Happiness. It’s something we all strive for. As young people, it’s often used as an incentive to justify the things we do. How many times have we heard messages to the effect of, “Work hard in school, get good grades, get into a good uni, get a degree, get a good job, become financially stable, and then you’ll be happy.”
But should we see happiness in this way - as a goal to be reached, the product of a process? And, honestly, what is happiness anyway?
The term “happiness” really refers to two distinct experiences. There’s the emotion of happiness: a temporary experience of enjoyment - that flood of endorphins you get from seeing a cute cat video or getting a good mark on an exam. Then there’s happiness as a state of being, the more permanent life satisfaction you get from achieving your goals or working hard on a longterm project that makes you feel fulfilled. This distinction actually goes way back to Ancient Greece - Aristotle called them “hedonia” and “eudaimonia”.
The first is achieved through doing things we like, which bring us joy. The second is much more difficult to attain, and it’s been the goal of religions, personal development programs and TED talks basically since the beginning of human history.
THE TEEN EXPERIENCE
There are many factors which can affect a person’s happiness - social belonging, physical wellbeing (like diet and exercise), use of technology, and of course, mental illnesses - and during adolescence, a lot of those things tend to change.
But, as it turns out, studies in the US are showing that today’s teenagers are happier than in previous generations. In fact, while in the past American teens have self-reported less happiness than adults, in recent years this trend has shifted. This is probably due to social changes, like increased leisure time and overall better physical health.
But, unfortunately, there are some downsides. Some studies have shown a general dip in happiness after around grade 6 (11 years of age), largely related to starting high school and resulting increase in stress. Teenagehood can be a pretty tumultuous time, and what with all the physical, social and mental changes going on during puberty, it can be hard to find the stability required to maintain happiness. Hormones cause mood swings, changes in sleep pattern lead to increased fatigue, and all kinds of physical changes are linked to self esteem issues - all of which can affect the experience of happiness in adolescence.
The neuroscience, in very basic terms, shows us that the feeling of happiness is essentially our brains releasing a few different hormones in reaction to some sort of stimulus. You may have already heard of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, which are the three major hormones (aka neurotransmitters) associated with feelings of happiness, satisfaction and pleasure. But what exactly is it about these chemicals that make us feel?
Time for some year nine biology: Hormones are essentially chemical messengers produced within the body, which regulate the various biological systems that make your body work. The so-called “Happy Hormones” are no different. Serotonin is associated with confidence and self-esteem, oxycontin with social bonding, and dopamine is the reward-driving centre that gives you that satisfied feeling when you tick boxes off your to-do list.
The lack of these hormones is closely related to mental health issues like depression, which is why anti-depressants are deigned to correct chemical imbalances which prevent these neurotransmitters from working. This is why symptoms of depression so often align with a lack of the kind of responses that people get from Happy Hormones, such as losing interest in things you’re usually passionate about, a persistent inability to feel enjoyment, and feelings of isolation.
So, if you’re following along, you’ll probably have made the connection that increasing your production of those Happy Hormones will increase your experience of this temporary feeling of enjoyment. There are things you can do to maximise this. For example, serotonin levels are increased through social belonging, so any kind of groups you might be involved in will benefit here. This might mean joining a choir or instrumental group, sports club, or volunteering somewhere. Exercise is also a great way to trigger the release of serotonin.
Dopamine is related to achieving goals, so obviously, any strategy which helps you get things done will contribute to this (such as breaking down goals into achievable steps). Dopamine is also closely associated with music! So, whatever music you enjoy most, put on a jam whenever you need an instant happiness boost.
Oxycontin, the bonding chemical, has been proved to be released whenever you hug someone. So, if you’re comfortable with it, find a buddy who’s willing to give or receive a big ole bear hug.
Of course, maximising the second, long-term type of happiness is a much more difficult task. There’s no 10 step program for life satisfaction. Some ways to improve your sense of fulfilment may include discovering the meaning of life (or making up your own if that doesn’t suit you), finding a job or social group that you feel is meaningful, or simply living in the present and finding happiness in small moments. Beyond that, and within those incredibly vague guidelines, it’s up to you. In the end, we make and define our own happiness.
(Disclaimer: If you’ve been finding it particularly difficult to experience happiness or enjoyment for a substantial period of time, or are worrying about a friend who has, talk to a trusted adult, councillor or GP, or contact KidsHelpline.)
References and Links
D. Borgman, (1987). Happiness. S. Hamilton, MA: Center for Youth Studies.
Kringelbach, M. L., & Berridge, K. C. (2010). The Neuroscience of Happiness and Pleasure. SocialResearch, 77(2), 659–678.
Bagwell C., Kochel K., Schmidt M. (2015) Friendship and Happiness in Adolescence. In: Demir M.(eds) Friendship and Happiness. Springer, Dordrecht
Uusitalo-Malmivaara, L. (2014). Happiness Decreases during Early Adolescence—A Study on 12-and 15-Year- Old Finnish Students. Psychology, 5, 541-555.