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Happiness, where are you hiding?

March 20, 2020

The search for happiness is more than a luxurious leisure activity; it keeps our engine running. Especially in times like these, when happiness seems elusive, the search is all the more important.

Junge Frau mit Fernglas
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Chromorange/Bilderbox

What makes us feel happy can be very different: ice cream, a word of praise, the sunrise or the birth of a child. All sorts of things have the potential to make us happy. However, happiness is a disguise artist, so we often overlook it.

Whoever finds it is right to feel fortunate - in the truest sense of the word. "Happiness is an extremely strong, positive emotion. A perfect, lasting state of intense satisfaction," according to a psychological definition.

What may sound like philosophical prose can actually be measured. Happiness can be observed in the brain with the help of MRI, according to German neurologist Christof Kessler.

 "We have a special center in the brain, the so-called mesolimbic system, also called the happiness center. When we experience something impressive, like a good report card or the birth of a child, this center is activated, and dopamine floods the brain." Dopamine, also known as the happiness hormone, is responsible for the overpowering feeling of happiness, says Kessler.

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Infographic: What does happiness mean to you?

Intoxicated by happiness

Those who know these moments of happiness know how wonderful the sensation is; it must not stop, we feel, and if it has to stop, then please let it come back quickly. This is exactly where the evolutionary sense of this emotion lies: "The feeling of happiness is connected with the desire to repeat the whole thing," says Kessler.

Successful behavior is thus rewarded with a rush of happiness, and the intoxicated person is motivated to repeat the heroic deed. Kessler says this has been of decisive importance for the development of humanity.

"Unfortunately, drugs also stimulate the happiness system," admits Kessler. Heroin, tobacco or alcohol make us believe in short-term happiness and this is one of the reasons why we become addicted so quickly. The hunt for happiness can therefore also lead into a trap.

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Not all happiness is the same

Happiness has different manifestations; the vehement, fleeting rush of happiness is only one of them, says Johannes Michalak, chair of clinical psychology and psychotherapy at the University of Witten/Herdecke. Michalak is also a mindfulness researcher.

Mindfulness finds its origins in Buddhist teachings and meditation. In the West, the training of mindfulness has become known mainly through various psychotherapy methods.

Infographic: The world's top 10 happiest countries 2019

Those who believe that happiness can only be found where the dopamine level is as high as possible are very dependent on external circumstances. And as is well known, at least according to the German idiom, life is not a pony farm, i.e., it’s no never-ending party.

"With mindfulness, attention is focused on the experience that unfolds in the here and now, and in a non-judgmental way," explains Michalak.

Anyone who has ever watched children play should have an idea of what "being in the here and now" might mean. They do not find it difficult to completely immerse themselves in the moment. The past plays just as little a role as the future does.

"In our everyday lives, however, we are often either busy thinking about the past or the future. So we are very rarely in the only moment in which we are really alive: the present," says the mindfulness researcher.

Happiness requires courage

Thus, we are constantly missing something. "The treasure of every moment gets lost to my fixation on problems," says Michalak. Anyone who spends a lot of time thinking about the annoying boss, the not-so-nice colleagues or the exhausting husband is unlikely to notice the cool autumn air and the bright colors of the foliage during a walk.

So, we rob ourselves not only of the many small moments of happiness; eternal brooding can lead to depression. And mindfulness can also help here. Concentrating on the moment interrupts the brooding process. Instead of constantly losing yourself in fuming about the boss, attention can be focused on what one is actually experiencing in that moment.

Only those who take the time to focus on their own existence are ultimately capable of action, explains Michalak: "Mindfulness can help to make decisions: Is the boss so annoying that I have to change jobs? Or maybe I can even accept him as he or she is."

Happiness coaching

Pain is part of it

Mindfulness does not only mean that the beauty of this world is revealed to me, with its blooming flowers, singing birds and delicious ice cream. Above all, those who are mindful feel themselves - and that can sometimes be very painful.

To perceive and accept one's own anger or grief is an essential aspect of mindfulness, says Michalak. This is what he means by "non-judgmental.” A large part of human unhappiness is that we are constantly on a warpath with supposedly negative feelings - instead of simply letting them come and go.

So, the good news is that the mindful person finds happiness everywhere. The bad news is that the path to happiness is not necessarily painless. Of course, there is still the possibility of seeking happiness in the kick: through sex, food or with the help of drugs.

But happiness is not just happiness. "Studies have shown that children have a negative impact on their parents' life satisfaction," says Michalak. Lack of sleep, stress and the feeling of no longer having a life of their own make everyday life with a baby less comfortable and more likely to cause dissatisfaction than intoxicating feelings of happiness. "However, the Eudemonic quality of life, i.e., a deeply felt sense of purpose in life, increases."

And that is a happiness that can only be born in pain.

DW journalist Julia Vergin
Julia Vergin Senior editor and team lead for Science online