The science of happiness

Happiness – the word conjures up many images and different scenarios for each of us. When you hear the word happiness what are the first three words/images that you conjure up? Are they linked with feelings in the present moment or are they images/words to do with specific ‘ideals’ or ‘events? For example, does happiness to you mean holidays or shopping for a special item? Or do you think being safe at home, a cup of tea, reading a book or walking in nature are examples of true happiness?

Learning to be happy now rather than planning for happiness when circumstances permit is the key to being happy (or at least content) in most situations. Many of us plan to be happy:

“I’ll be happy when….”

“I’ll be happy when I’ve lost a bit of weight”

“I’ll be happy when I can get back to normal”

For those living in the future it will feel increasingly difficult to find peace in the current climate, with so many restrictions on our normal way of life we are having to adapt to a situation beyond our control and how we respond to that can have a big impact on our physical and mental well-being.

It can feel at times (especially at the moment) that there is not much to feel very happy about especially for those who tend to ‘plan happiness’ rather than ‘live happy’.

That may seem like a big ask, particularly in the current climate but for the sake of our physical and mental health, the ability to live in the moment and see happiness in everyday situations is crucially important. I don’t mean that I expect everyone to go around smiling inappropriately in sad or stressful situations but happiness can be found even in the darkest or most stressful times with those who are able to see it tending to be healthier and even live longer.

Happiness does not come to you it comes from within you and we can help that by having a positive influence on our biology – let’s take a little look at the “science of happiness” as yes there is a biological link with happiness!

The stress response

People who are more optimistic have a faster cortisol response, meaning they recover more rapidly after a stressful situation. It doesn’t make them any less suspectable to stressful situations but if you witness any group of people in a stressful situation some will be calmer and recover faster than others.

On a biological level, this is healthier as the stress hormone Cortisol is lowered and hormone levels return to normal. For those who don’t recover as quickly or who dwell on the stressful situation, the cortisol levels remain elevated and the body remains in a heightened state of anxiety. Over time this depletes the immune function and overall physical and mental health of the individual.

A positive inner voice

It can be very hard to change your inner voice, we either have a positive voice creating positive automatic thoughts or we have a negative voice creating automatic negative thoughts.  

Nutritional influences

Of course, one of the ways we can support our biology to promote internal happiness is via the foods we eat. Nutrition should never be underestimated in terms of its’ influence on our overall physical and mental health. The foods we eat go on a ‘journey’ where they alter our body at a cellular level and impact on every single decision, movement and emotion we have. Via eating the right food, we can create ‘happy molecules’

Making happy molecules

I often talk about Serotonin in relation to happiness. Serotonin is sometimes referred to as 5-HT and is also referred to as ‘the happiness molecule’. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that alters our mood, whilst it is linked with happiness it also enables us to feel calm and content, without feeling content, how can we feel happy?

Avoiding comfort eating

I am not being mean when I say try not to comfort eat! In times of stress, we often look for things that comfort us. Often that is food. Unfortunately, there is a big difference between what biological comfort eating is (i.e. which foods really do comfort us and create happy molecules) and the foods that, generally speaking, we crave for comfort (cakes, pizza, chips, chocolate, ice-cream, etc).  Once we are in the eating cycle it is very hard to change. You cannot change it simply by eliminating those foods, particularly at times of stress as you will just make yourself feel more miserable.

It’s important to try to understand the role of food and how the nutritional science of the food journey (or biosynthetic pathway) within the body, how certain amino acids work in the body to create neurotransmitters (the chemical messengers within the body) which as part of their many roles is transmitting signals which alter our mood. ‘Comfort’ foods may have a very short term artificial positive impact on your mood but it isn’t sustainable and as the blood sugar drops so does your mood and often, with comfort eating we can end up feeling worse rather than better.

We are all living through a particularly challenging and stressful time. The global situation affects us all but it is not the same situation for all. It is worth remembering that how we cope with this situation will impact on our physical and mental health during and post-pandemic. If we constantly have a negative inner voice, forecast the worst situation and feel we cannot be happy until the external situation changes then our health will eventually suffer. Whilst it is difficult, it is important to remember to see the happiness in everyday ‘normal’ situations, whatever that normal may be! If we put happiness on hold until this is over, we will miss out on finding our own inner happiness and contentment. True happiness comes from within us not to us from external events, places or people.

Louise Mercieca
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Louise Mercieca

Louise is an award-winning Nutritional Therapist, award-winning author and presenter on her own Food Channel for Early Years Nutrition. Whilst she is passionate about formative nutrition, she mainly works with adults on preventative nutrition. How can we use food instead of eventually needing medicine!? There are lots of confusing, contradictory and often, misplaced advice in the world of nutrition. Louise aims to make the message clear - food and health are intrinsically linked!