Well, the jury may still be out on this, or is it? Don’t we all have our own very specific ideas of what would make us happy? Such phrases as, “pursuit of happiness” indeed imply that there could in fact be a formula. Happiness is out there, somewhere, or is it?
What if happiness had a formula, and that formula was well within each of us? It would mean that there were specific ingredients to being happy.
I would like to explore this as a probable formula;
Perspective + Oxytocin + Labelling Our Emotions = Happiness
Allow me to explore further…
Part I- Perspective
It’s so true!
Other than the fact that there are always two (or more) sides to a story, an altered (modulated) perspective does always help adjust one’s actual reality.
I actually believe perspective holds the ability to change the world, stop wars, mend fences and bring about more happiness.
I don’t even know where to begin with this…I’ll try to bring my thoughts together.
This week, I have been talking with a couple of my close friends and life partners (people I do life with), and this word has found a way of featuring in the underlying theme of our conversations.
Whenever you can feel yourself being irrational, envious, ungrateful, and yes, unhappy, you have to investigate your own perspective on the issue.
If you are wishing you had something (item, situation, etc) your friend has, it’s because you are not holding a mirror to yourself to see just how blessed in so many ways you are.
My being away from my daily is helping me think a little straighter (at the time of writing this piece, I had been separated from my family for at least a couple of months). Many of us don’t have enough white space to do anything with absolute clarity. Having been so entangled in my role as a mother, wife, entrepreneur…you name it! for over a decade, I didn’t even realise that I lacked enough white space. Ever tried quickly jotting down something important in a filled up notebook that you just look for any ‘white space’…
In life, white space is important because it’s when you can critically appraise your important life questions against an uncluttered backdrop. The white space gives you the advantage of an altered perspective or perspective period.
I am discovering that in my solitude, the advantage that perspective is affording me. I am able to give my mind 2 or more versions to anything I am pondering, and in response, I feel I am left with easy resolutions that just go to prove that most of life’s big Qs are just a simple solution away if you clear your mind (find some white space) for perspective to descend upon it.
Of course there are a few other steps to getting to this utopia (he…he…I haven’t been carried too far off into fairyland), keep reading to find out…I promise, the steps involve other relatively simple things!
The other day, someone swore at me while I was driving! And, I was completely at ‘zen’. It would not have made a difference to my internal peace; I wasn’t bothered in the slightest!
So, friend, exercise perspective as often as possible, and see if it contributes to helping you show up as a better version of yourself.
Part II- Happiness Chemicals
Is there such a thing as happiness chemicals running through our bodies?
It hasn’t escaped me how utterly simple this idea that happiness can be achieved through a combination of the right perspective cocktailed with the right chemicals.
And, what are these chemicals?
A friend once shared something from the interwebs that made reference to 4 lame sounding- but actually incredibly potent chemicals that could be an absolute game changer when it comes to the evolution of our own happiness/utopia.
These chemicals are;
The 3 key chemicals that are responsible for our own long-term happiness or unhappiness.
- Dopamine – This is the chemical people are subconsciously trying to maximise, which is actually unsustainable, because it only provides short-lived bursts of pleasure when we accomplish something (eg. when you eat that chocolate cake, KFC, buy a house, etc.). So attempting to maximise dopamine (a short-lived hit) results in lower long-term happiness. It is designed to always go away quickly (think about when you bought that new car, ate that slice of pizza); the effects on happiness lasted only a few hours at most, then you’re out searching for something else that promises to give you the same feeling prolonged (confused as happiness)…an oxymoron at best!
- Cortisol– Cortisol is a chemical that results from the fear that something negative may happen. Children tend to have a lot of cortisol. You can have a surge of cortisol when you fear that your boss/ spouse is going to criticise you, etc. Whenever you feel stress, proclaim to be stressed, you are courting cortisol! I wonder why many people’s response to, “how are you?”, is “tunasukuma [we’re pushing life] or “tunang’ang’ana [we’re toiling/striving hard]). This is so cortisol-inducing, and it is actually possible to be addicted to this chemical, and it can contribute to high incidences of depression, poor life choices and overall unhappiness.
Whenever you feel stress, proclaim to be stressed, you are courting cortisol!
- Oxytocin– This chemical has the chance of increasing long-term wellbeing (happiness). Oxytocin, when increased in safe relationships, holds the key to long-term wellness. As humans, we are hard-wired to be deeply unhappy if we are not connected with at least a few other people (no man is an island…ring a bell). It is never too late to start boosting your own oxytocin levels by forging deep, meaningful relationships. You can do so by hugging a loved one, going to visit your parents, watching/helping your child ride their bike, sitting around doing absolutely nothing! It is actually a really cheap chemical to manufacture…it doesn’t need you to impress, to buy anything, it just needs you to co-exist.
So, these 3 chemicals hold the key to whether we will be happy, or not.
Recognising where happiness may lie, and where it doesn’t is as important to this process. If you thought the bigger the accomplishment, the happier you’ll get, you my friend, are in for a rude shock! That is you going for a dopamine hit, and hoping it won’t wear off!
So, back to the article my friend shared…
The context behind the article had been how we all need to stop and smell the roses more often. That 2 people can have a shared experience, and 1 gets less of a chemical hit from it, has a lot to do with one’s exchange rate.
Yes, like money exchange rate!
If you went to the bank to exchange $100 for Kenya shillings, and were expecting at least 10,000 shillings and only received 3,000 shillings, then there would be something wrong with that exchange rate.
How we train our brain not to short change us is through perspective, and through being knowledgeable about what chemicals to aim for for more sustained releases. Why would you go for the bigger accomplishments at the expense of your peace of mind if the stakes were so much higher, and the high as we know only lasts for hours.
When did sitting around having a good laugh become a “waste of time”?
When did proclaiming how stressed we are, and how much of a hustler we are become the standard?
If you went to the bank with a clear expectation that yes, this accomplishment was big, but you have already put it into perspective that it will not define who you are (failure as well), then you will not be shocked at receiving 3,000 shillings back.
Your little one can marvel endlessly at the simplest of things, and get in the all important oxytocin, but you can stand on mountain tops, and feel nothing…that’s how you know your perspective has taken a hard hit.
Cherish and nurture the things that bring you more joy…discover them if you are unsure…and this should be enough.
Otherwise, you will be chasing after mirages, and all for short-lived dopamine hits!
And this concludes the second part of my musings about happiness.
I said, there is a third piece to this puzzle, to bring it all home…labelling your feelings, and I’ll get to it shortly, but in the meantime…
Ask yourself, how is your exchange rate? Are you going for more and getting disappointed to receive less? Are you constantly feeling something should be worth more? Are you overlooking the real value providers? How can you see and feel the joy out of everything? How do you adjust your perspective?
Part III- Labelling your Feelings
We have all experienced situations that throw us into stress, panic, confusion, anxiety, sadness, and many other unpleasant states that are nowhere near the state we would rather be in, happy.
Let me start by making one thing clear…happiness isn’t the absence of unwanted emotions, but it is the preservation of this desired state in spite of experiencing the other emotions. Put another way, when you have mastered happiness, negative emotions never occupy centre stage, because you have put them in their place, and naming your feelings is one way of effectively doing so.
According to researchers, when you give a name to a difficult situation you are going through, it gives your logical brain the opportunity to regulate the primitive and emotional parts of the brain.
Various emotion-inducing events such as being stuck in traffic, getting into a fight with your friend/spouse, not getting the grades you desired, or severe events such as a break up, various traumatic events, etc. all trigger a type of tsunami of emotions in our brain that result in the physiological effects we experience whenever we encounter difficult emotions. Our logical brain is held hostage by our primitive and emotional brain, and whilst it is the job of the logical brain to calm things down, the logical brain is unable to do so because it does not understand what is happening. All it knows is that it has been overruled by the other parts of the brain whose job it is to protect you from this potential danger by raising alarm- all the wild emotions, fight/flight responses you may be experiencing at the time.
It is not until you name the emotions you are going through that the logical brain can sweep in and restore calm because the emotions are no longer unfamiliar, or deemed as threatening.
When you put feelings into words, you effectively hit the brakes on these wild emotional responses.
So, is there a way to name emotions?
Growing up in Kenya, I do not recall anyone teaching me how to label my own emotions, and actually, how I was feeling was never a subject of discussion because as a child, no one really cared (too much) about how you felt. Well, probably not completely true, but even when emotions were discussed, only the broad ones were emphasised (bad, good, happy, sad, angry).
When labelling your emotions, researchers suggest that you should aim to label 3 specific feelings for every broad feeling you may be experiencing. This is because the broad emotions mask deeper more specific emotions going on beneath the surface. We may have about 3 specific emotions for every 1 broad/surface emotion. For example, if you are feeling angry or stressed because your child no longer wants to continue with piano lessons, it could be that the reason for this anger or stress is that you feel disappointed, worried, guilty, conflicted, helpless, etc. Let’s consider 3 of these emotions;
Disappointed that the vision you had for your child pursuing music suddenly has to come to an end.
Worried that you are not doing such a good job of encouraging your child to develop the discipline not to give up on an endeavour when it gets tough. You may worry that this behaviour may place them at risk as an adult.
Guilty that you were not always there to support them through their practise sessions and that this may have contributed to them now wanting to give up on it.
This act of labelling your emotions precisely helps to reclaim your own sense of control in the matter, and by doing so, your body’s physiology calms down because it no longer feels under siege.
Another advantage of this practise, I have found, is that it helps to restore rationality. If you need to react, you do so while you are in a calm state, which has a significant impact on your judgement call.
As an entrepreneur, mother, and wife, I have witnessed the benefits of labelling my emotions. It has helped to regulate me in ways that have helped me preserve relationships, and not be reactionary. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have deleted fully composed emails and messages after I have descriptively labelled my own emotions to sometimes greatly distressing news, and prevented a further spiralling of the situation.
I urge you to try this practise, and commit to it, you will notice what a difference it makes to your sanity and sense of self.
The pursuit of happiness is definitely very personal to everyone. It is a journey, and not a destination. It is clear though that our emotions play a monumental role in the attainment of happiness.
We must learn to stabilise our emotions, or they will destabilise us.
We must commit to our own evolution, constantly interrogating our motives and reactions to different situations.
We must never forget to leave room for gratitude.
And, we must share this intelligence with those we love so that they too can be impacted in their own pursuits.
With children, you could start by helping them label their feelings in various situations. Validate rather than shame their feelings. Help them put into perspective the situations they find themselves, and how they connect to the bigger picture.
I personally feel that the emotional piece, ie. teaching our children to master their emotions (as we master ours) is a crucial one in our parenting journey, and it holds the key to contentment, success, and authenticity.
What is your happiness formula?
Have you ever thought about happiness in this way?
Please feel free to share your input.