Whilst scientific fields such as astrophysics, microbiology and genetic sequencing have progressed at an incredible rate, some have struggled to keep pace. Nowhere is that more obvious than with regards to the human brain.
The human mind is still an enigma in modern science, with so much still left shrouded in mystery. Psychologists have been trying to get their heads around our heads for a while now and are still struggling, it would seem, for answers.
International Happiness Day is an opportunity to draw attention to our own lives, and address the simple question which is rather difficult to answer honestly – how happy are you?
BUT, this isn’t that kind of article. This is meant to be a science blog, not a poor mans ‘Cosmopolitan’
This article leaves you to evaluate your emotional and spiritual state another time. Here, we will take a little look into what happiness is. Not ten top tips to lead a happier life or a new sex position GUARANTEED to increase your standard of living.
Happiness is an abstract concept and it’s somewhat difficult to set parameters for what constitutes as ‘happiness’. Jet skiing in the south of France would pass I imagine, but the more day-to-day boundaries are a little more obscure. For this, we turn to the experts.
Psychologists, the scientists not considered scientists by other more sciency scientists. The occupiers of the grey-area between a BSc and you know… the others *shudders*
Neurochemicals are small molecules which are produced by the specialist cells in the brain (neurones) and then transmitted across the synaptic cleft. The synaptic cleft is basically just a small gap between the end of one neurone and the start of another, the electrical impulse has to be carried from one neurone to another.
So, they’re messenger molecules. Being synthesised at the end of a neurone, released into the synapse, diffuse across, and are then absorbed into the next neurone. Job done.
This dull-looking beast is the James Milner of the neurochemical world. Boring, but excessively versatile and reliable.
Serotonin is the chemical which can help with feelings of low-self esteem as well as a sense of not belonging. Not pleasant experiences.
As explained above, these neurotransmitter fellas are important in continuing signals. However, once the first molecule makes its way across the gap to the next cell, the cell shuts up shop and doesn’t let any more in. That’s where Prozac comes in handy, increasing the signal strength by allowing more serotonin to pass through the synapse and bam, happiness.
Dopamine is a drug often manipulated through certain narcotics. Similar to serotonin, if it can be kept in the synaptic cleft for longer, it has stronger effects. Drugs like cocaine are extremely effective at doing this and by blocking the reuptake of dopamine allow for overstimulation of the dopamine system.
This is the chemical often responsible for the warm, tingly feeling you get after completing a goal or overcoming some form of adversity. Dopamine is responsible for the sense of euphoria you get if you hit your target weight loss, smash your sales targets at work or conquer a fear.
Without this guy, we’d all feel a little less fulfilled and, of course, less happy.
Considerably larger than the previous two chemicals, oxytocin is a hormone. Produced in the endocrine system.
Physical contact with others is a base human pleasure, and research suggests that oxytocin plays a significant role in human relationships, ever heard that trust takes time to build? Well, the process of building trust and loyalty are correlated with increasing oxytocin levels.
Depending on your current status it may be a long overdue hug with your mum, some intimacy with a loved one (ooh-er) or a bloody good cuddle with your pup. Oxytocin is the one you can thank for enjoying the company of another and one very good reason to get off your phone and maintain tangible face-to-face relationships.
There you have it, a whistle-stop tour of some of the chemicals that we think could potentially be linked to causing the illusion of happiness. Maybe sometimes, it’s better not to get too caught up in the science and just enjoy life, enjoy being happy and let these chemicals do their work.
Header Photo: Matthias Ripp/Flickr