The hedonistic method, often outlined in art and film, where people seek pleasure for the sake of pleasure. It is not sustainable, especially when the rights of others are violated in the process. The outcome can be hollow: you have the beautiful house and beautiful spouse and money in your pocket and yet something is missing, something profound. I think of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, a magical allegory focused on the cost of double-life and self-indulgence even when not physically apparent.
The “fitting in” method. Molding oneself to fit in with the environment can be a sound decision resulting in less strife. Yet conformity can compromise one’s individual identity. I think of W.H. Auden’s “Death of an Unknown Citizen.” This man touted appropriate believes for the time, bought was appropriate for the time, and didn’t interfere in his children’s education. “Was he happy?/ The question is absurd./ Had he not been, we should certainly of heard.”
The “travel around the world” method. The travel doesn’t need to encompass the full globe but does require unfamiliar surroundings and a chance to be a different self. There is much to value in this approach; it is the active search for an end goal that can make this method unsustainable. Now, if one remains focused on the path itself, the journey, happiness may be approached more obliquely.
I’m currently leaning towards the “being in the moment” and being of service methods. The first takes pursuit out of the equation. Instead, I focus on breath and immediate experience, letting go of rumination over the past and worry towards the future. The second helps others, and gets me out of my own head and own suffering, which occurs when I resist what is happening in the immediate moment.
There are five ways to access sources of natural high. For all my talk of an indirect method being required, there are ways to release natural chemicals in our brain that induce a sense of being high, mechanisms such as endorphins and oxytocin.
1. Exercise. Physical activity, by causing some pain, releases endorphins. also known as endogenous opioids. They are produced by the central nervous system and pituitary gland, creating a sense of being high. A common term bandied about is “runner’s high.”
2. Breastfeeding. This is the iconic image for release of oxytocin, a hormone made in the hypothalamus and transported to, and secreted by the pituitary gland. When released, it helps build connection and trust, strengthening bonds already there. A mother breastfeeding her baby will release oxytocin but it is not the only way to release oxytocin.
3. Hugging a long-term partner. Studies find that partners that have been together for a long time are able to each release oxytocin just through hugging or gazing into another’s eyes.
4. Love making. The physical connection, and subsequent orgasm, also can serve to release oxytocin.
5. Puppy dog eyes. From the Science section of The New York Times from April 21, 2015: Japanese researchers found that dogs who looked long into their owners eyes had elevated levels of oxytocin as did the owner. Through domestication, dogs see owners as their key social partners. Although the research focused on dogs, I extrapolate and include a photo of my own two cats.
It is not a coincidence that our stress response activates similar regions along the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis. By triggering endorphins and oxytocin, we can temper the stress response.
I encourage you to focus on the moment, to work out, to go out and hug someone, or to volunteer at your local SPCA!
Good luck finding happiness. Remember, it in fact may be next to you, not in front of you.