One moment we feel endless happiness and the next our lives seem dull and empty. How could it be? Why is happiness fleeting sometimes? Can we be happy in the long term? Brain researcher Professor Martin Curti has the answers.
At the concert in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, 70,000 yellow lights flashed on people’s wrists and the band played the song you’ll always associate with your first big love. When you get your dream job, you don’t dare hope for it. When he asks for your hand. At such moments, we usually feel the most happy. In such moments, we like to stop or conserve time in some way and make it available forever so that we can experience it over and over again. But the moments ended abruptly. And with them we felt happy. Puff, just go.
Is this our destiny? Should we give up the dream of lasting happiness? If we ask neuroscientist Professor Dr. Martin Curti, perhaps only to a limited extent. According to him, we can experience two completely different types of happiness – and one of them can last for a long time.
What is short term happiness?
“There are a number of reasons why short-term happiness is something very different from long-term happiness,” says Martin Courty. In the case of short-term happiness, which we are dealing with in the above examples, the area in our brain that has made a name for itself as a reward center is mostly active. The nucleus accumbens especially plays a role here. It’s located below the cerebral cortex, belongs to a very ancient, original region of our brain, and always triggers the release of dopamine, endogenous opioids, and endorphins when something fun happens to us, like a compliment, a surprise, or a nice concert. These substances give us a feeling of joy, a pleasant intoxication of happiness. However, as soon as the happy moment is over, the nucleus accumbens stop releasing happy hormones and their concentration in the blood decreases. The rush of happiness is over. And it may not be easy to replicate it the same way.
“In the case of drugs, we know that if we use them regularly, we must increase the dose over time in order to achieve the same level of happiness as we did initially,” says the brain researcher. “The pursuit of happiness, in the sense of short-term euphoria, is no different.” In both cases, the same substances and areas in our brain are activated. “The desire to have more of what made us happy at a given moment is deeply rooted in our evolutionary psyche,” says Martin Courti. It is true that short-term happiness and situations in which we find joy have undeniable value and meaning in our lives. However, it seems that focusing our way only on this can become exhausting, disappointing, and dangerous – and may never go well. But there is a second category of happiness which Martin Curti calls contentment.
What is long term happiness?
“In contrast to short-term emotions like joy, we describe satisfaction as a fundamental emotion in neuroscience,” says the brain researcher. “It’s located in a different brain region, which is the frontal lobe.” Simply put, the frontal lobe is the seat of our consciousness and our personality. Among other things, we owe it to him the strength of our will, our ability to speak and our ability to plan or think ahead. According to Martin Courty, the primary feeling of contentment usually occurs in our frontal lobes when the following criteria are met in our lives.
6 factors that make us happy
1. We do a similar (well) job to others around us
“The frontal lobe derives its primary sense of satisfaction from comparisons with other people,” says the neuroscientist. Is my balcony the same size as my neighbor’s balcony? Do I make as much money as my girlfriend? Is my workload similar to that of my colleagues? If the basic conditions of our lives roughly correspond to those of others that we have on our radar, then this is a good precondition for us to feel good.
When we compare the people around us with the contrasts between their lives and ours, we can feel good if we can see some fairness in them. For example, if our balcony is smaller than the balcony of our neighbors, but the sun is always next to us. Or if our girlfriend earns more than us, but her job is more stressful or more important than ours or she had to do a longer apprenticeship for it.
3. Long-term goals
Completing training, surviving a probationary period, reducing working hours or taking time off, moving in together, having a child, learning Arabic, letting go of responsibility, becoming more independent – depending on our life plan and personality, these can be long-term goals for us. That give us direction and contribute to our satisfaction. “The desire to pursue long-term goals is what sets us apart as a species and sets us apart from other animals,” says the brain researcher. This desire, like goals themselves, is encoded in our frontal lobe, but it can sometimes conflict with our short-term goals or our need for short-term happiness.
“We have different systems in our brain that compete with each other,” says Martin Court. “One wants to plan and put the supplies and the other wants something right away. We can’t get out of number.” Occasionally we can have conflict because of these two conflicting systems, but in the course of evolution, this strange combination has prevailed because it is most beneficial to our life (survival).
According to Martin Corti, our memory plays an important role in our happiness in two ways: On the one hand, in difficult times (for example in a dark winter), it can give us strength and satisfaction to reflect on the beautiful moments (summer). . On the other hand, we can derive satisfaction from comparing our current situation with an earlier stage in life when we realize that we have evolved. Whether it is about our financial situation, our priorities, our self-confidence, certain skills, or our health, when we look back we see progress in our lives, the frontal lobe shifts to the “satisfied” state.
According to the brain researcher, a certain degree of self-determination and independence is necessary for a happy life. “Being compassionate about not being able to make your own decisions is not compatible with long-term happiness, so there is a lot to be said for a democratic society or for employers to give their employees some liberties,” he says. If we have the feeling that we can shape our life situation by ourselves and change it if necessary, we can derive satisfaction and energy from it, even if all circumstances may not correspond to our desires.
“As human beings, we are primarily cooperative beings, so it is necessary to satisfy us that we are with other people or do something together,” says Martin Courti. In a professional context, we feel happy when we work in a harmonious team, and in our private life it is our circle of friends or our family relationship that gives us satisfaction. From our relationships we derive a sense of the need to have a purpose. This is very important for our frontal lobe, which is always looking for explanations.
The equation of happiness and the individual variable
On the one hand, as human beings, we have a lot in common. We need to eat and drink in order to live, and we can donate kidneys to each other because they perform the same functions in our bodies. We tend to have the same needs and demands, are subject to the same rules and laws of nature, and experience similar struggles. When we are treated unfairly or off-track toward our long-term goals, a large area in the center of our brain fires and sets off the alarm, triggering feelings such as fear, stress, or disgust. So we are not satisfied. Despite all our similarities, we are also very different. The freer and more mature our society, the more diverse we can live our individuality.
Therefore, one person loves to read historical novels, and another loves fantasy and science fiction. Someone dreamed of a family as a child, and another dreamed of an independent and free single life. Some people strive for career and professional success, while others seek a model of life in which the job takes as little time and energy as possible. And we can all change at any time. Of course we can take our attitudes from others and we will always compare ourselves to them. It is essential that we understand ourselves better by studying the principles that apply to the human race. But many questions can not be answered in general, but only individually and subjectively. And the question of how we live a happy, content, satisfying, or successful life is probably at least part of it.
Prof. Dr. Martin Curti Neurobiologist and Head of the Department of “Cellular Neurobiology” at the Technical University of Braunschweig. His research focuses on the cellular basis for learning and memory and the interaction between the immune system and the brain in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. In his books “Hirngeflüster”, “We are memory” and “Young in the head” he prepares the results of brain research relevant to everyday life and to a wide audience. TV viewers may know Martin Courtey of RTL quiz show with Günther Jauch “Am I Smarter Than…”, for which he developed the questions.