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Science for the Journey
Volume 2.04

photo of orange butterfly on hot pink bougainvilla bractsCan Happiness Last?

We've all experienced momentary happiness, but what can we do to create lasting happiness? 

This is certainly something I've wondered as  I've noticed that some experiences continue to give me happiness and seem to have actually changed my life, while others merely create a high that fades. 

So, what is the difference?

The difference lies in how these various experiences affect the brain.  Know why different experiences have different effects by reading "Understanding Happiness".  Then, read the Happiness Technique to experience it for yourself.

To your journey,

Alicia Ruelaz Maher, M.D.


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Understanding Happiness

"Don't ask yourself what the world needs.  Ask yourself what makes you come alive. Then go and do that.  Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." --- Harold Whitman.
Are you happy? 

Depending on what's going on in your life, that may seem like an easy question to answer.  The surprising thing is that research tells us that, not only are we not good at predicting what will make us happy, but we might not even recognize when we have it.

Huh?  This certainly made little sense to me when I first heard it.  We've come to think of happiness as the emotional reaction we feel in response to a happiness-inducing situation.  However, this may be mixing up the definition of happiness with that of pleasure.  Heading to the trusty Webster's dictionary, we see that  one definition of happiness is "a state of well-being or contentment".  Pleasure, on the other hand, is defined as "a state of gratification". 

When it comes to neuroscience, it is the state of well-being or contentment that the brain actually experiences as happiness, not gratification.  The brain experiences pleasure, primarily through the neurochemical dopamine. This is one of several chemicals that the brain produces in reaction to different circumstances.  Experiences that bring pleasure, such as drugs, sex, shopping and adventures, are generally short lived.  When the experience is over, the dopamine subsides and the brain goes back to the way it was before the experience.

Happiness is different in that it involves activating structures within the brain with an effect that can continue.  Research has shown that the brain has what we know as happiness when engaged in meaningful activity and working towards a goal.  Not all of the steps along the way to the goal will be pleasurable.  This may explain why those times of struggle leading up to a goal are looked back on fondly, but complained about along the way.  If you are working towards a goal right now, you may be in the process of experiencing happiness, without even realizing it.

One study that looked at happiness divided people into 2 groups and told one group to develop a specific and achievable goal and work on it for 10 weeks, while the other group made no changes.  At the end of the 10 weeks, the group that developed and worked towards goals were happier.  The surprising thing was that these individuals continued to be happy, even up to 33 weeks later. [1]  In other words, they not only experienced happiness, but it lasted.  Imagine if they continued to set goals every several months, with the experience of happiness lasting in between!

As you might have already guessed, not all goals will lead to happiness.  There are two types of goals- 'extrinsic' vs 'intrinsic' goals.  Extrinsic goals are something that come from outside of you.  This may be a project given to you by a boss or even something you choose to do but only because you feel that you should do it.  What makes an extrinsic goal less than satisfying is that it is all about achieving a particular result.  So, you are not running because you enjoy being active and want to feel healthy, you are running because you want to weigh a particular amount or look a particular way.  Intrinsic goals, on the other hand are what you do because it is consistent with who you are.   So, you run because you are an active person.  You learn something new because it interests you.  You create something because it is important to you to have it out there in the world. Being engaged in intrinsic goals is what causes the brain to experience happiness.   When what you are doing has personal value for you, working towards it will be meaningful and fulfilling.  It may not feel pleasurable, but the effects will be much greater.

So which goals will make you happy?  Science has something to say here, as well.  It seems that we may not be entirely aware of which goals will cause the lasting happiness we seek.  In general, people tend to think that relaxing, or doing things that require less effort will make us happy but that hasn't turned out to be true.  In a very simple experiment, a scientist gave a questionnaire to students and had them either complete it and wait 15 minutes or, they could walk to a location 15 minutes away and take the questionnaire.  Those that walked to take their questionnaire reported feeling happier than those who didn't[2].  Though we often think that putting effort into difficult tasks will decrease our happiness, it turns out that the opposite is the case.  The more we are engaged in what we are doing, the more likely it will have an effect on the brain.  By putting more effort into what we are doing, the brain will more fully experience it.  Imagine the difference between what the brain experiences when you are focused on the food you are eating as opposed to when you finish it while doing something else.  The more involved we are in what we are doing, the more of an effect it will have. 

In the end, it is a process of trial and error, knowing which goals will give us this kind of happiness.  Use the technique below to get started.

[1] Green, L, et al. "Cognitive-Behavioral, Solution-Focused Life Coaching: Enhancing Goal Striving, Well-Being, and Hope", The Journal of Positive Psychology 2006;1:142-149.

[2] BPS Research Digest


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Happiness Technique

photo of orange butterfly on hot pink bougainvilla bracts

Defining and Working Towards Goals
Remember, this is about the process of activity leading towards the goal, more than the achievement of the goal, itself.  This is to change your brain towards the experience of happiness, not to achieve anything in particular.

Choose a goal that involves a process that is consistent with who you are.  What is something that you have been wanting to learn, accomplish or do?  Make this something that is important to you and something that you can work towards within the next month.  It may be that you have always wanted to learn a particular language, a style of dance, create a scrapbook or write a book.  Create one goal for this month and then lay out the steps that you will take to work towards it.

Unlike a business plan or something you should do, this will be something that you are doing just because it interests you.  It doesn't matter how much is accomplished by the end of the month.  The point is to observe the process and experiment to see whether setting goals and working towards them may increase your happiness.

Let's say you've chosen to learn Japanese.  A language is a good goal because there is always something more that can be achieved.  Look at a calendar of the month and break your goal into steps.  Maybe it will be each day that you learn a certain number of words, attend a certain number of classes over the month, do something each week, etc.  Depending on what feels right to you, create steps and when they will be accomplished during this month.  Now, start working towards the goal and notice how you feel during the various parts of the process.  Remember that it may be easier and feel more pleasurable to watch t.v. or do nothing, but happiness will come from the process. 

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