You Can Choose Happiness—Here’s How
I tried codependency once. For five years she and I tried to break out of our individual unhappinesses together.
I proposed that our only route out was to “choose happiness.”
To a depressed person this is of course heresy. “What—I’m supposed to just ‘snap out of’ this straight jacket numbness that has always existed, for ever and ever, amen?”
It doesn’t happen that quickly, but yes. Most therapists won’t dare tell a client who faces depression that true salvation can only come from within—through an irreversible decision plus the strenuous force of will to get better—which is why clients can spend five years in therapy and still be angry about childhood.
This is the truth: If you’re not happy, you can choose to be.
What Is Happiness?
In 6,000 years, humanity’s greatest minds haven’t nailed down the precise recipe for happiness. Still, there are “signposts” in its direction.
If we’re going to talk about happiness, we need to know what it is. Sure, we know it to feel it, but what’s its source? Scientists think they have the answer: It’s a cluster of biological processes—an illusion created in us by packets of chemicals produced in the brain, acting as messengers between neurons.
Let’s translate the physiology into human terms later, but first, a science lesson will help.
The 4 Horsemen of Paradise
There are four main bundles of chemicals, called neurotransmitters, that generate happiness: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. For an exceptional layman’s synopsis on these, read Simon Sinek’s book Leaders Eat Last.
Endorphins for Euphoria
“I began to think, I want to feel good today. I don’t want to keep living for some far-off day that might never come—where I’m rich and finally feel good about myself.” —Tom Bilyeu
Endorphins create euphoria and are chemically similar to opiates like morphine and codeine. Your brain releases endorphins during intense exercise, laughter and sex. It’s that feeling of feeling no pain, what runners call the “high.”
These messengers flow in response to pain, but you don’t need to join Fight Club to enjoy a rush of happy. Here are some shortcuts:
- Exercise: OK, this isn’t always 100% painless, but it should be fun if you do it right. Caution: Not all exercise triggers endorphins. Aerobic exercise (aka cardio) works best.
- Laughter: We love a side-splitting laugh because it feels good, but few of us do it enough. The most effective laughter is social, or shared with others, so make it a point to get together with friends throughout the week and get giddy.
- Acupuncture & Massage: It turns out that prodding certain parts of the body with needles or hands is a great way to stimulate endorphins.
- Yoga & Mediation: One study found that poses and breathing exercises flooded patients’ systems with beta-endorphins, which decrease stress and pain.
- Chocolate & Spicy Food: Cacao creates endorphins. Be careful of what’s marketed as chocolate but is mostly sugar. Seek products with 70% or more cacao content. And spicy food? The hotter, the more endorphins created. It hurts so good!
Prioritize feeling good, and happiness won’t be far off.
Deeds for Dopamine
“If you want to conquer fear, don’t sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” —Dale Carnegie
Years ago, I resigned my job to build a business full time. What I noticed on that first Monday was nobody telling me what to do. It was easy to sleep until mid-morning and watch TV at lunch.
I lacked clear goals and saw little progress. I started to question the wisdom of leaving bed at all. Now I know that my growing unhappiness was likely a neurochemical deficiency.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that drives us—what led our ancestors out of the jungle. It’s the reason we feel elated when we accomplish something big, and the bigger the challenge, the bigger the hit.
Research has confirmed what great achievers always knew: There’s great satisfaction in Getting Stuff Done. Humans need a purpose, a challenge, and accomplishment to be happy, but our modern world is out of sync with evolution. Checking email can’t give us the glory of taking down a boar with a spear.
In The Athlete’s Way, coach and author Christopher Bergland argues that this imbalance in our natural neurochemical levels is “making us more prone to depression, anxiety and malcontent.”
He believes that we have the power to make ourselves happy simply by setting a goal and achieving it.
What can save you from sadness? Take a step. And then another.
Serotonin Is Social
“We are rarely proud when we are alone.” —Voltaire
If accomplishment is such a great inoculation against unhappiness, then why is it possible to build an empire and still feel empty? It’s because dopamine can’t fulfill all our happy needs.
Imagine being the last human being on Earth and sinking a hole-in-one off the tee. That feat would feel empty with nobody to share it with.
Serotonin flows when we believe others like and respect us. It generates feelings of pride. An imbalance of serotonin can lead to depression, anxiety and anger.
What’s more, neuroscientist Dr. Alex Korb shows that low serotonin can prevent you from acting on your plans. This further robs you of that dopamine boost that follows crushing goals.
How do we tap into serotonin? Put yourself in situations where you can feel significant, important and respected. But maybe you’re struggling to inspire others’ respect lately, trapped in an eddy of low self-esteem. What then?
There are three serotonin-boosting hacks:
- Get some sun: 20 minutes a day of UV light will kickstart production.
- Book a massage: A study showed that a 20-minute massage twice a week led to higher serotonin levels.
- Exercise: This one seems to be a precursor to all these happy chemicals; maybe you should prioritize the fitness habit?
You serve nobody, least yourself, by hiding at home. Start putting yourself into the arena—share your talents for that reward of serotonin.
Oxytocin = Affection
“Happiness! It is useless to seek it elsewhere than in this warmth of human relations.” —Antoine de St. Exupery
Two weeks ago, my wife gave birth to our first baby girl. It was oxytocin that prepared her body for childbirth, initiated labor, helped her heal and triggered breastfeeding. Most importantly, it caused us both to fall in love with our daughter.
Oxytocin is the neurotransmitter of love and friendship, and it’s the most versatile of the four.
Beyond childbirth, oxytocin reduces fear and anxiety, combats depression, makes us want to protect the vulnerable and lie for them, and get all weepy when we see our country’s flag.
Think about what this list encapsulates: the most coveted peak experiences in the catalogue of human emotion: love for our partner, children and nation; friendship and belonging to a group; freedom from fear and despair.
Few roads to happiness do not lead through oxytocin. And like the other chemicals, we can encourage it:
- Love somebody: Let’s get mushy. If you love someone, take time right now to tell them. If you don’t, open your heart before it stops. Self-love is an excellent substitute in the meantime.
- Be generous: Give an unexpected gift, buy that stranger a coffee, throw your change in the hat, or pay a compliment. When you do, oxytocin will flow.
- Pet your pets: One study discovered that 5 to 24 minutes of petting your furry friend created fuzzy feelings in both man and dog.
- Touch: Massage, hugging, hand holding and even a handshake works.
Religious and philosophical inquiries into the meaning of life always seem to arrive at the same conclusion: Love is all.
Beyond the Science
“Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.
Any discussion about happiness that reduces the experience to a bunch of chemicals splashing around in the bloodstream is woefully inadequate. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling unsatisfied.
Science excels in observing how things work, but it’s incapable of grasping the human experience in the way that philosophy and literature and art can.
Let’s get lofty.
Again, what is happiness? This time let’s leave biology out of it.
You know the answer in every cell of your body. Even if it seems like a vague memory from your present spiritual winter, you would recognize it when it visited.
We also know intuitively that it can’t be chased down the well-worn roads of money, fame, sex, food or any immediate pleasure. Where is happiness hiding, then?
Happiness Is a Mindset
“The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.” —David Foster Wallace
When I was in my own ninth circle of depression, one idea, heard three ways, led me to formulate this “preposterous” argument—that we can choose happiness—and led me back to my natural state of daily joy.
The first time was in a guided meditation led by mindfulness researcher Jon Kabat Zinn. It went something like,
“Picture yourself sitting on the bank of a river. From time to time you will get pulled into the stream and carried away. That’s fine. Just pull yourself out of the (thought) stream and sit back on the bank, listening to the gurglings and bubblings.”
The idea that my thoughts were not reality was revolutionary. I didn’t need to let my story of unhappiness hold power any longer.
Weeks later, the lesson crystallized when I came across a random comment in a now long-lost discussion thread on Reddit:
“Think of your thoughts like the weather; as if they were passing clouds. Weather doesn’t have meaning: sometimes you get storm clouds and sometimes clear skies.”
It shattered another link in the chain of a melancholy mindset that was not serving me.
The third rung in the ladder that helped me rise into happiness was even simpler, another phrase of forgotten origin:
“You don’t need an excuse to be happy.”
Take that in.
Happiness does not demand some external event, an accomplishment, a win, a pat on the head, a struggle or any reason at all.
You can simply choose to be happy now—in this moment—for no other reason than you are the most complex form of life we know, living in the most exciting time in history, circling an exploding ball of hydrogen at 67,000 mph, sitting on a chunk of rock and lava.
How to Remember
“Happiness is not a state to arrive at, but a manner of traveling.” —Margaret Lee Runbeck
I hope that image makes you feel good, but I realize that eventually someone will say, “Yeah, but what about paying the bills?”
It’s hard to remember this joy in the face of daily ordeals. David Foster Wallace captured the challenge in a most profound commencement speech, entitled “This is Water” (take 20 minutes to read this if you haven’t had the pleasure). In brief,
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”
Humans easily forget what’s in front of our eyes, all around: that we are swimming in the cosmic reality, the source of all joy—Life, the Universe and Everything. We only need to pay attention.
It’s a simple task but hard to do. However, there are practices that help us remember. Here are two powerful favorites.
“When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.” —Willie Nelson
Fear, anger, anxiety, frustration and sadness cannot coexist with gratitude. Your assignment, then, is to spend growing stretches of your day steeped in thankfulness.
This needs to be felt, not intellectualized. You can put yourself into a state of gratitude these ways:
- Meditation: Sit, breathe, and picture what you are grateful for in your life, even if that’s just this moment of peace. Put your hands over your heart; it helps.
- Journaling: Make a list of everything that is going right in your life, all that you look forward to and the past experiences (challenges included) that have forged the person you have become.
- Smile: Change your mental-emotional state by changing your physiology. When you smile, you’ll feel grateful for the things that you have.
- Sit in nature: The natural world is just amazing. Observe the sky, trees, wildlife, and give thanks for this world that is the cradle of all known life in the Universe.
“The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression.” —Jane McGonigal
When I watched my friends’ Labradoodle gently tussle with their year-old baby, the baby’s laughter underscored a truth I forget often: Play equals life.
Parrots love toys, elephants spray water at each other. Our children play, too, and if you have teenagers you probably wish they’d get off the Nintendo Switch and clean their damn rooms. Then we grow up and trade that aimless play for workaholism and other dull habits. No wonder most teenagers are skeptical of their older overlords.
Play teaches important biological skills, like social bonding and motor control, but when we go ax throwing we’re conscious of little more than sheer revelry.
We play because it feels good, and this is true at any age. If you don’t believe me, just watch Grandpa, the stoical WWII veteran, playing peek-a-boo with his little princess.
Jane McGonigal is leading the charge for more adult play. To her, its value is so paramount that her life goal is to see a Nobel Peace Prize in the hands of a game designer. Her game, SuperBetter, has helped millions overcome depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. That’s the power of play.
How do we bring more of it into our lives?
- Make exercise fun again: Run from the treadmill. Step off the Stairmaster. Moving your body should be fun. If it’s not, try this: Get outside, find a buddy or a group, try a sport or martial art—just change it up until it feels like play.
- Buy some toys: Get a frisbee and a friend, buy a Lego set, fly a drone. A sexy motorcycle works, too.
- PLAY some games: Join a chess or trivia club, visit a board game café, download your favorite childhood computer games.
- Make everything a game: The best line from the movie Elf? “Everything’s a toy if you play with it.” Boom, your morning commute is now a medieval gauntlet. Doing your monthly bookkeeping is now a race against a timer and your previous best, with a reward at the end. You’re welcome.
When you make time to play, you unlock creativity, strengthen relationships, improve your attitude, become more fun to be around, do better work and get ahead in your job. Beyond all that, you’ll be happier.
Nothing is as dispiriting as the concept of retirement—the idea that we play the role of “Janitor of a Mountain of BS” (to quote Tim Ferriss) for 40-some years and only then slouch into our idyllic Golden Years, where water nymphs spoon-feed us ambrosia-flavored bran flakes and each day is a new matching track suit.
The fantasy is: If I do X, then I’ll be happy.
I was reminded of this fallacy when I relocated to Mexico last year only to carry my workaholism, stress and bad habits with me across the continent right onto the beach.
Don’t hang your happiness on outcomes. If you do, you’ll be content for a minute or a month after hitting your goal, then fixate on the next imaginary void in your life.
Don’t wait for happiness, choose it now.