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Big Questions: what is the secret to a happy life?

If you browse the self-help section of any bookstore you’ll notice a common theme. As a society, we are desperate to find, and keep, happiness and a happy life. But what is the secret to a happy life?

Happiness can mean different things to different people. For some, happiness comes from the number of zeros on a pay check, the badge on the car we drive, or the collection of possessions we share with anyone who will listen. There are others, meanwhile, who will tell you happiness comes from being healthy, forging rich and fulfilling relationships, and making a meaningful difference in the world. But which side of the argument is right, if any? Is happiness a state of mind or just a chemical reaction? And what kind of people are, in fact, the happiest?

While most of us, at one time or another, are guilty of finding happiness through instant gratification (impulse purchase, anyone?), at Insight we wanted to go deeper and shed some light on the age-old question: What’s the secret to a happy life?

While temporary happiness can be great in the moment, how can we prolong this state of bliss and turn it into something that’s rich, fulfilling and impactful on a broader scale?

We talked to Renee Walker, a Charles Sturt University psychology lecturer and registered psychologist, to uncover the secret to living a happy life. Here’s what Renee had to share about happiness.

How can happiness be defined?

“There are many definitions of happiness, but in general happiness is thought of as the positive emotions we have in regards to pleasurable activities and experiences. In scientific literature, happiness is referred to as hedonia (Ryan & Deci, 2001), which is a feeling of pleasure, the presence of positive emotions and the absence of negative emotions.”

Is happiness a state of mind?

“Many emotion theorists (such as Paul Ekman) suggest that happiness is one of the six basic emotions that we’re born with. So, it is in fact an emotion like surprise, fear, disgust, anger and sadness. Happiness is not something tangible or concrete; we can’t physically touch happiness and therefore it exists as a mental construct in our mind. So, in this sense happiness could be viewed as a state of mind.”

Is happiness real or just a chemical reaction?

“Essentially the answer to this question would depend on how you define happiness. Really this is a philosophical question, with no known answer. There are neurotransmitters that can increase positive feelings. These include dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine and endorphins. However, research has shown that it’s more than just chemicals and hormones that produce or bring about a feeling of happiness.

Happiness is something we feel that can be reflected in our physiology (brain chemistry), but it is unknown if the brain chemistry (i.e. neurotransmitters) produces this feeling or if this feeling produces the physiology.

“There have been many studies that show that people can change their physiology (brain chemistry) through different practices (e.g. meditation). This would suggest that you can produce happiness and, in effect, the chemicals associated with it.”

What are the neurochemicals of happiness?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in mood, among other things.  Inadequate or imbalanced levels of dopamine can play a part in multiple conditions, including depression. Dopamine is also related to experiences of pleasure and the reward-learning process in our brains. In other words, when you do something good, you’re rewarded with dopamine and gain a pleasurable, happy feeling.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter associated with memory and learning.  It’s also associated with satisfaction, happiness and optimism.  An imbalance in serotonin levels results in an increase in anger, anxiety, depression and panic.

Norepinephrine helps moderate your mood by controlling stress and anxiety. High concentrations of norepinephrine lead to feelings of elation and euphoria.

Endorphins are endogenous opioid peptides that function as neurotransmitters. They are released during continuous exercise, listening to music, eating chocolate, laughing, during sex, etc. Increased levels of endorphins increase positive feelings.”

What is the secret to a happy life?

“Those who study positive psychology refer to the ‘7 habits of happy people’:

  1. Relationships – It doesn’t matter if you have a large network of close relationships or not. People who have one or more close friendships are happier.
  2. Acts of kindness – Being kind to others can make other people smile, which is contagious. It can also make you feel good about yourself.
  3. Exercise and physical wellbeing – Regular exercise has been associated with improved mental wellbeing and a lower incidence of depression.
  4. Flow – This involves undertaking an activity that is challenging but well-suited to your skills; often we refer to this as being ‘in the zone’. When you are doing this, you experience a joyful state called ‘flow’.
  5. Spiritual engagement and meaning – Studies demonstrate a close link between spiritual and religious practice and happiness. Spirituality is closely related to the discovery of greater meaning in our lives.
  6. Strengths and virtues – Studies by experts such as Martin Seligman show that the happiest people are those that have discovered their unique strengths (such as persistence and critical thinking) and virtues (such as humanity) and use those strengths and virtues for a purpose that is greater than their own personal goals.
  7. Positive mindset, mindfulness and gratitude – Grateful people have been shown to have greater positive emotion, a greater sense of belonging, and lower incidence of depression and stress.”

In 2018, Australia slipped to 10th position in the World Happiness Report for ranking of happiness. Why are we becoming increasingly unhappy as a nation?

“I don’t think we are becoming unhappy as a nation. There is actually not a lot of difference between the top 10 in this report. The 2018 report stated that ‘happiness can change, and does change, according to the quality of the society in which people live’. I would say happiness changes according to the quality of life that people experience.”

What factors contribute to attaining a happy life?

“The answer to this question really depends on your definition of happiness.  But some factors which can influence whether we feel happy include:

  • life satisfaction – across relationships, work, health, environment
  • a sense of purpose or meaning
  • balance in yourself, in your work and in your relationships
  • relationships – social interaction
  • positive attitude
  • growth mindset – belief in your ability to grow, improve and succeed
  • physical, mental and spiritual health and wellbeing
  • resilience – coping effectively with stress.”

Which groups in society are at risk of becoming unhappy?

“Everyone is at risk of becoming unhappy if there are changes in the subjective quality of their lives. We all have times that involve unhappy emotions: sadness, despair, frustration or anger, just to name a few. Life is full of cycles. Feeling the full range of emotions as you go through life is certainly all part of being human.”

What are your top tips for finding and maintaining a happy life?

  • “Do what you love! Make sure to spend time doing things that you enjoy, don’t let life just be about responsibility and achievement – have some fun too.
  • Give to others but also make yourself a priority – people become resentful or unhappy when they are giving so much of their time and energy to others, without replenishing themselves through doing things that ‘fill them up’ or bring them joy and a chance to relax and recharge.
  • Spend time with funny people who make you laugh, who see the light side of things – a good belly laugh is a great mood-lifter. See this video of a man laughing on a train; you won’t be able to watch it without smiling or laughing yourself, and I bet it feels good 😊
  • Be grateful. Take the time each day to stop and reflect on the good things in your life or beauty in the environment around you.
  • Listen to music. It’s a wonderful mood-shifter (no sad songs!).
  • Get up and do something. Exercise. Go for a walk. Go for a swim at the beach. Get your body in motion. When we move our body, we get our endorphins flowing and we feel better.
  • Manage your thoughts. You have control through reframing your thoughts or problem-solving. The way you think and what you choose to focus on plays a big role in how you feel.”

Find what makes you happy at Charles Sturt

Do what you love and live a happy life in a rewarding career. We offer a wide range of courses so you can follow your heart and live your passions. Get in touch to chat with our friendly staff and discover your happiness at Charles Sturt University today.

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