What is the secret to happiness? Which behaviours lead to a happier life? In this blog I want to explore how a deeper understanding of behavioural science can help us to design for happiness. I want to explore how you can use Behavioral Design thinking to nudge yourself into living a happier life.
Tom De Bruyne
Happiness comes in four chemical flavours.
The problem with designing for happiness is that happiness is a bit of a tricky state of mind. It comes in many flavours: excitement, joy, satisfaction, wellbeing, a sense of belonging, etc. So if we want to pursue happiness, what are we talking about? The most objective way to think about it is to look at the neurochemicals that produce happiness. In the end, our experiences are nothing more than triggers that produce neurochemicals:
- Dopamine gives a person a sense of joy when a goal is reached or fulfilled. Dopamine comes in instant rushes, right before the moment of success. Think about: scoring a goal, crossing the finish line, winning a pitch, get a Tinder Match, beating your competitor, etc.
- Oxytocin is the bonding hormone. Whenever you feel deeply connected with a loved one, or when you feel you truly belong to a group or community. Oxytocin produces a sense of bliss and a feeling of security. Sapiens is a social primate that needs this connection with others.
- Serotonin is the wellbeing hormone that we produce when we achieve social status. Serotonin generates a feeling of self-importance. Your body releases serotonin when your investments in yourself, your skills, social life, and professional life start to pay off. There lays the difference with dopamine, a hormone that is all about instant gratification.
- Endorphines are the hormones that produce a feeling of euphoria. Endorphine is the neurotransmitter that many of the well-known drugs activate. Its biological function is to mask pain. Your body releases endorphins, for instance when you transcend your limits in sports. E.g. Runners often refer to the endorphin rush when they talk about the runner high.
The problem with happiness: Addiction to dopamine
We live in a dopamine economy. Whenever you open your senses, you are under attack by an endless stream of messages that try to persuade you to go for instant gratification. The promise of snacks, candies, alcohol, processed food is that there’s instant gratification within reach. Social media is nothing more than a dopamine pump on steroids. It always tries to lure you back with notifications. After every social media notification lays the promise of a like, comment, important e-mail, offer, etc.
The problem with dopamine is that it depletes. The more you chase it, the more dopamine you waste. The more dopamines you waste, the more you need to approach the memory of that feeling of initial satisfaction. The drama of the availability of instant gratification machines in our life (cheap calories, cheap social technologies), is that they make us crave for more, but in the long run, produce less and less happiness.
Buddhists try to solve this problem by detaching themselves from every desire. They argue that the desires we chase are not our desires anyway. When we desire beauty, success, wealth, admiration, and victory, we all become a slave to a passion that is not our own. We copy these desires from other people, and we assume that the success stories that we see in the media are the ultimate goals for successful living.
While we assume they will deliver happiness in the end, they produce a lot of misery and a continuous state of dissatisfaction.
I never found the Buddhist answer completely satisfying. Perhaps because I grew up in two of the greatest cities of under the rule of the Dukes of Burgundy: Ghent and Bruges. There’s just too much joy in feasting, and in being passionate and gluttonous once in a while. However, I do recognize that the chase of desires is a dead end. I’ve seen too many seemingly successful people, who keep chasing more and more success, but without being happy or satisfied.
The solution: Design for Serotine and Oxycotin.
In an podcast interview with Naval Ravikant, I overheard the quote “Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life”. That’s such an elegant phrase. It suggests that we should go for the happiness that follows from investment in mastery and connection with others.
You produce serotonin when you finally get in shape. It’s in the flow you experience once you master your craft. It’s in the joy you feel when you can apply your creativity, intelligence, experience to solve problems.
You produce oxytocin when you have deep and meaningful friendships. When you can experience the joy of being with people, you can fully trust. People that always pull you in delightful and effortless conversations. People who care about you and people who appreciate the fact that you care for them.
The things in life that take investment, that are a bit risky, and that require pain and abstinence upfront, are the things that produce happiness.
Five practical behavioural design interventions to achieve happiness.
The guidelines above are still a bit abstract. ‘Design for Oxycotin and Serotonin’ is not exactly a practical guideline. I want to propose five practical behavioural design principles that will lead to the behaviours that release the right mix of serotonin and oxycontin, topped with a little bit of dopamine.
Intervention 1: Framing. Frame life as a game.
This is one of the simplest ways to live a happier life. Think of everything you do as a game. If you think of your relationship as a game, you will have much more fun with it. Your goal is to crack the code of how to keep the relationship playful and how to maintain curiosity.
The same rule applies to work: Work is a game. You need to figure out how to get good at it. If you don’t take risks, you’ll never make progress, and you’ll remain stuck in the same bland level. If you take a chance and it doesn’t pay off, you will always get a second shot.
However, there is a pitfall; A game can become an addictive dopamine pump. People too often don’t understand when to stop playing the game. And the moment this happens, the game will play with them. The tail starts wagging the dog. Too often, people get trapped inside status games or success games. At this stage, the game start to produce misery, anger, competition, stress, anxiety, and fear of losing status.
There’s a big difference between “game” and ‘play”. Once you reach a level where you can enjoy the game for the sake of playing it, then you can truly enjoy it for its own sake. I have this approach to most games in life. I don’t care if I win them or not, as long as I enjoy the game in itself. That usually suffices to make a very decent living. It also prevents me from detaching my happiness from the outcome of these games. Granted, that’s a bit easier to say when you are the company’s owner, but I have always had this approach this game-frame to life.
Intervention 2: Fuck it, let’s do it. The 5-seconds rule.
One of the most critical behaviours that lead to happiness is the pursuit of curiosity. Curious people learn more, meet more people, get more achievements. In other words: Curiosity produces both dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. To force yourself to experiment and try things out is one of the best approaches to living a happier life. We’ve written about the “fuck it, let’s do it” approach in the past. The essence of this philosophy is: treat your whole life as a continuous set of experiments. You should be running experiments all the time to figure out if they make you happy. If they don’t: cancel the experiment and be grateful for what you’ve learned. This way, you will never experience failure again. Instead, you have learned that some things don’t work for you.
Intervention 3: Create Forcing functions
For the body to produce serotonin, we need to do the things that require investment, effort and abstinence. Think of eating healthy, getting fit, growing in your job, etc.
However, our senses are bombarded continuously with dopamine alternatives to serotonin. Why go to the gym if you can watch Netflix right now? Why cook for an hour, while you can order a pizza? Why read a book, if Facebook is full of instant gratifications?
At a certain point, we need to find ways to manipulate or force ourselves into serotonin behaviours. For instance, I have made a deal with a personal trainer to train me three times per week for six months. In the first weeks, I wouldn’t say I liked every second of it. I called her my closest thing to a Nazi. But I had no excuse to skip training. I had a gym subscription for more than four years, but I never could get beyond the initial suffering phase. Now, after four weeks, I even start to enjoy it.
Intervention 4: Priming. Do Misery Benchmarking
Misery often follows from benchmarking with people who are more successful than you. We always seem to look up. But isn’t that insane? If you read this blog, chances are very high that you are part of the 1% of the world that is educated, financially well-off.
Whenever you are a bit bored, confined to your house, blaming the pandemic for your misery, think about the refugee mothers with babies in tent camps in Lesbos, whose babies are being bitten at night by rats. See if you still think your sense of entitlement is justified.
Intervention 5: Practice gratitude
I won’t spend too much effort on this one. The value of gratitude should be a well-established idea by now.
Practising gratitude leads to a more fulfilling life. Furthermore, it primes your brain to focus its attention on the good things in your life. By doing this every day, you gradually train your brain to pay attention to the good stuff.
That’s it. 5 interventions to hack your happiness hormone system. Try them: You’ll love it.
Tom De Bruyne
Co-founder SUE Behavioural Design