Often we read in newspapers about the pursuit of happiness, often sounding as if it were the only thing that people are looking for these days. But what exactly is that happiness we are searching for? Can we really be truly happy? Why does everyone always talk about “looking for happiness”, but not often talk about the happiness we have at the moment.
Life is ever-changing and nothing is really static. That is an inevitable fact. So, what happens to us once we have found “happiness”? Do we continue to look for more happiness and does the happiness we have found then become less happy?
These questions might seem trivial at first glance, but if you examine them closer, you might see that they actually describe a dilemma and a contradiction.
So we have to ask the question, is it happiness we are pursuing or the pursuit of happiness we are pursuing? Is the thought of the reward or the reward itself what motivates us? Biochemically speaking, we seek out those things that fire up the dopaminergic neurons leading to the release of dopamine. Maybe we have to delve deeper into the biochemistry of this molecule to try to understand what this pursuit of happiness is all about.
Dopamine itself is a small molecule. C8H11NO2. 4-(2-aminoethyl)benzene-1,2-diol. Chemically speaking there is nothing greatly exciting about this formula. However, this molecule is a neurotransmitter and up to now, five receptors have been identified in humans. What a remarkable molecule!
The substance has therefore a role in many cognitive functions ranging from motivation, concentration, higher order movement, sex to what we call reward. In fact, dopamine is the compound associated with reward and thus causes one of the strongest and most desirable emotions.
Neurological functions, neurotransmitters and emotions have been evolving for hundred of thousands of years and are thus strongly coupled to biological necessities. Of course dopamine, in particular in conjunction with sex, has a role in biological reproduction and survival. However, there is a fine line between unwarranted consumption and addiction. Since all signals from our senses are transmitted electrochemically, the reward from any activity comes from the substances in your brain being consumed; thus it can be argued that the biochemistry of dopamine is the reward.
Now it can be argued that many addictions, such as sex, strive for power or other habitual addictions can be attributed to the need of reward, ultimately dopamine. Even addictions such as alcohol or hard drugs are ultimately dependent on dopamine release.
However, once we have achieved a reward and have been fulfilled with “happiness”, the body quickly degrades excess dopamine and we ultimately fall into a low after the reward. Hence, we strive for “happiness” again, or in other words, we are striving for reward again, i.e. dopamine. This is an endless circle and our brain adapts to our ways of life and to what we associate with reward.
Therefore, it is hard to quit eating chocolate and exercise instead, although both activities would release dopamine.
Maybe we can think about our own little “addictions” and instead of indulging in them over and over again, condition our brains to associate other activities with reward. This strategy might help us with our daily struggle and habits and make life more interesting again. However, the stimuli that control our reward centre in the brain are buried in our subconscious and that makes it incredibly difficult to identify them.
Next time you have a habit that you like to break, think about the rewards you might get and how you feel when you anticipate this reward.
Moreover, in my opinion we have to reassess this strive for happiness that is so openly proclaimed nowadays. Is that what we really are looking for or are we subordinate to nature’s most powerful molecules? Does our intellect, as a higher form of evolution, permit us to break free at least partially from our addictions, and the biological processes that can at times control our lives and prevent us from living up to our potential?
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