American author and ambassador, Clare Boothe Luce, once said “Money can’t buy happiness, but it can make you awfully comfortable while you’re being miserable.” Her words summarize what so many have reiterated over the years, but is it true?

Philosophers have been trying to uncover the roots of happiness for centuries. Where it comes from, what it’s made of, and how to attain it, rank among the most-asked questions of all time. In the modern era, most of us equate happiness with success, but this is also a broad concept, as “success” is measured differently by each culture and individual.

Happiness can be found as you achieve your goals (become successful), but those goals are set based on what you think is meaningful. In other words, you have to uncover one of life’s other great mysteries- its true meaning, and your purpose within the cosmos, in order to feel successful. While this may seem like a huge concept, most people find these philosophies become engrained as they age, or the beliefs exist on a subconscious level.
Wisdom Imparted by Socrates and his followers tell us there are four ways to achieve this.

  • Platonism- In short, Platonism refers to living a life of balance, morality, and ethics. This can only be attained through knowledge, and it brings about happiness.
  • Hedonism- At its basis, hedonism refers to living a life of pleasure. Those who live a hedonistic lifestyle indulge where they can today, without worry of how it may affect tomorrow.
  • Cynicism- A cynic believes in following the ways of nature, and in finding freedom through living without material goods. This allows the individual to live independent of traditional societal values, thus achieving peace and happiness.
  • Stoicism- To live a life of careful, practical decisions, is to live the life of a stoic. Happiness comes from making good decisions, while unhappiness stems from poor choices and lack of emotional restraint.

Modern scientists and philosophers have evolved the concepts even further. Einstein once wrote that our purpose in life is “to create satisfaction for ourselves and for other people.” In essence, drawing from each of the ancient Greek philosophies. Although somewhat ambiguous, Stephen Hawking has explained that “Meaning can only ever exist within the confines of the human mind.” In other words, as we shape our own realities, we decide what our true meaning is, and would therefore also determine our own happiness.

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Out on the fringes of conventional science, lies Dr. Masaru Emoto. He hypothesizes that thoughts or words determine happiness and general well-being. To prove this, he has performed several experiments with dishes of rice. Each one is labeled, and is treated in a vastly different manner. One may be yelled at, another ignored, and another given words or encouragement or love. Interestingly, the rice in his experiments responds over time, with those experiencing negativity going bad, while the others seem to maintain. So, is happiness and meaning internal, or external, and what causes it?
The current scientific basis for happiness quantifies it in terms of chemical and hormonal reactions within the body.

  • Serotonin- Scientists have discovered that those who suffer from depression are often low on serotonin. Though they don’t know whether decreased serotonin levels cause depression or vice versa, but they do know that those who have high serotonin levels are happier, and are more willing to engage in activities that contribute to happiness. As people participate in things that make them feel valued or significant, even more serotonin is created.
  • Endorphins- The body responds to anticipation, pain, or stress by releasing endorphins. On an extreme level, they are what helps athletes feel a second wind, or helps a mother continue through childbirth.
  • Dopamine- The rush you feel when you’ve accomplished something is caused by dopamine. Like serotonin, it builds on itself. Those with higher levels tend to have more drive and achieve success more often, which triggers the release of even more dopamine. People with lower levels tend to settle in and become content with low risk/ low reward situations.
  • Phenylethamine- Scientists have also noticed that happier people have higher levels of phenylethamine (PEA). Levels wax and wane alongside other happiness hormones and molecules, though people can get an external boost from eating certain foods, like chocolate.
  • Ghrelin- It’s believed that ghrelin is released as a response to stress. It can help you feel motivated to find a solution. When if it’s absent or seen in reduced levels, you may feel unmotivated, or antisocial.
  • Oxytocin- Often thought of as the love or attachment hormone, oxytocin surges when you connect with someone. People get a feel-good boost from it by cuddling or experiencing skin-to-skin contact.

Psychologists and life coaches have developed tricks to trigger the release of these chemicals, which can help you live a happier life. The concept is referred to as “positive psychology,” and applying the techniques provide a natural way to feel good. Sonja Lyubomirsky, psychologist and author of “The How of Happiness” believes that 40% of our happiness is decided by us, and that we can teach ourselves to be happier. Psychologist Ed Diener, sometimes referred to as “Dr. Happiness,” has been delving into the concept of subjective well-being for more than two decades. His research suggests that happiness comes from a mixture of “affect balance,” which includes emotions and feelings, and also by the satisfaction a person feels from life in general.

Another psychologist, Martin Seligman, is best-known for his theory of “learned helplessness,” in which people are conditioned over time to not seek solutions to problems, because they expect to fail. This pessimistic attitude is noted most in people who suffer from serious depression. Seligman’s latest work involves life coaching and positive psychology, and employs the PERMA path to overall well-being. He believes happiness is brought about by positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. These things fall directly in line with the hormones associated with happiness.

The real truth about what you need in order to be happy might surprise you. Many people equate happiness with having material things. This might be a nice car, or a beautiful house. In short, yes, they can bring you happiness. Recent studies suggest that you can actually buy happiness more effectively buy purchasing experiences, like vacations, or outings, to share with a loved one. On the flip side, the New York Times followed the stories of several people who opted to venture away from the material world. One woman gave up all but 100 items, and now lives a happy and debt-free life, filled with time outdoors and volunteering.
Another gentleman chose to move away from the glamour of the city to a trailer park, and enjoys the easy access to surfing. So, what really makes you happy? The truth is, the answer is different for each of us. You may live a life like Donald Trump, and achieve happiness through external successes, or live as Budda, seeking happiness through internal means. Likely, what brings you lasting happiness, will be a balance of the two.