Disneyland Resort is in full party mode as it celebrates 60 years of spreading the happy. According to a Disneyland fact sheet, since opening on July 17, 1955, the resort has hosted over 700 million guests.
Despite rising ticket prices, heavy crowds and the inevitable temper tantrum – not solely reserved for children – there’s just something about The Happiest Place on Earth that keeps a great many of us coming back for more. I’ll take a wild guess that it has something to do with it making us happy. After all, how can you not smile at a grown man wearing lit-up Mickey ears?
Happiness is what most of us strive for in some form or another, isn’t it? Whether it’s watching our favorite rom-com, achieving a fitness goal or taking a family trip to our favorite theme park, it really comes down to being happy.
“From a psychological standpoint, happiness can be best described as a combination of a few elements,” says clinical psychologist Jonah Paquette, author of Real Happiness: Proven Paths for Contentment, Peace & Well-Being. “When we are happy, we experience positive and pleasant emotions, both in the present moment and in relation to our past and future. We also feel connected to those around us, as well as to our activities, pursuits and vocations. And finally, we experience an underlying feeling of satisfaction with our life, and believe our lives to be both meaningful and purposeful.”
The Science of Happiness
Other than being happy for happy’s sake, there are other reasons to have good cheer. Happy people tend to live longer, healthier lives, according to at least one body of research. It shouldn’t be of great surprise, since there’s a lot going on inside your body when you are happy.
According to clinical psychologist at Central Psychological Inc. in Alberta, Canada, Neelam Chadha, there are several neurotransmitters and hormones involved when we are happy.
“Serotonin occurs naturally within us, when we are feeling good,” says Chadha. “Serotonin levels may affect mood, social interactions, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory, sexual desire and lowered pain. It has often been pegged as the ‘happy’ neurotransmitter. There has been some recent emergent discussions about whether serotonin actually causes happy moods, or whether it is an effect or correlates otherwise to happy mood, but this neurotransmitter and happiness are closely tied.”
Norepinephrine is also linked with mood, she says, with low norepinephrine possibly relating to depression and high norepinephrine to mania.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a calming neurotransmitter that helps with reducing anxiety, Chadha says. She says that sedatives often involve increasing GABA and that reduced levels can contribute to sleep problems and high anxiety. Calming exercises like yoga can help increase GABA levels in our bodies naturally.
“Epinephrine, which is commonly called adrenaline, is a neurotransmitter that can provide a ‘rush’ and can activate people, often making them feel more lively,” Chadha says. “Endorphins are naturally occurring hormones that give a ‘natural high’ or feeling of euphoria. These are naturally occurring opioids that make us feel good and decrease our perception of pain. Although endorphins are released to decrease pain, we do not have to experience pain to raise our endorphin levels: exercise, laughter, certain foods like spicy food or chocolate could result in the pleasurable experiences of increased endorphin levels.”
And then, of course, there’s oxytocin, aka the “cuddle hormone,” since it is often associated with feelings of closeness, or love, when bonding with others, she says.
“It helps people feel better, often by human contact, such as a hug,” Chadha says. “It is the hormone released after orgasm, or during breastfeeding, that helps with feeling good and feeling a bond. People not only feel it when holding their infants, but when looking into the eyes of dogs.”
Clearly, it pays to be happy. So, here’s the million dollar question: How do we get happy?
“One of the biggest struggles I see people encounter is the belief that true happiness comes as a result of good things happening to us or around us,” says Paquette. “For example, we daydream about buying that shiny new car, or purchasing the big house down the street. Or we yearn to live in a new city, earn more money or find the man or woman of our dreams. We hope for these sorts of things for a simple reason: We believe that they will unlock lasting happiness.
“The problem is, the sort of happiness stemming from this type of good fortune is very fleeting, and quickly dissipates. In fact, research now shows that only around 10 percent of our happiness level is determined by the sorts of circumstances and factors outlined above. So whether we are rich or middle class, tall or short, married or single, young or old, it doesn’t make much if any difference when it comes to happiness.”
Paquette says that according to research, there are a number of factors that do impact happiness in a lasting way, including practicing gratitude, engaging in acts of kindness, nurturing connections to those around us, mindfulness, self-compassion, practicing forgiveness and cultivating an optimistic attitude.
“These are among the most important and influential factors in creating a happier life,” he says. “And best of all, they are learnable and changeable, and we can begin practicing them today.”
Dr. Jon Lieff, supervising psychiatrist at New England Baptist Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, says that what brings a deeper lasting sense of happiness is helping other people, rather than focusing on what we think will make us happy.
“Having a deep sense of purpose that improves the life of others gives the greatest fulfillment,” he says. “If people pursue using their energies and talents to the fullest to help their friends, family, community and the world, they will experience the deepest satisfaction. Some things that people think will give them happiness, like getting material possessions, in fact often bring increased problems.”
Dr. John Demartini, a human behavioral specialist, educator, author and founder of The Demartini Institute, says, “Happiness is the fulfillment of whatever is perceived to be important and partly missing in a person’s life. This ‘missingness’ is sometimes called a void and the filling of that void is satiation sometimes called happiness. Happiness can range from immediate gratifying pleasures to long-term, gratifying, meaningful objectives, goals or dreams. The more meaningful they are, the greater the fulfillment. The more transient, pleasure-seeking they are, the less the fulfillment. Every human being has a unique set of voids and values and therefore their happiness will be unique.”