What made people happy today

luck

Happiness - what is it?

In every culture and at all times, people have been grappling with the questions of what happiness is and how to achieve it. It used to be mostly philosophers.

The Chinese Lao Tse (6th century BC) saw true happiness in inactivity. If a person stops, according to Lao Tse, chasing after happiness or other goals, then he is really happy.

For the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (5th / 4th century BC) a virtuous way of life led to happiness. In their eyes, bliss or eudaemonia was the goal towards which all action should be directed.

Because only those who lead their lives justly and holy will reach the "islands of the blessed" after their death, according to the conviction of Plato.

Epicurus (4th century BC) thought quite differently. For him, happiness was the experience of pleasure and the absence of pain. This hedonistic mindset is still prevalent today and is often condemned as self-centered and reckless.

Happiness Research Today

Today the search for happiness has left the house of philosophers. Sociologists want to find out where the happiest people live. The Dutchman Ruut Veenhoven founded the world's largest happiness database, in which international publications on the subject are analyzed.

Among the residents of 155 countries, the Danes are the happiest, followed by the Swiss and Icelanders.

Veenhoven sees various reasons for this: These countries have a long democratic tradition and give their citizens a high degree of participation, they have a reliable government and there is material prosperity.

In addition, society is not structured very hierarchically. The social differences are small and men and women are largely equal.

Psychologists are turning their backs on traditional research into negative feelings and are increasingly concerned with the positive. The most important, still relatively young research direction is positive psychology. There it is examined how positive emotions arise, how they shape the character and which framework conditions in society support positive character traits.

Politics is also discovering happiness. David Cameron, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, called for the gross domestic product to be replaced by an indicator of general "wellbeing".

That is how far the small Asian country Bhutan has already come: It is not the increase in the gross national product that counts, but the increase in gross national happiness.

The chemistry of euphoria

What actually happens in the brain when we feel happy? As early as the late 1950s, James Olds, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, noticed that rats like electrical stimulation of a specific area of ​​the brain.

The rats were able to stimulate this brain region themselves at the push of a button and kept pressing the button. Until they almost died of thirst, hunger and exhaustion. The only thing that counted for them was the "lucky kick".

Olds had discovered the pleasure center in the brain, a collection of neurons in the midbrain. They take action when something happens that is better than expected. Then they expel the lucky substance dopamine and pass it on: firstly to the nucleus accumbens in the lower forebrain and directly to the frontal lobe.

When dopamine arrives in the nucleus accumbens, the neurons there produce opium-like substances - we feel euphoric and happy. The dopamine in the frontal lobe makes our brain work better: We become more attentive, process the information of the unexpected event and learn what is good for us. Seen in this way, our happiness is just a by-product of our ability to learn.

So that we don't feel like rats with an overdose of happiness, it is important that our sense of happiness subsides again. "Our brain is not built to be happy all the time. But it is addicted to striving for happiness," says brain researcher Manfred Spitzer.

Happiness in the genes

Some people always seem to be in a good mood and happy. Have you been lucky enough to be born in the cradle? Yes and no. Psychologist David Lykken studied how happy twins are.

In interviews, he compared the well-being of identical twins, who were separated after their birth and grew up in different families, with pairs of twins who grew up together.

The result: the answers of both groups hardly differed. Lykken concluded from this that well-being and happiness are at least half influenced by genes.

But we are not the willless servants of our genes. There are still the other 50 percent. Neuropsychologist Richard Davidson examined babies and found that in some, the left hemisphere of the brain is more active than the right.

Optimistic types had a more active left frontal cortex than less fortunate natures. But: after ten years he examined the children again. And there wasn't much of the pattern of brain waves left to see. The children were strongly influenced by their environment, so that the brain waves had changed.

What makes us happy

Money makes you happy - but only if you are really poor. As soon as the basic needs are satisfied, the happiness curve flattens out the more you earn. People for whom luxury and wealth are particularly important are even more likely to be unhappy. Because "materialists" are less often with friends. That doesn't make you happy, it makes you lonely.

Friends make you happy and even lead to longer, healthier lives. Because lonely people are under the stress of having to deal with all the difficulties in life on their own. Stress hormones such as cortisol can dampen the effects of the immune system.

People who have just fallen in love are - unsurprisingly - particularly happy. Almost the same brain circuits are active in them as in drug addicts. The ventral tegmentum, which lies in the uppermost part of the brain stem, floods the body and brain with happy substances.

Touching the happiness center is particularly effective: if it lasts longer than 20 seconds, the happiness substance oxytocin and the body's own endorphins are released. If we touch a 500 euro note for just as long, this does not happen.

Other exciting findings from happiness research: married people are happier and healthier on average than single people. And when it comes to sports, couples dancing are particularly happy, as endorphins are released through movement and, at the same time, oxytocin is released through body contact.

Happiness training for the brain

"In the long run the soul takes on the color of thoughts," said the Roman emperor Marc Aurel. That's also true when it comes to luck. Those who see the world with positive eyes and are more often aware of the beautiful things in life are happier.

But people who go through life rather grouchy can learn to reprogram their brains for "happiness". Because good feelings are not a coincidence, but the response of our brain and body to a stimulus.

The targeted search for situations and experiences that one perceives as beautiful and positive makes you happy in the long run. For some it is sport, for others it is being with friends, cooking or traveling. Everyone has their own way of becoming happier.