How Does Happiness Work in the Body? Like…What’s Making it Happen?
In his book Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek was able to break down four essential chemicals in the human body that are responsible for our experience of happiness and satisfaction. Each of the four is housed under one of two areas.
There are some chemicals that are umbrella’d under “selfish” experiences (I’m not really big on calling these selfish, though. I like to think of them as “self-full”) And others that are umbrella’d under “selfless” experiences.
It goes like this:
The Achievement Chemicals
When you are doing something in the realm of personal achievement, the chemicals getting activated are endorphins and dopamine. Dopamine is the “zing!” effect you get when you are excited. It’s what makes you say “yes!!!!” when you win at a game. Endorphins are the pain-killers. It’s what gets fired up when you’re exercising (so that we have some pain-killers racing through the system and keep us in the flow of a run). Examples of what might encourage this are:
- Checking off an item on your to-do list (Dopamine)
- Going out for a run (endorphins, dopamine)
- Leveling up on angry birds (Dopamine)
- Getting a “like” on your facebook post (Dopamine)
Here is the upside to being an HSP. We have a much lower threshold for dopamine. By that, I mean, we get that rush more easily than most. It’s why we are so easily amused. We can stare at art for hours. We get that steady flow of dopamine from it. We can feel charged up by a well-performed podcast. Same thing.
The Connection Chemicals
We don’t only experience joy when we achieve stuff. We also feel profoundly happy when we are connected with others around us. Every time we do something for the benefit of someone we love, our bodies produce oxytocin and serotonin.
Examples of things that stir up these chemicals are:
- A hug from a loved one
- Watching as your friend opens up their birthday gift
- Comforting a sick family member
- Being comforted by someone you love when you are feeling vulnerable.
- Hearing the words “I love you” from someone you care about
Unlike dopamine and endorphins, oxytocin and serotonin are chemicals that we produce when we are trying to connect and care for others. It’s the mushy love stuff.
There is an upside, here, to being a highly sensitive person as well. Given our more sensitive nervous systems, we are already primed to easily detect the emotional swings in others. It helps build our capacity for empathy. And empathy is a key way to induce an oxytocin flow.
So in order to live an overall good life, you need to find a balance between doing things that are accomplishment-oriented and doing things that are connection-oriented.
This is why highly sensitive people are able to tap into joy rather quickly and easily. Connecting with others is a no-brainer. Getting a zap of energy from a novel experience is done with ease!
BUT – being highly sensitive does come with some drawbacks…
While it is easy for highly sensitive people to get a dose of dopamine and easy to get a hit of oxytocin…it’s also easy for our bodies to trigger the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.
What happens when cortisol and adrenaline are running the show? We shut down. We are primed for survival. We think less clearly. We operate from panic rather than from rationality. Don’t get me wrong…you want these systems in place for those times when you really will need to fight off the tiger or run from it. It’s just not often the case that we need to do such things. I don’t know many highly sensitive crocodile hunters, after all…
It’s part of why we get so easily overwhelmed. Yes – we can connect with others easily. Yes – we can easily be entertained. But that also means that we can easily be pushed over the edge of joy and straight into overstimulation. Think of it like a massage. You want juuuuust the right amount of pressure to feel right. Too little and it’s not doing anything for you. Too much pressure and it’s painful. Highly sensitive people need to have less pressure in their metaphorical world.
This is why it can be challenging for highly sensitive people to find that perfect balance in life.
Highly sensitive people aren’t just having to balance social connection and personal achievement. They also have to do that in a way that doesn’t overtax their systems and kick their cortisol levels into high-gear.
But the good news is that it’s not really more complicated for HSP than for non-HSP. We need to put on the same tracks as all people do. We just need to turn down the volume.
So…my dear HSP…when you are feeling bored and you need some excitement and more pep in your step…
- Take a moment to journal about all the things you want to bring to fruition in your life. Have fun with it!
- Now, look at what you’ve written. What is one simple action you can take, today, that will help move you toward that vision?
- Write a list of chores you have been meaning to get done. Make the list as long or short as you like. Do ONE thing on that list right now. Just one.
- Cook yourself a healthy and balanced meal. Clear the table and your schedule. Allow yourself a full hour to enjoy your meal. Really savor it. Not just the food, but the whole experience.
- Sit on the couch and listen to some music. Don’t do anything else. Just listen.
- Go for a walk.
- Do something that invokes “play” – maybe it’s writing a story. Maybe it’s creating art. Or maybe it’s pulling out a video game. Whatever it is…do something that excites you and reminds you of being a kid.
Doing these things can help get the dopamine juices flowing. It will encourage joy and excitement. But notice…there was nothing in there about going to loud clubs or massive networking opportunities. That might pull you over into cortisol territory. No thank you!
And when you need connection…
- Phone a friend and let them know you care about them.
- Ask a family member out to lunch or dinner.
- Perform a random act of kindness for a stranger (and try to do it anonymously)
- Give your loved one a hug
- Write a note of gratitude for someone who has been kind to you.
- Spend a few moments playing with or snuggling a beloved pet
So many times, I speak with highly sensitive people who tell me that would love to simply spend days and weeks alone in thought. There is NOTHING wrong with that! But…at the same time, you shouldn’t feel like that is your only option for sanity. HSP need connection and excitement just like anyone else. We just don’t need the volume up very high to get it. Find ways to excite your mind that are unique to you. And connect with others in ways that feel authentic to you. THAT is what real balance is all about.