What is the commonality of the following? New parents holding their newborn baby, a young couple in love staring into each other’s eyes, catching up with an old friend and a hug. The obvious answer is that they are moments of happiness. But the real answer that lies beyond that is that they are all about connection. Human beings are social creatures and we are hardwired to like connecting with others. In the primitive days, not being connected to your tribemates meant a lower chance of survival. Over the years, we have evolved to the point where human connection is one of the greatest joys we can experience. Many things people may associate with “joy” such as money, sex and winning result in a flood of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is great, it gives us a rush and acts as a reward system, motivating us to do more of the behaviour as it will likely result in more food or mates. However, dopamine quickly wears off and you need another “hit” to replicate the effects. The happiness produced by connection is based on a different neurotransmitter called oxytocin, which is produced en masse in events like physical contact (e.g. hug) and during childbirth. Oxytocin acts different to dopamine in that it sets up a “circuit” that is associated with a memory. If you recall a memory – either consciously or when you meet a stimulus such as a certain smell that reminds you of it – the oxytocin circuit fires up and gives you a dose of happiness. Thus, oxytocin is sustainable, true happiness.
Of course, the corollary to this is that the greatest suffering we can experience is the feeling of disconnection. Breaking up with your other half, being rejected, a dear friend moving far away, the death of a loved one… These events make us feel as if a piece of heartstring snapped, leaving a scar that aches for a long while. In prison, one of the harshest punishments is solitary confinement, where the inmate has no contact with any other human being for a set time. A characteristic of borderline personality disorder is emotional instability and impulsive decisions. A major trigger for this is the feeling of abandonment or the fear of rejection. Borderline patients tend to misinterpret a person through black-and-white thinking, conclude they must hate them, feel rejected and may go on to harm themselves or even attempt suicide. There is also some anecdotal evidence saying that babies who are brought up in institutions without a parent figure to truly connect to are more likely to develop personality and mental disorders, with an increased risk of death in infancy. To not be connected to anyone is true suffering.
So if you are still on the pursuit of happiness, go out there and connect. Whether it be the excitement of getting to know a new person or the rekindling of an old friendship, connection is the ultimate happiness.
(Image source: Puuung http://www.grafolio.com/puuung1)