!) is to enjoy experiences and pursue achievements responsibly and within limits. It would be ideal if the achievements were focused on self-improvement and learning and/or linked to a broader purpose as described earlier.

I believe that by consciously focusing on these six factors, we can hack our brains to attain a sustainable higher level of happiness and lead a more fulfilling life.

PS: Irony in the happiest country

This fall we did a family vacation in Bhutan, a place that had been on my bucket-list for a while, given the country’s focus on Gross National Happiness and its status as the ‘Happiest’ country. The trip didn’t disappoint. With the breathtaking scenery of the majestic Himalayas, the pure and crisp mountain air, the abundant gushing streams of natural spring water, and the calming (sometimes deafening!) silence all around, the country seemed a perfect place for a happy citizenry. It also made me realize the role of the Government in meeting basic needs and creating the foundation for happiness (providing quality education and healthcare, balancing infrastructure development with environmental protection etc.).

The highlight of the trip was a trek to the Tiger’s Nest monastery in Paro, perched perilously on a cliff at an altitude of 3000 meters. After hiking up 3 hours on a treacherous mountain path in pouring rain, I was stupefied by the beauty of the place, as the heavy mist cleared to reveal the famous temple (see pic below).

As I was soaking in the spectacular view and the serene atmosphere (helped by the fact that there was no cell-phone reception), I thought of the envious lives of the monks who stayed there, completely disconnected from the travails of the world below. It was hence such an anti-climax that my first sight on entering the temple was that of a young monk frantically looking for a place to charge his iPad

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