We all want happiness. It is a fundamental human need. The definition and pursuit of happiness may differ from individual to individual, but the psychological need is basically the same: the fulfilment of a deep need for a sense of meaning and love of life.
Of course, we do not always think of happiness in such abstract terms.
Most often, we define happiness by how we feel. It is an emotion, with psychological and physiological implications more real than any abstract thought. It affects our mental and physical well-being, and is as real and visceral as the food we eat and the clothes we wear.
And for good reason, because the feelings of happiness are directly related to brain chemistry. There are four types of hormones associated with feelings of happiness: dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, and oxytocin. Each of these hormones affects the type of happiness we feel differently, depending on the type of stimulus both external and internal.
Dopamine is responsible for that brief moment of pleasure and feeling of well-being. It is a motivational feeling that drives you to go further. Although fleeting, it is often enough to give you a temporary sense of purpose and drive achievement. However, it can be addictive, and because it is only momentary, can leave a sense of dependency, and worse, a feeling of anti-climax afterwards.
Endorphins are the cause of that euphoric high after strenuous physical activity, like running or working out in a gym. It’s actually a hormone released in response to physical pain and stress, without which we might not be able to continue doing what we need to do. It enables us to push forward, and in doing so, our bodies are able to cope with stress.
Serotonin is an important mood regulator and is responsible for the feeling of well-being. As a neurotransmitter, it facilitates brain function, and is believed to reduce symptoms of depression. It is also important for memory, sleep, digestion, and other bodily functions. Today, most medication relating to mood disorders target regulating serotonin levels in the brain. It is recognised as an important chemical that promotes feelings of happiness.
Oxytocin is known as the love hormone, for it is found to be associated with romantic attachments and sexual activity. It can affect emotional and social behaviours, in particular, those pertaining to love, trust, human bonding, sexual behaviour, and interpersonal relations. Unlike dopamine, which is associated with fleeting feelings and instant gratification, oxytocin is believed to promote longer-lasting positive emotions, as it is linked to deeper, and more meaningful, social and personal relationships.
From a bio-chemical perspective, the emotions we feel are related to the levels of these hormones, which in turn are affected by a host of external and/or internal stimuli. To put it another way, feelings of happiness are directly linked to body chemistry.
The question is: does feeling happy mean the same as being happy? Feeling happy is an emotional state; being happy is a state of mind – which is not just mental but also philosophical/existential – of loving life or having meaning in life.
If not, do we need to feel happy to be happy? Or, can we be happy without feeling it?
The last question seems paradoxical, but it is important to make the distinction between feeling and being.
When I first started writing this, my inclination was to place emphasis on being rather than feeling. Feeling is an emotion; emotions are temporal. Being transcends time. If anything, it is more important to focus on being, which in most cases would lead to feeling anyway. If you are happy, you will feel it.
As I went deeper, I realise that separating feeling from being is an oversimplification.
Being is an abstraction.
It is easy to say to someone, “Just be happy, and you will feel it!”
What is not so easy is to define abstractions such as happiness.
I have suggested above that happiness, as an abstraction, is about loving life and finding meaning in it.
But what does it mean to love life?
To understand the idea of feeling vs abstraction, let us turn to the Jungian concepts of eros vs logos.
For Carl Jung, eros and logos are the twin principles of human cognition: the former is associated with the feminine; the latter, masculine.
Eros taps into the unconscious, the mystical, the emotional. Eros is imagination.
Logos is rational, logical, and objective. Like mathematical symbols, the language of logos relies on giving abstract concepts a symbolic, yet concrete objectivity.
To gain a full understanding of what happiness is, we need to examine both its erotic and logical aspects.
Body chemistry is the domain of eros. It is visceral, sensual, and emotional. But it is also so much more. The study of the effect of hormones on emotions has shown a relationship: superficially, it is possible to take a reductionist approach and say that feelings are nothing but the result of chemical and electrical impulses in the brain.
However, what we have in fact learnt is that it is much more complex. The brain chemicals interact with other stimuli – both internal and external – and in the case of serotonin and especially oxytocin, cannot be separated from social stimuli, such as human bonding and interpersonal relationships. How such interactions result in feelings of happiness is not fully understood, but it is clear to me that other elements of eros are involved, in particular imagination and psychic relatedness.
It occurs to me that the full meaning of happiness relies on both rational abstractions of logos as well as the imaginative, mystical, and emotional aspects of eros.
Without either the picture can never be complete.
An abstract idea of happiness – with its idea of love and meaning – will always be enriched by the emotional, the imaginative, and the sensual.