Are you unhappy? You’re not alone. The pandemic has created an epidemic of stress, anxiety, depression and a whole bunch of people who simply don’t feel happy. Many would say that all that unhappiness is totally warranted. Life pretty much stinks now in far too many ways.
But while there are many, many, many reasons to feel bad, frustrated and fearful now, what if I told you that happiness actually is within your control?
No, I haven’t lost my mind. The truth is that, for many years, I have watched people give away their happiness every day—not only during times of great challenge but also when life wasn’t nearly as difficult as it is now.
For some reason, we all think that happiness occurs “out there”—that something or someone makes us happy or unhappy. That suggests that we have no control over our own happiness, and rather than putting us in control of our lives, it gives all the power over our emotions and outcomes to occurrences “out there,” leaving us as victims.
If something good happens…we are happy.
If something bad happens…we are unhappy.
If someone is nice to us…we are happy.
If someone is mean to us…we are unhappy.
If someone says “yes” to us…we are happy.
If someone says “no” to us—yup, you guessed it—we are unhappy.
Are you seeing the pattern? Something happens outside of ourselves that controls our happiness.
But that simply isn’t true.
What if I said that you actually have control over your feelings of happiness? Because for most of us, happiness is a physiological reaction, a result of the interaction between mind and body. That’s right. Happiness generally is controlled by the thoughts you think and their effect on your body’s physiology. Specifically, your body releases hormones in response to your thoughts and experiences—four of those hormones make us feel good and one of them puts us in panic mode.
Dopamine is the hormone that rewards us when we achieve or get something. Author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek describes dopamine as the feel-good chemical released when your phone dings—Hooray, I have a message…hooray, someone responded to me. When you reach for something and achieve it, your body rewards you with dopamine.
Oxytocin is the hormone of human connection, released when mothers breast-feed their babies, when adults make love and when everyday people connect with others physically or emotionally.
Serotonin is considered the primary mood stabilizer. When doctors diagnose that a patient is depressed, they typically prescribe the antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). The problem is that antidepressants work only work about 50% to 65% of the time, on average, and can cause unpleasant side effects. The interesting thing is that serotonin is produced in the digestive track as well as in the brain, and there is a high correlation between people with depression and those who have digestive issues. This raises interesting questions about which comes first…the depression or the digestive issues.
Endorphins, often referred to as the body’s natural painkillers, are the hormone that athletes get “addicted” to because they feel so good after activity.
And the “evil” hormone? Cortisol. Unto itself, cortisol protects us in many ways by providing energy, regulating blood pressure and managing blood sugar during times of stress. Our bodies create it during the “fight or flight” survival response when we perceive danger. The problem is that in modern-day society, many of us perceive everything to be an affront, reacting with stress and emotional intensity far too often. The result is our bodies are bathed in cortisol. A little cortisol is good, but long-term exposure to cortisol creates inflammation throughout your body and overtaxes your system including overwhelming your ability to produce the feel-good hormones properly.
What does all of this science mean? It means that your body releases hormones that drive your emotions in response to a thought. So in many cases, if we change the thought, we can feel differently. Motivational author Louise Hay said “It’s only a thought, and a thought can be changed.” In my opinion, these are some of the most powerful words ever spoken. Consider this…you can just as easily have a positive thought in response to a situation as you can have a negative one.
Now, take a moment to reflect on your day. Think about how many positive thoughts you have versus negative ones. I will bet there are a whole lot more negative ones, right? Little frustrations…self-criticism…fear. With almost every negative thought, you release cortisol and suppress your body’s natural happiness systems. With almost every positive thought and action, you release happy hormones. Someone cuts you off in traffic and you flip him/her the bird…didn’t get a package you were expecting so you are annoyed…you have an unreasonable deadline or work in a hostile environment and are stressed. We simply don’t need to react with such venom to everyday occurrences. It’s quashing your own joy.
The sad fact is that adults have spent many years practicing these fearful and frustrating thoughts. We watch bad news, not good news. We binge-watch movies and television programs about sad stories, life crises and criminals. We surround ourselves with inputs that feel bad rather than good, so much so that every day we “practice” reacting with stress rather than joy.
We’ve gotten really good at spending our days complaining and blaming. But what if instead of being the victim in your life, you actually realized that you’re in control of your life. You can appreciate that your spouse or child prepped dinner without being frustrated that the kitchen now is messy or the meal not quite the way you would prepare it. Have patience with the slow sales clerk in the store who is likely trying the best he/she can in spite of possibly being new to the job, having received inadequate training or covering a second shift for a friend. We are so quick to be affronted, yet the truth is that the only one being hurt by those frustrations is you! It’s irritating your body and suffocating your happiness.
If you want happiness, you need to flip that practice by engaging in behaviors and thoughts that fuel the parts of your body that release the feel-good, happy hormones. Physical activity. Social interaction. Foods that supply quality fuel to your body. Positive thoughts and reactions. Touch. Smile. Notice the good rather than the bad.
Think happy thoughts, and the happy hormones fire. Think negative angry thoughts, and the stress hormone cortisol suffocates all of that happy-hormone plumbing…and you feel bad. Yes, this is an oversimplification of an incredibly complex physiological network, but the truth is that the high-level concept is truly not that complicated. Our bodies were designed in a really smart way, and they know how to react if we just give them the proper inputs.
Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz went on a very long journey to discover that happiness was right in her own backyard. Your happiness is in your own backyard, too. Once you stop giving the power to “them”—the people and things causing your unhappiness—you are free to awaken your own happiness by the choices you make and that help your body do exactly what it knows how to do.
Have a fabulous day!