Get Happy

laughing women
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A little post I put here seven years ago titled “What Happiness Looks Like ” continues to be one of my most-read posts and I suspect it is because of that “happy” part. We all want to be happy. And there are “happy chemicals.”

Can you stimulate happy chemicals? Perhaps you can, if you know how the happy and unhappy chemicals operate.

The expectation of something good, like a reward, triggers dopamine. Dopamine alerts your attention to things that meet your needs. It can be triggered by just thinking about and seeing a great meal even before you actually taste any of it. It pushes us to seek out what we need and persist in that seeking. Embracing a new goal and moving towards it in stages, perhaps daily, will reward you with dopamine.

Serotonin is another happy chemical. Confidence is one thing that triggers serotonin. Things that inspire confidence – like getting the respect of peers – gives you a shot of serotonin and then your brain seeks to repeat behaviors that triggered it in your past. Don’t focus on losses as that will depress your serotonin, focus on your wins.

Oxytocin is a third happy chemical and it is triggered by trust. In the animal kingdom, mammals stick with a herd because it releases oxytocin when they are part of a group they trust. Interestingly, reptiles don’t like being with other reptiles. They only release oxytocin during sex. When trust is betrayed, your brain releases unhappy chemicals. You can build trust consciously by creating realistic expectations in relationships and then when expectations are met, your brain rewards you.

Pain causes endorphins to be released, but we don’t want pain. There is the term “endorphin high” that runners can experience which is produced when they push past their limits. Endorphin masks pain which feels good. It is a survival chemical that keeps you going when you are injured. It disappears when the pain is gone, which is good because otherwise, we wouldn’t sense pain when we burned ourselves or some harm came to us. It’s an odd happy chemical that comes out of unhappy circumstances.

What are the unhappy/bad chemicals? Cortisol is one. It is our internal alarm system, a stress hormone that alerts the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain to change our mood, motivation, and fear. Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands located at the top of your kidneys.

Though it is bad because it is produced from stress, it does good things to protect us too. It keeps inflammation down, regulates blood pressure, increases your blood sugar (glucose), changes your sleep/wake cycle and boosts energy so you can handle stress. But constant stress produces too much cortisol which leads to anxiety and depression, headaches, heart disease, memory and concentration problems, digestion issues, trouble sleeping and weight gain. Very unhappy stuff.

There are medications to control the happy and unhappy chemicals. Many anti-depressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that are used to treat depression by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain. There are also supplements that claim to improve mood positively which I will not comment on here.

The natural ways to increase the happy chemicals are all things that we should try to do regularly anyway. Get out of the house or office, exercise even if it is just walking. Laugh! Laughing swaps the cortisol in our bloodstream with dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins. Do things you enjoy, from cooking, gardening, playing an instrument, doing artwork and, yes, having sex.

You can find online ways to increase the good mood chemicals. These will not pull someone out of deep depression or eliminate stress but they will help. Oxytocin increases when you listen to music, get or give a massage, spend time with friends in good conversation, meditate, and even from petting your dog or cat.

Enslaved By Happiness

“Was and will make me ill, I take a gram and only am.”

When I first encountered the word “soma,” it was in fiction. Soma is used to shape and control the future society in Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World. and again in his novel, Island.  But soma is more real than I, and probably many other readers, had assumed.

Brave New World is a 1932 dystopian novel by English author Aldous Huxley. It has been a popular novel in high school and college literature classes for more than 50 years. The story is set in London in the year AD 2540 (632 A.F.—”After Ford”—in the book). Huxley anticipates more than predicts a number of developments in areas such as reproductive technology, sleep-learning, and psychological manipulation.==The novel is usually seen as a prediction of “what was to come” and often lumped in with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. My own thoughts about the novel have changed since I read it in high school and taught it. Huxley also had a kind of reassessment of his book in an essay, Brave New World Revisited (1958), and in Island (1962), which is his final novel.==The “deep, resonant voice” of Mustapha Mond in the novel describes soma as “Euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant.” As part of the government, he knows soma is a very effective way of controlling its population. It sedates and calms them. It also distracts them from realizing what is happening in their society – a society where even the privileged members of the World State are enslaved.

“A gramme is better than a damn,” said Lenina mechanically from behind her hands. “I wish I had my soma!” Of course, via soma, the citizens are enslaved by happiness. John, the savage from outside society who serves as the naïve 20th-century character in the novel, realizes this when he is taken into the society and given soma. He throws the soma he is given out a window at one point but lapses into using it later.

Huxley is saying that Soma, like religion, offers comfort, but at the expense of individuality. He writes that it has “All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects. That is what Mustapha says of soma. It is “Christianity without the tears,” he says. There are no bad side effects, no guilt, no sin. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” That last often-quoted idea actually comes from Karl Marx, so Mustapha seems to have read Marx.


There has been speculation about what soma really might be pharmacologically. In Food of the Gods, ethnobotanist Terence McKenna believes that the most likely candidate for soma is the mushroom Psilocybe cubensis. This rather ordinary-looking hallucinogenic mushroom (which grows naturally in cow dung in certain climates) is a species of psychedelic mushroom whose principal active compounds are psilocybin and psilocin.

In the vernacular, it can be known as shrooms, magic mushrooms, golden tops, cubes, or gold caps. It was previously known as Stropharia cubensis. It is the most well-known psilocybin mushroom due to its wide distribution and ease of cultivation. In most of the world, it is an illegal substance to possess.

Soma is a real Sanskrit word that Huxley encountered in his own experimentation with the hallucinogen. It is usually described as a Vedic ritual drink that was important in the culture of ancient India. In both Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, the name of the drink and the plant is the same. In ancient texts, it is described as being prepared by extracting juice from a plant (not mushrooms). The identity of that plant is now unknown and debated among scholars.

Some accounts by Ayurveda and Siddha medicine practitioners and Somayajna ritualists indicate  “Somalata” (Sarcostemma acidum), but there are also other candidates.

As was often the case in Indian tradition, the plant and its juice were personified as a god, Soma.

Huxley’s soma is never described in detail and there is no mention of mushrooms. The soma pill is more like a hangoverless tranquilizer or with the effects of an opiate.

In researching this article, I also found that “Soma” is the most common brand name for the muscle-relaxant carisoprodol, and is marketed by Royce Laboratories, Inc. It was FDA-licensed in 1996. It is a Schedule IV sedative-hypnotic, an anticonvulsant and anxiolytic muscle relaxant, and it was first marketed in the United States in 1955 under the brand name Miltown as an anti-anxiety agent. Sometimes called a “miracle drug” at that time, it is supposedly the drug immortalized by the Rolling Stones as “Mother’s Little Helper.”

My current view of Huxley’s novel is less a science-fiction prophecy about totalitarian government and more about a warning on our pursuit of happiness at all costs. On some might disagree. One article says Brave New World  has come “to serve as the false symbol for any regime of universal happiness… any blueprint for chemically-driven happiness has delayed research into paradise-engineering for all sentient life.”

In his book Brave New World Revisited  (non-fiction published in 1958), after almost thirty years, Huxley considered whether the world had moved toward or away from his vision. He concluded that the world was becoming like his novel’s world much faster than he originally thought. Why was that? Huxley points to overpopulation as one reason. He was also interested in the effects of drugs and subliminal suggestions on the population. Interestingly, in those 30 years since the novel, Huxley had converted to Hindu Vedanta. The book concludes with some action that could be taken to prevent a democracy from turning into a totalitarian world, and in his last novel, Island, he fictionalizes those ideas to describe a utopian, rather than dystopian, nation.

Poor savage John who falls into the “brave new world” (that comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest) tries to escape that soma society and return to his savage “island.”  We wish him, and all of us, well.

 “Benighted fool!” shouted the man from The Fordian Science Monitor, “why don’t you take soma?”
Get away!” The Savage shook his fist.
The other retreated a few steps then turned round again. “Evil’s an unreality if you take a couple of grammes.”
“Kohakwa iyathtokyai!” The tone was menacingly derisive.
“Pain’s a delusion.”
“Oh, is it?” said the Savage and, picking up a thick hazel switch, strode forward.The man from The Fordian Science Monitor made a dash for his helicopter.”
It was after midnight when the last of the helicopters took its flight. Stupefied by soma, and exhausted by a long-drawn frenzy of sensuality, the Savage lay sleeping in the heather.
The sun was already high when he awoke. He lay for a moment, blinking in owlish incomprehension at the light; then suddenly remembered everything.

“Oh, my God, my God!” He covered his eyes with his hand.

An earlier version of this was posted at my One-Page Schoolhouse site

The Happiness Track

In The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success, Emma Seppälä argues that happiness is the key to fast-tracking our professional and personal success. I hope that is true.

She uses the latest research in the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience. She studies the science of happiness. She is the Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.

You were probably taught that getting ahead means doing everything that is required of you, being focused, and being disciplined. All that comes from drive and talent. And all that comes with lots of stress.

In high school, my friends and I were on the “college track.” In college, a lot of people were looking for the “fast track” to a job, career and money.

Seppala posits that success means finding happiness and fulfillment. Finding happiness may actually be the most productive thing you can do to thrive professionally. Looking at happiness, but also at resilience, willpower, compassion, mindfulness, positive stress, and creativity.

Here are Six Common Myths of Success from Emma’s The Happiness Track. These are six major false theories that drive our current notions of success:

1. Never Stop Accomplishing: To achieve more and stay competitive, you’ve got to quickly move from one to-do to another, always keeping an eye on what’s next.

2. You Can’t Have Success Without Stress: Stress is inevitable if you want success. Living in overdrive is the inescapable byproduct of a fast-paced life.

3. Persevere At All Costs: Spend every drop of mental energy you have to stay on task despite distractions and temptations.

4. Focus On Your Own Niche: By focusing narrowly on your field and becoming an expert in it, you’ll know how to best solve its problems.

5. Play To Your Strengths: Align your work with your talents. Do what you do best and stay away from your weaknesses.

6. Look Out For #1: Look out only for yourself and your interests so you can successfully outperform the competition.

What Happiness Looks Like


What does happiness look like in your brain?

This little video shows molecules of the protein myosin dragging a ball of endorphins along an active filament into the inner part of the brain’s parietal cortex. That produces feelings of happiness.

Or so it said online.

The creator of the animation, John Liebler, says it is the motor protein kinesin transporting intracellular material along a microtubule.

I don’t know what it is, but the thought of this little walk happening in my brain makes me smile.

The Zen of Groundhog Day

I watch this film at least once a year. I’m sure there are people who think of this film – seen or unseen – as “just another Bill Murray/Harold Ramis comedy.” I really believe it is far more profound than you would think at a glance. I don’t know that the filmmakers’ intended all of that, but it’s there.

A. O. Scott in The NY Times did a re-review of this existential comedy this past week (watch his video review) and that was enough to send me to the shelf this weekend to watch Groundhog Day again.

I am not crazy in my belief that’s there’s more here than meets the viewing eye. Do a search on “Groundhog Day” and add something like philosophy, Buddhism, Zen, etc. and you’ll get plenty of hits of others who feel the same way.

Harold Ramis (director and co-writer) has said that he gets mail from Jesuit priests, rabbis and Buddhists, and they all find meaning in the film , and use it in sermons, talks and classes. In Buddhism classes, it is often used to illustrate the cycle of continual rebirth.

If you haven’t seen the film, here’s some background: Bill Murray plays a self-centered, cranky TV meteorologist named Phil who gets sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities. He is joined by his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell), and a cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott). He does a going-through-the-motions report. When they try to drive back to Pittsburgh, they are stopped by a blizzard (which he had predicted would miss the area) that shuts down the highways and they are forced to stay in town an extra day.

Phil wakes up at 6 AM and discovers that it is February 2 all over again. The day runs the same as it did before, but no one else seems to be aware of the time loop. And it happens again the next time he wakes up – and the next time and so on (38 times by my count).

He realizes that he can use this to his advantage and begins to learn more about the townsfolk. He ‘s hardly noble. He seduces women, steals money, drives drunk and tries to put the moves on Rita (that last one fails).

But this power he has eventually bores and depresses him. He tries to break the cycle and files mean TV reports, abuses residents, kidnaps Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog. Finally, he attempts suicide, but still ends up waking up to the clock radio playing Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” (Give a listen.)

Each time I re-watch the film, I think about another aspect of it. I keep thinking that some day I am going to teach this film in a course.

One scene has Phil dead in the morgue. Rita and Larry are there to identify his body. Is any of these retakes on the day affecting the others?  They don’t seem to remember the alternates takes, but…

A few years ago, I watched it and it led me to explore other movies and writings that play with time loops. There are a lot of them.

One day Phil is in the bowling alley. He asks two guys drinking with him, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same and nothing that you did mattered?” One guy replies, “That about sums it up for me.”

Are some of us leading a kind of Groundhog Day existence for real?

Other writers online have gotten far more serious in their explorations of the film than me.

This is from

Once Phil realizes that in his Nietzschean quagmire there are no consequences to his actions, he also experiences modern philosophy’s liberation from any sense of eternal justice. “I am not going to play by their rules any longer,” he gleefully announces. His reaction epitomizes Glaucon’s argument in Plato’s Republic. Remove the fear of punishment, Glaucon argued, and the righteous will behave no differently than the wicked
and from comes some discussions about the film like this:

I asked what the Reb thought was the turning point in the film. After watching it for the ninth or tenth time specifically to find where the third act begins, I concluded that it begins 4/5 of the way into the 103 minute film, at about the 80 minute mark. Phil is throwing cards into the hat, and Rita points out that the eternally repeating day doesn’t have to be a curse.

Reb Anderson disagreed. He thought the turning point came later, when Phil found he was unable to save the old man’s life. Only here, he said, did Phil realize “It’s not me, it is the universe, I am just the vessel.”

Why did the writers use February 2, Groundhog Day, as the setting? I think because it’s such a nothing “holiday.” It has no religious connections, no cards, no gifts and very little tradition. And yet, it’s not just an ordinary day. The first time I saw the film (wow, almost 17 years ago), I thought that he would relive the day for 6 more weeks of winter. Later, I thought about the day and decided there was something about the end of winter, spring and rebirth going on in the story.

In this piece from 2003, the author suggests that we consider the film as a tale of self-improvement which:
“…emphasizes the need to look inside oneself and realize that the only satisfaction in life comes from turning outward and concerning oneself with others rather than concentrating solely on one’s own wants and desires. The phrase also has become a shorthand illustration for the concept of spiritual transcendence. As such, the film has become a favorite of Buddhists because they see its themes of selflessness and rebirth as a reflection of their own spiritual messages. It has also, in the Catholic tradition, been seen as a representation of Purgatory. It has even been dubbed by some religious leaders as the “most spiritual film of our time.”
Want to have a viewing group (which I would prefer to a reading group these days) and show the film?  Check out the discussion questions on this philosophy site.

The original idea for the story was supposed to have come from the book The Gay Science (The Joyful Wisdom) by Friedrich Nietzsche. In that book, Nietzsche gives a description of a man who is living the same day over and over again.

The writer of the original script, Danny Rubin, said that one of the inspirational moments in the creation of the story came after reading Interview With the Vampire which got him thinking about what it would be like to live forever. Rubin and Ramis have both said that they avoided exploring the really dark side of Phil’s time looping in which he could done some horrible things without consequence, like murder.

And, as a capper to this love letter to the film, I have to add that the film is also funny and sweet. Funny is no surprise. Murray and Ramis teamed up for the film Stripes which is a great, silly comedy that I also love, and that has no philosophy or religious themes at all.

The sweetness is all Hollywood. Phil does learn lessons. He befriends many of the townsfolk that he had mocked. He uses his knowledge to try to save lives and help people. And he finally knows how to treat Rita. His final TV report is a beauty that puts everyone in tears. The  next morning he wakes and finds the circle broken.

When the clock clicks over to 6 AM for you in the morning, what kind of day are you planning to make it?

The Koan Project

I realize that the study of koans is correctly connected to the study of Buddhism and is serious study. I have been posting some of these small stories and aphorisms that are used to teach and explicate. I never meant them to be an introduction to the study of Buddhism or even meditation. But they might be the introduction to that study for some people.

Similarly, I don’t think that when Gretchen Rubin wrote her book, The Happiness Project:, it was her intent to study koans.

I read online that Rubin was riding a city bus when she had an “epiphany.” “The days are long, but the years are short. Time is passing, and I’m not focusing enough on the things that really matter.”

She decided to give a year to a happiness project. the subtitle of her book gives you an idea of her approach:  “Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun.”

I first saw the book on the “New Books” shelf at my local library. I flipped through the book and then checked it out because I could tell that her project involved trying some of the wisdom from the past as well as current research, while not ignoring popular culture. It is not approach that will get you attention from “serious” seekers, but it is probably closer to where most people are in their lives.

Some of the things that she decides are worth pursuing are worth pursuing: a source of happiness can be the introducing more novelty and challenge into our lives. Some suggestions are already well know – money can help buy happiness – with a caveat, when that money is spent wisely.

I found ideas that I had already accepted myself. For example, the physical world and the peace and order of it contributes to your inner calm – or  lack thereof.

She also came to believe that small changes often make the biggest differences. Like a little koan.

Rubin posted online that she has looked at some classic koans and some non-Buddhist aphorisms that can be used in your own koan project as small teaching moments.

Two monks were arguing about a flag.
One said, “The flag is moving.”
The other said, “The wind is moving.”
The sixth patriarch happened to pass by. He said, “Not the wind, not the flag. Mind is moving.

That is a classic koan. I have observed the shimmer of trees and realized that it was not the trees and not the wind. It was my mind.

What do I mean by that? I am not able to tell you.

I have collected some aphorisms myself, including some I think of as “American koans.”  Here are some of the aphorisms Rubin found that might be part of your own happiness, or koan, project.

Robert Frost: “The best way out is always through.”

Francis Bacon and Heraclitus: “Dry light is ever the best.”

T. S. Eliot: “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ / Let us go and make our visit.”

Mark 4:25: “For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.”

Diana Vreeland: “The eye has to travel.”

Gertrude Stein “I like a view but I like to sit with my back turned to it.”

G. K. Chesterton. ‘It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.’”