Happiness: The Wonder Drug of Well-Being
- What is happiness?
- Our Chemical Response to Happiness
- The Health Benefits of a Positive Attitude
- In Conclusion
“Clap along if you know what happiness is to you” – lyrics from “Happy” by Pharrell Williams.
While there have been those among us – such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer – who would argue that happiness is highly overrated, most of us would concur with Pharrell Williams that when we experience joy, we feel like clapping. Whether we personally have something good happen to us, or we make someone else’s day through a random act of kindness, the benefits of happiness can be the gifts that keep on giving. A positive attitude can carry us far up into the clouds when we may have otherwise felt like calling it a day and crawling back into bed.
For those of us with lupus, developing and maintaining a positive attitude may also help to lessen the severity of symptoms you may experience. In individuals who do not suffer from lupus, getting the happiness juices flowing may even decrease the risk of developing an autoimmune disease. A recent Lupus News Today article – “Depression May Increase Risk of Developing Lupus” – discussed how Harvard researchers followed approximately 46,000 women who had a history of depression over a 20-year period. They found that these women were twice as likely to develop lupus within 4.5 years of being diagnosed with depression than those who were not. In this study, depression was “…a causal risk factor for developing SLE, perhaps via altered immune function.”
In a nutshell, being happy can be a benefit for everyone.
What is happiness?
Describing happiness may seem pretty simple at first blush – it’s that feeling of accomplishment and pride when we ace an algebra exam or the gratitude we feel when someone buys us a cup of coffee, or the joy we experience when we hear a child laugh. Happiness is that glimmer of light, hope, and sense that all is well with the world when we do something good for others and see them smile – or break out into a smile ourselves when we achieve another life goal – or receive a hug from our best friend.
It may seem as though we’re taking all the fun out of happiness if we attempt to look at it through a scientific or clinical lens. Happiness should be about puppy breath, shooting stars, and rainbows – not complex neurotransmitters and nerve synapses! Yet, if we have a better understanding of what happens in our body when we experience joy and its important role in our life, we may develop a keener awareness of when it’s missing and what we can do to win it back.
Our Chemical Response to Happiness
What exactly is going on behind the scenes when we see or feel something that fills us with joy? It is intriguing to think the effect of seeing a beautiful work of art, or receiving a hug, or completing a 5K walk for charity can have holistic benefit to our well-being. While viewing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre may fill us with an astounding sense of beauty, the response generated is more than what meets the eye. Chemical responses are triggered deep inside our brain by this seemingly simple act. Why do we say these responses are chemical?
Well, as you know, our nervous system (brain, spinal cord, etc.) are made of cells called neurons. These neurons connect and communicate with each other in order for us to sense our environment, move our muscles and even think our thoughts. Our brains alone contain about 100 BILLION neurons and each of these are connected to, on average, 10 thousand other neurons. That comes to around 1,000,000,000,000,000 connections!! That is approximately the number of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy … times 4,000! The complexity of our sensations, movements and thoughts – even emotions – is largely due to the complexity of our neuron connections.
Yet, neurons do not actually touch each other. They are separated by microscopically thin gaps called synaptic clefts, and the only way that one neuron can “talk” to another neuron is by sending a chemical message across the gap. In the same way two people can communicate with words, two neurons communicate with chemicals. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters.
Scientists have identified at least 100 different neurotransmitters, though more may exist, and each one is used by different parts of the nervous system for different reasons. As it turns out, some neurotransmitters send limited messages to some neurons with little effect on our emotions, while others can affect larger areas of the brain and have very dramatic emotional effects.
For purposes of this article, we will focus on the four main neurotransmitters responsible for feelings of happiness, excitement, contentment and positive attitudes. They are: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins.
Looking forward to sharing a decadent dessert after dinner with your bestie? Praise (or blame) dopamine. The anticipation of a reward – receiving a promotion at work, paying off a credit card bill, hitting another milestone in a workout routine – triggers dopamine, which in turn makes us feel good and gives us the energy to keep moving forward. It’s important to celebrate any and all achievements in order to maintain a high level of dopamine; dopamine begets dopamine.
Serotonin is a little trickier to pinpoint, but it is responsible for that surge of confidence we get when we feel respected by our peers or receive kudos for a job well done from the boss. Serotonin basically enhances our mood. If we are in a good mood, chances are we’ve got serotonin to thank. If we are constantly feeling blue and lonely, serotonin could be what we are lacking.
Feel comforted after a good hug? Oxytocin is hard at work. Called the “cuddle neurochemical,” oxytocin is what is released when we feel a sense of closeness to someone else. Oxytocin is responsible for those feelings of euphoria during sex and what mothers feel when breastfeeding their newborn. Oxytocin levels can also increase when we make eye contact and socially bond with others. We spend so much time on our digital devices, however, that we may often find ourselves in an oxytocin-deficit.
Feel good after a good belly laugh or a good stretch? Your body just released endorphins. Exerting ourselves physically also causes endorphins to surge in our body. Unlike the other three neurotransmitters, there are many kinds of endorphins. They share a chemical structure similar to opiates and act like morphine, masking discomfort and pain. Endorphins are what enable us to push through physically distressing situations and can be associated with the “fight or flight” response. Endorphins are what get a runner through a marathon or get us through a rousing game of hide-and-seek with our kids.
The Health Benefits of a Positive Attitude
As you’ve probably already guessed, there is really no downside to feeling positive. Several studies have been conducted over the years that strongly suggest that there are potentially many positive side-effects that may result when we approach life with a positive attitude. While this is by no means an inclusive list, it’s an impressive one:
- Better sleep and the development of habits that lead to better sleep
- Enhanced concentration and productivity
- An increase in physical stamina
- A potentially boosted immune system
- Less stress and decreased cortisol production
- A healthier heart and decreased risk of heart disease
- Lower blood pressure
- Decreased risk of stroke
- Possible pain reduction
- Healthier weight and an inclination towards healthier eating habits
What’s not to love about being happy?
The happier we feel, the better we feel about ourselves (and maybe even the human race as a whole if we are lucky), and more and more we find ourselves seeking joy.
Of course, forcing ourselves into positive thinking alone is no panacea to the real pain and depression that comes with chronic illness. When lupus brings us down, it does not help to be pressured into always being positive or to expect happiness to be our primary emotion. That kind of expectation, especially if it comes from those who want to help us, will likely create its own stress.
Yet, according to research, developing and maintaining a positive attitude through healthy activities can help those of us with lupus and other chronic issues get through the rough-spots. There are many examples of practices that can lessen the fatigue and stress that lupus sends our way … and these can create benefits that build upon each other. But how?
Next week, we’ll take a closer look at what we can do to generate a more steady-flow of the chemicals that result when we do something good for ourselves and what habits we can develop to try to try to sustain those good vibes.
“Clap along if you feel like that’s what you want to do.” – lyrics from “Happy” by Pharrell Williams.
10 ways to increase the oxytocin in your body. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://www.powerofpositivity.com/increase-oxytocin-levels/
Cherry, K. (2018). Identifying a neurotransmitter. Retreived from: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-neurotransmitter-2795394
Coyle, D. (2017). How being happy makes you healthier. Retrieved from: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/happiness-and-health
Figueiredo, M. (2018). Depression may increase risk of developing Lupus long term study shows. Retrieved from: https://lupusnewstoday.com/2018/09/19/depression-may-increase-risk-developing-lupus-long-term-study-shows/
Hampton, D. (2015). How happy happens in your brain. Retrieved from: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-happy-happens-your-brain-debbie-hampton
Pacheco, R., Contreras, F., & Zouali, M. (2014). The dopaminergic system in autoimmune diseases. Frontiers in Immunology, 5, 117. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3968755/
Williams, P. (2014). Happy. On GIRL. Retrieved from: https://genius.com/Pharrell-williams-happy-lyrics
Author: Liz Heintz
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