We are all striving to be more happy. And if the billion dollar self help industry shows us anything, it’s that we are failing at it. I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between pleasure and contentment and how my actions and behaviours affect either or both. Constantly seeking little pleasures, like smartphone overuse, in life can lead to an overtaxed dopamine reward system and ultimately, feelings of unhappiness. Smartphone use is not the only thing that may be leading us down the road to misery. In the previous post, smartphone use and their impact on the dopamine pathway and the resulting anxiety and unhappiness is but one example of quick fixes that are hindering our path to contentment. You name it - shopping, alcohol, gambling, gaming, sex or drugs can easily turn into addictions and steadily rob you of true happiness.
So what is the antidote? Author Robert H. Lustig of “The Hacking of the American Mind” suggests four areas that need our attention and cultivation in order to activate the serotonin pathway, which leads to lasting contentment.
The first is the need for connection. Emotional bonding via interpersonal relationships is a necessity for all humans but one that we tend to overlook. When we engage with others in real time- it activates our prefrontal cortex (PFC) - the area of our brain responsible for analysis, planning and moderating social behaviour. In return, stress is reduced by inhibiting the amygdala (an almond shaped area of the brain that is responsible for emotions, such as fear & anger. It is this area of the brain that is on high alert when we are walking alone down a dark alley, late at night).
Some might say that Internet connectivity is taking the place face-to-face meets up. But is social media engagement real connection? Internet connectivity is a type of connection but it is not interpersonal so we don’t get the benefit of emotional bonding. In fact, all those notifications, likes on our pictures and comments each drive the dopamine reward pathway system. (That’s why we are all incessantly checking our phones).
True interpersonal connections allows us to cultivate our own identity in relation to others. Spending time with people promotes emotional wellbeing, reduces stress via our bonding hormone oxytocin and allows for acts of compassion.
“ In order to reclaim our contentment, we need to reclaim our capacity for solitude….solitude isn’t just being alone; it’s a sense of self that is not derived from internet connectivity". - Hacking of American Mind.
The second suggestion is to contribute to your community, city or globally. This could be done through volunteerism or philanthropy. Acts of altruism, which are done for the greater good, drives serotonin. I think the best way to contribute to society is through meaningful work. Generally speaking, our work either builds us up or tears at our self esteem. Let’s look at a few questions to help you reflect on the type of work that you do:
Working for unhappiness
Does your work…..
Disconnect you from your values?
Take you for granted?
Require pointless or redundant work?
Treat people unfairly?
Override your better judgement?
Put you in physical or emotional harm?
Working for contentment
Does your work….
Matter more to others than to you?
Challenge you at certain difficult times?
Ebb and flow, with various peak times?
Allow you to see your work product in society?
Make you feel proud to have performed it?
The third suggestion - cultivating our coping mechanisms - is imperative for optimal happiness. Do we soothe ourselves with another dopamine fix or learn behaviours that calm the anxiety and reduce our stress? When we are under chronic states of stress - even small ones like getting too many emails at work - this can burden our PFC. And a stressed out PFC has less influence over the hypothalamus - adrenals axis which is pumping out more cortisol. In turn we feel more stress, our hunger has increased thanks to cortisol and we have less restraint on the dopamine reward pathway. Hello, mid afternoon sweet treat! So, how do we keep the PFC is top form? Via the trifecta of good health: Sleep, mindfulness & exercise.
Finally, the fourth suggestion to creating a life filled with happiness and to reconnect with real food. Cook! It’s the best way to ensure you're eating healthy, whole foods. It’s also a great way to limit the amount of sugar you are eating. Sugar, it turns out, is the cheapest quick fix for dopamine out there. When we cook foods at home, we will reduce our sugar consumption & be applying the other three suggestions at the same time. Cook for someone else and you get you connected with a good friend and you’ll feel like you’ve contributed something special for someone else. And there’s no better way to cope with stress than to eat high nutrient, health home-cooked foods!