Happiness – Part 1

happinessThere has never been a shortage of ways to describe happiness. If we are lucky enough to have our basic needs (Maslow) of food, water, shelter and security met, then the pursuit of happiness comes into play. Because we have some form of “power” after meeting these basic needs – a purchasing power, a hierarchical power, a physical power, etc – we want to naturally use that power to pursue or in most cases, purchase happiness. The scientific studies and evidence correlating happy workers to productive workers and high degrees of innovation are abundant and at least 40 years old. There is indisputable evidence suggesting that happy workers or athletes outperform those that are not. It is therefore, worth making Happiness a workplace discussion topic. That is why it has been the most popular class at Harvard University. This is Part 1 of a 3 part Series on Happiness.

The first part is to offer a new definition. Perhaps one that is not philosophical, though admittedly those definitions have a valuable place in the discussion, but one more based on actual neuroscience. Our body is over 90% fluid. It is essentially a chemical factory constantly changing its composition based on the stimuli we receive, which then dictates the quality of cognitive discourse we have with ourselves and others, and behaviors we subsequently exhibit. To make it simple for the purposes of a short blog, let us say there are two dominant chemicals – one fills us with fear (cortisol) and another with happiness (dopamine). Factually, when fear is present in our physiological system, then our cognitive functions diminish, and countless biological functions are triggered to help us “just survive” the experience. Some of these experiences can result in permanent trauma but most are of the kind that keep repeating themselves causing the same effects of trauma, leading to unhappiness and under-performance – never reaching our potential. Neurologically, let us define Happiness as the simply the absence of fear.
One key distinction to make before concluding is the difference between happy moments and happiness. They are not the same. Buying the car of your dreams is a happy moment as is eating your favorite dish or visiting your favorite place or getting a big bonus or winning a big event. Unless these moments directly result in removing fear, they are not happiness. I am making the argument that in pursuit of happiness, it is in fact not happiness that we need to pursue, but the removal of fear. When I work with professional athletes and ask them to describe a time when they played in that elusive state of being in a zone, when everything seems to go well, and feels effortless, they all describe attributes of what is ultimately a state without any fear.
This week, think about defining and redefining happiness for yourself. Consider my points above and discuss it with your spouses, loved ones, friends and dare I say workplace colleagues. Next week in Part 2, I will discuss specific fear-removing strategies.
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