Cocaine, kittens and curing cancer: What is happiness?

Everybody wants to be happier, right? Well, what, exactly, does that mean?

Merriam-Webster defines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment,” or “a pleasurable or satisfying experience.”

Meh, that doesn’t get down to specifics.

How about the origin of the word? Maybe that’s more instructive? It’s not much better: “1520s, ‘good fortune,’ from happy + -ness. Meaning ‘pleasant and contented mental state’ is from 1590s.”

The etymology of happy gets a little more down to it:

late 14c., “lucky, favored by fortune, being in advantageous circumstances, prosperous;” of events, “turning out well,” from hap (n.) “chance, fortune” + -y (2). Sense of “very glad” first recorded late 14c. Meaning “greatly pleased and content” is from 1520s.

So, specifically, happiness is the feeling of pleasure you get when you’re lucky.


That doesn’t seem as specific as the clear neural pathway we can see when empathy is engaged.

We do know there are happiness chemicals substances present in the body and brain when we’re happy.

Writing in Psychology Today, Christopher Bergland identifies seven:

  1. Endocannabinoids: “Endocannabinoids,” he writes, “are self-produced cannabis that work on the CB-1 and CB-2 receptors of the cannabinoid system.” This is why products such as chemo kush work the way they do with our body. “Anandamide (from the Sanskrit ‘Ananda’ meaning Bliss) is the most well known endocannabinoid.” Basically, we have a bunch of different receptors in our brains meant to receive different chemicals from cannabis (about 85 of them, actually. With some of them being found in many products by different providers like Caliper CBD and others), and we make some of those ourselves. Endocannabinoids are responsible for “runner’s high,” so I guess that feeling is accurately named.
  2. Dopamine: This is our reward system. Drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine hit our dopamine systems. It’s also what keeps us checking Facebook and Instagram for likes. Just. One. More. Hit.
  3. Oxytocin: This is our romantic bonding hormone. Skin-to-skin contact, cuddling and other forms of intimacy all increase oxytocin (apparently this may affect men and women differently; vasopressin might serve this purpose in men, Bergland writes).

    We can also increase oxytocin by doing things like drinking coffee and eating chocolate.

  4. Endorphin: “The name Endorphin translates into ‘self-produced morphine,'” Bergland writes. “Endorphins resemble opiates in their chemical structure and have analgesic properties. Endorphins are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus during strenuous physical exertion, sexual intercourse and orgasm.” So, while runner’s high is handled by our endocannabinoids, pushing through an intense workout hits the same chemicals as orgasm.
  5. GABA: GABA is your chill-happy molecule, Bergland writes. Yoga and meditation increase GABA, and benzos (like Valium and Xanax) work as anti-anxiety drugs and sedatives thanks to GABA.
  6. Serotonin: “Serotonin plays so many different roles in our bodies that it is really tough to tag it,” writes Bergland, who calls it the “confidence molecule.” Many anti-depressants are classed as SSRIs selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors these increase levels of seratonin in the brain, but you can increase it without drugs by doing confidence-boosting things like challenging yourself and doing things that give you a sense of purpose.
  7. Adrenaline (epinephrine): This is your overdrive molecule. “A surge of adrenaline makes you feel very alive,” writes Bergland. “It can be an antidote for boredom, malaise and stagnation. Taking risks, and doing scary things that force you out of your comfort zone is key to maximizing your human potential. However, people often act recklessly to get an adrenaline rush.”

    I can tell you from getting a shot from an EpiPen once that’s artificial adrenaline, basically that it is indeed a crazy reaction when you get it artificially. I passed out for a few seconds, and then immediately broke out into hives all over my body. I got a shot from a cortico-steroid to bring that down, and I sat on the couch and probably put down 3,000 calories the rest of the day and managed to wake up having lost a couple of pounds. I’d avoid that as a weight-loss plan, though.

Some of these chemicals can even be gamified.

That, then, is a bit of an overview of how pleasure, which I guess is happiness, presents in the brain.

Cocaine, kittens and curing cancer may all seem different, but they generate similar patterns of neural activity, meaning they all lead to happiness #betterhumanhood Click To Tweet

Cocaine, kittens and curing cancer may seem different, but each of these “generates a roughly similar pattern of neural activity,” writes Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness, so it makes that in some form, these all lead to happiness (p. 35).

Gilbert relates three distinct types of happiness: emotional, moral and judgmental (p. 33). But this brings us to the same issue we had when we were looking at definitions and word origins: it’s hard to pin down what each means.

In fact, unlike empathy, there isn’t an objective outward manifestation of happiness. We can see it in the brain with the release of certain chemicals, as we noted above, but what makes you happy might not be what makes me happy, and vice-versa I may enjoy my runner’s high; you might think I’m crazy for even seeking it out with a three-hour run. Meanwhile, you might love spending hours listening to mumble rap on Soundcloud and I just don’t get it.

If asked to define emotional happiness, Gilbert writes, “we would either point to the objects in the world that tend to bring it about, or we would mention other feelings that it is like. In fact, this is the only thing we can do when we are asked to define a subjective experience” (p. 34).

He goes on to write that some people would say “subjective studies are ‘irreducible,’ which is to say that nothing we point to, nothing we can compare them with, and nothing we can say about their neurological underpinnings can fully substitute for the experiments themselves” (p. 34).

Unlike empathy, then, we can’t systematize happiness.

This makes happiness a lot more work than empathy. There’s no truly objective outward measure (some people cry when they’re happy and appear to smile when they’re constipated), and nothing is guaranteed to make everybody happy (you think you have a thing or two in mind, but, as you’ll find out in future installments, you’re wrong).

Kelvin and I talked about this last month on JKWD, but one thing we are all interested in is control. Gilbert, again:

Human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless and depressed (p. 22).

This is a little foreshadowing on part three, but control what you can, and you can be happy.

Next time, we’ll talk about when we find happiness, and the research will probably surprise you.


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