Happiness in an ever-changing world

Routines are our best friend, and habits don’t go easily. To awaken us from our slumber, we need a powerful force. And now, we have been struck. Being forced to slow down and reflect has made us realize the incredible speed in which we have been living, and whether this is beneficial for our mental state. To learn more about this matter and how it is caused in our brain, I talked to graduating Psychology student Madelief, who explained why we act the way we act.


What do your days look like? Are you often rushed?

“‘My days! Ah, yes, I have been rushed all my life. Between work, studying, a social life, and all matters that we have to deal with nowadays, I would say I am stressed quite a lot. Covid is stressing me out as well, even though in theory I have more time and rest right now, I feel like I have lost sight and control over the situation, which in fact, I have. It is uncertain, whereas I always want to know what to expect.”

What happens in our brain when we are rushed and stressed?

“Stress origins in the HPA axe. A stressor (stress factor) activates your hypothalamus, which then activates your anterior pituitary, where ACTH is made. Finally, this travels to the adrenal cortex where cortisol is made, the hormone that makes you feel stressed.

These are a lot of complicated terms, but what it really says is that your body, by going through all of these systems, creates the feeling of stress. What this means is that stress is never really in the situation itself, but in your reaction to it. It has much more to do with your perception of the world, than it has to do with the seriousness of the situation. This is a positive thing to keep in mind. It means that we, when we practise enough, have control over our stress and therefore the power to change our reactions for the better.”

Can you tell me what happens in your brain when we are happy?

“The most measurable thing that happens is the creation of dopamine, which is related to your reward system. This already happens with small things, like eating chocolate, or getting your cup of coffee in the morning. So the happiness factors can also be small, which is nice to remember. It also has to do with wanting and longing. You are longing for something, and when you then finally get it, it’s extra nice. It is a long awaited reward.”

I am often focussed on the next big thing instead of enjoying the present. Can you explain this behaviour?

“This mostly has to do with society as a whole, and group behaviour. In today’s society, nothing is ever enough. It always has to be more, bigger, faster, prettier, etc. Unconsciously, we know this. Which is why the things we have right now, never fully satisfy us. We have learned that things will be better in the future. This starts young - study hard now, and you will get a good job, then you will be happy! - Meant well, but this has sneaked into our thought-patterns and created a world where now is simply not good enough.

This is also related to the above explained reward system. If we strive for something, or set a goal, we feel extra satisfied when we finally get it. The release of dopamine is bigger then, which makes it feel like a bigger accomplishment that generates more happiness.”

How is our brain responding to all the incentives we receive nowadays?

“To a certain extent, the brain is flexible. Certain brain areas are extra developed for some people, because they use them more. For a professional pianist for example, the motoric part of the brain is far more developed, you can see that in the brain activity.  No brain is the same, and this is also why some people can process incentives much better than others.

We now experience around 6000 incentives per day. When paying attention and processing incentives there is a bottleneck; this filters all information that you see, so not everything consciously enters your brain. We can’t possibly begin to consciously analyse 6000 things per day of course, but unconsciously - this does happen.”

How can we learn to live in the now and not be distracted all the time?

“I think a very important trick here is to think of things that you are grateful for. Even if this sounds a bit too cliché for some, it really works. We are always focussed on the next thing that will make us happy, which prevents us from being in the now. But when we start to think about the things we already have, just like that, we realise that there are so many things to be happy about. The chase stops for a second, and you will learn to appreciate the present a bit more.

Your phone also plays a big part in being in the now (or not). You are constantly pulled from the moment to focus on these new stimuli and the lives of others through a screen. This way your brain gets completely lost in the chaos, you are not aware of the present moment at all.“

I tend to feel like I’m sinning when I’m unproductive, can you tell me a bit more about this phenomenon?

“We live in a performance oriented society. It has become the norm to always focus on performing, improving, and striving. Also in the eyes of others - your happiness is measured to how much you have accomplished. If you do nothing for a while, it can quickly feel as if  ‘accomplishing something’ is endangered, which will then endanger your social status and finally, your shot at happiness.”

How come we would barely voluntarily slow down the pace of our life even though we all claim we want to? 

“This is purely group behaviour. If everybody does it, you will do it too. But if nobody does it, you will think yeah, then I am the only one deleting instagram and traveling to an inhabited island since the rest will not do it, and then I will miss out on so many things! That is  called FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out. Eventually, no matter how hard you try, you will want to be part of some kind of group. As long as the mass, or the world as a whole is not slowing down yet, it is very hard to start yourself.”

How come we seem to reconsider and analyse our daily life more?

“I think this has to do with several factors. For one, Covid has brought us time to think. We were forced to stand still, forced to reconsider the way we live, the choices we make, the pace of everyday life. Also, we have been forced to realise more than usual that life and our time on this earth is limited. We can not take anything for granted. We can not let our happiness depend on the next holiday or the next party, because we have learned that these things may not be there, these opportunities might not exist. All of this means we need to find happiness in the only thing that is truly permanent - yourself.”


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