20th of March is the International Day of Happiness. United Nations General Assembly resolution, published in 2012, notes that one of the inherent human rights is the right to be happy. So a natural question arises – what does it mean to be happy? What makes us feel happy? Is there a universal recipe for happiness?
This time we have invited a lecturer from the Faculty of Medicine of Vilnius University, endocrinologist, associate professor, Dr. Lina Zabulienė to share her thoughts.
“For each of us, the definition of happiness is unique. For some it is a memorable moment of a joyful and uplifting experience, for others it is a colorful puzzle, recognition and success, a never-ending journey full of discoveries or a safe haven of love and peace…”, says Lina Zabulienė with a smile. In her opinion, the search for happiness and its recipe can be dated to ancient times. The moments of happiness are perpetuated by artists, writers, composers; whereas philosophers and theologians often associated it with the purpose and meaning of life. However, psychologists, neurologists, endocrinologists, biologists, and scientists from other fields are still relentlessly trying to solve the riddle of happiness by using the most sophisticated methods of research.
It is universally accepted to define happiness as a subjective feeling arising from meeting spiritual, cognitive, communicative, aesthetic and physiological needs. So, our conversation with the lector unwittingly drifts toward the all-important question: what makes us feel happy?
“At the moment, it is undisputedly accepted that as much as 50 percent of our optimism and our ability to be happy are determined by genetic factors,” says Assoc. Prof. Lina Zabulienė. “The other half consists of biochemical reactions, continuous activity of hormones and neurotransmitters that affect our psychological and physical well-being and behavior. An important part of the reaction to the environment comprises of the conscious decisions made by the person, and that is what we can affect by changing our habits, beliefs or attitudes and simply learning to be happy. It has been found that happy people are healthier, have a better immune system, are able to deal with stressful situations better, have better memory, are active and creative.”
Many wonder what biological processes happen in the human body when we are happy. Endocrinologist doctor Lina Zabulienė tells us about the subtle and not yet completely understood links between hormones and neurotransmitters: “our momentary or long-term sensations often depend on the amount, interaction and combination of hormonally active substances released in the brain, endocrine glands and intestines – dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and other hormones”. “Some relations are widely discussed; some discoveries are still waiting for the right moment. Dopamine is a substance of ‘addiction and engagement’, often associated with reward, motivation, memory, and its amount soars when you reach your ambitious goals. In real life, however, we often need not only gambles and challenges, but also a stable footing. In this case, the more reserved our expectations are and the more realistic our goals are, the happier we will feel having achieved them. The amount of serotonin, sometimes referred to as the ‘self-esteem molecule’, increases if we are recognized, respected, valued, safe, calm and self-confident. The amount of endorphins that have a natural analgesic effect increases and our well-being improves if we regularly exercise, dance, laugh, love, meditate or dive into the sounds of music. Happiness is inseparable from high quality sleep, and thus from melatonin that is called the ‘youth hormone’. When we are happy, we worry less, most intimidating situations appear less threatening; furthermore, joyful memories reduce the levels of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Perhaps the most mysterious is oxytocin, a hormone of ‘happiness, love or attachment’, the amount of which increases when we feel the warmth, love, hugs, trust, or just the wide smile and open heart of another person.”
Is there a universal recipe for happiness when we are all so unique, and have wildly different capabilities, expectations, experience, views, decisions and perception of happiness?
At the end of our conversation, doctor Lina Zabulienė discloses the spices and secret ingredients for one of the recipes of happiness: “It is said that happiness spreads between people through our senses: vision, hearing and sense of smell, that is how we recognize a happy person who spreads happiness around himself and shares it. It is likely that if we want to be happy, live a joyful and meaningful life, we have to deliberately move towards happiness every day, learn to stop the moments of happiness, collect them and share them with those that we care about. So let ourselves dream and laugh, trust others and ourselves, smile without occasion, express gratitude for small things, encourage and help those who do not ask for help, engage in our favorite activities, have the courage to make a mistake, change ourselves and sometimes take risks, go on an unexpected and spontaneous journey, hug a pet, close our eyes and dissolve in the arms of a loved one, and, most importantly, enjoy the little lovely things as often as possible even if it is just a steaming cup of coffee in the early morning with a delicious piece of black chocolate… ”