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How To Create Happiness

Aristippus, an ancient Greek philosopher of 4th century BC, was the first person who put forth the idea of living a life of happiness. The pursuit of pleasure. He advocated that the goal in life should be to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. As long as you’re not hurting anyone, maximize your gain.

Aristippus never understood the notion that you could be in pain and yet be happy. 

How can there be happiness in pain and misery? A woman who has just given birth. A struggling writer working on a minimum wage during the day to feed his family and his book at night to fulfill his dream. Imagine their pain and misery. And yet, they are the happiest they’ll ever be.

Many people think that chasing pleasure is happiness. They’ll chase better widgets, luxurious experiences, and comfortable life thinking it will provide them the happiness they are seeking. But there is no connection between pleasure and happiness. Like there is no connection between misery and happiness.

Pleasure doesn’t always make you happy. And pain doesn’t always make you unhappy.

There is a difference between pleasure and happiness.

Pleasure is a fleeting feeling. Happiness is longer lasting.

Pleasure is a reaction. Happiness is a state of being. It comes from within you.

Pleasure can be pursued, whereas happiness ensues. You need to have a reason to which happiness can be anchored.

The evidence behind anchoring happiness

Eva Telzer and her colleagues from the psychology department of the University of Illinois conducted an experiment on teenagers. 

They posed hypothetical situations to the teenagers while they were under an fMRI scanner. The participants were said to imagine that they were given money. In some instances, they could splurge the money on themselves. While in other instances, they had to give it away to someone else. Then they tracked their brain responses.

The teenagers who had a greater brain response when they imagined splurging the money on themselves were more likely to face the risk of depression than those whose brains fired more when they imagined giving the money away.

How To Ensue Happiness?

Let me tell you the story of Jaden Hades.

Six-year-old Jaden Hades went through a kid’s worst nightmare.

Not just once but twice.

He lost his dad when he was just four years old. 

Two years later, his mom died too. 

Jaden was heartbroken. His grief is unimaginable.

Yet Jaden let that grief pull him into depths of despair like most of us do. Instead, he told his aunt, now his guardian, that he was sick and tired of seeing everyone sad all the time, and he had a plan to fix it.

Jaden asked his aunt to buy a bunch of little toys — rubber duckies, dinosaurs, spinning wheel, etc. He then took them downtown Savannah, Georgia, near where he lives, and started handing them to random people. He said he was trying to make people smile.

Jaden targeted people who weren’t smiling and turned their day around. Everyone burst into a smile. Some even hugged him.

For some people, all this was so overwhelming that they burst into crying — a six-year-old orphan, giving them a toy, expecting nothing in return, except a smile.

Jaden created his happiness from his misery.

His aunt said the whole thing had done wonders for him. “I have seen shear joy come out of this child. The more people he makes smile, the more this light shows on his face.”

Jaden said he still felt sad that his mom passed away, but he has made nearly 500 people smile. He is counting on it to be 33,000.

Jaden was not chasing pleasure; he wanted to bring a smile to other people’s faces. In the process, he created happiness for himself.

Giving leads to happiness

Maria Pagano from Case Western Reserve University was curious about why Alcoholics Anonymous gives so much emphasis to “service.” So she started tracking them and found something astounding. 

40% of alcoholics who helped other alcoholics during their recovery were successful in remaining sober for a whole year.

In contrast, the number fell to almost half when people were not helpful. Only 22% of people who did not help other alcoholics managed to remain sober for a whole year.

The study also found that 94% of alcoholics who helped others experienced lower levels of depression. 

Even if they fell off the wagon, they were generally happier.

Most people believe that being selfish and hedonistic will lead to happiness. But the opposite is true. 

Selflessness and being helpful make you happy.

The science behind selflessness

Charles Darwin suggested that our evolution of emotions is an adaptive response. Emotions have changed over time to help us survive better in our surroundings. 

Being helpful increases our chances of survival as a group. And to reinforce this trait that improves our survival, our brains make us feel fulfilled and content when we help others. 

Neurotransmitters in the brain

Here is a simplified and incomplete snapshot of different neurotransmitters in our brains:

  • Endorphins: This is a neurotransmitter that is released to hide the pain. It leaves you feeling high.
  • Dopamine: It’s released in response to anything surprising. It acts as a reward system.
  • Serotonin: Contributes to the feeling of wellbeing and happiness.
  • Oxytocin: Builds bonds of trust and makes you feel loved.

Can you guess which neurotransmitters are released when you are feeling pleasure vs. when you are feeling happiness?

Dopamine is released when you help yourself. Oxytocin is released when you help someone else. Dopamine lasts for mere milliseconds. Oxytocin lasts much longer in your system!

But because dopamine makes us feel rewarded at the moment, we crave it. And that’s why, by default, we spend our time in the pursuit of pleasure!

“Giving back is as good for you as it is for those you are helping because giving gives you purpose. When you have a purpose-driven life, you’re a happier person.” — Goldie Hawn.

Create happiness instead

In his book “Being Mortal” Atul Gawande shares the story of a nursing home in New York. They arranged for kindergarten kids to come and visit the elderly residents regularly. They also got in 2 dogs and 4 cats, and 100 birds that the residents could help take care of.

It created magic. The elderly got a new sense of meaning from interacting with kids and animals. They were generally a lot more happier. But that’s not the surprising part. The surprising part is that the number of drugs prescribed to them reduced by 50%! And deaths fell by 15% annually!

In Summary

  • Pleasure and happiness are two distinct things. While both are good to have, pleasure is fleeting while happiness is longer lasting. 
  • Unlike pleasure, happiness cannot be directly pursued. It ensues from the act of doing something meaningful.
  • You gain pleasure by helping yourself. You gain happiness by helping others. So be of service to others.

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PS: Heartfelt thanks to Ankesh Kothari and his newsletter for all the research mentioned in this article.

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Photo by Sharath Kumar Hari on Unsplash

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