Many people seek happiness through external means like wealth, fame, relationships, etc. However, lasting happiness comes from within. While there is no magic “drug” that can make you happy, certain substances and activities can produce temporary boosts in mood and motivation. Finding true happiness requires self-reflection, cultivating healthy habits, fostering positive relationships, and living according to your values. Still, humans have long tried to chemically enhance happiness through alcohol, opioids, and psychoactive substances. Modern science has uncovered links between neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin and subjective well-being. Pharmaceutical drugs can regulate these brain chemicals and reduce symptoms for conditions like depression and anxiety. Yet, any happiness achieved through substances alone is fleeting and can come with risky side effects. Lasting fulfillment takes conscious mental and emotional work over time.
What is happiness?
Happiness means different things to different people. Positive psychology founder Martin Seligman defines it as consisting of positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and purpose. So happiness isn’t just feeling good, it’s human flourishing. Elements like life satisfaction, optimism, self-esteem all contribute to an overall sense of happiness. It’s a complex emotion arising from how we interpret the events in our lives. Both nature (genetics) and nurture (environment) shape happiness. But research shows intentional activities can increase happiness despite circumstances. Happiness levels are only partially determined by genes. Our choices, habits, thoughts and values also play a huge role.
Psychologists study “subjective well-being” (SWB) as a scientific measure of happiness. SWB consists of high life satisfaction, frequent positive emotions, and infrequent negative emotions. While it’s subjective, self-reported SWB reliably indicates happiness across cultures. Factors correlated with high SWB include:
- Strong social relationships
- Good health
- Financial stability
- Engaging work
- Feeling competent/autonomous
- Finding meaning/purpose
Hedonic vs eudaimonic happiness
There are two philosophical approaches to happiness:
- Hedonic happiness – experiencing maximum pleasure and minimum pain.
- Eudaimonic happiness – finding meaning, self-actualization, virtue.
Most psychologists argue both are important – feeling good and living meaningfully. Hedonic enjoyment alone can be fleeting. But eudaimonia without any pleasure is equally unfulfilling. The happiest life balances both aspects.
Can money buy happiness?
Money can help facilitate happiness, but is neither necessary nor sufficient for it. Poverty can cause unhappiness, while financial security provides peace of mind. But after basic needs are met, increased income produces diminishing returns on happiness. Once you earn about $75,000 USD annually, more money doesn’t make that much difference. Human adaptation and comparing oneself to others mitigates benefits. Shared experiences and spending money on others correlates more with happiness. So money helps up to a point, but good relationships and purpose matter more long term.
Chemistry of happiness
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with seeking reward and pleasure. Dopamine rises when anticipating or experiencing enjoyable activities like eating, sex, creativity, and novelty. Drugs like cocaine, amphetamines, and Ritalin artificially boost dopamine levels leading to temporary euphoria and addiction issues. Dopamine drives us to repeat pleasurable behavior. But chronic overstimulation can reduce sensitivity leading to depression. Balanced dopamine is key for motivation, focus and mood.
Serotonin influences mood, social behavior, appetite, digestion, sleep and memory. Low serotonin levels can negatively impact mood and are linked to depression. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac and Zoloft are prescribed to treat depression by increasing serotonin availability in the brain. However, the exact mechanisms are complex and not fully understood. Serotonin likely contributes to overall feelings of well-being but is not the sole “happiness molecule”.
Endorphins are natural opioids produced in response to pain, exercise, excitement, laughter, love, and chocolate. They bind to opioid receptors in the brain to generate temporary feelings of euphoria and relief from physical discomfort. Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers. Activities that boost endorphins like aerobic exercise can elevate mood. But endorphin rushes are transient. Lasting happiness requires optimizing broader brain and body function.
Oxytocin is released by physical touch, birth, sex, cuddling, breastfeeding and social bonding. It promotes affection, trust, intimacy and relationships. Higher oxytocin levels are linked with lower anxiety, better stress coping and increased generosity. But like all neurotransmitters, optimal oxytocin function occurs within balanced brain chemistry. Too much isolation can be unhealthy. But bonding alone without purpose doesn’t lead to fulfillment. Integrating oxytocin’s pro-social effects into a meaningful life adds to sustainable happiness.
Psychoactive drugs and happiness
Humans have used psychoactive plants and fungi for millennia to induce altered states of consciousness and potentially enhance well-being. Mind-altering substances interact with neurotransmitter systems in the brain leading to subjective psycho-emotional and perceptual changes. Some drugs provide short-term mood lifts. But recreational abuse often undermines long-term happiness due to side effects and addiction.
Alcohol releases dopamine and endorphins leading to euphoria, sociability and loss of inhibitions at moderate doses. But regular heavy drinking rewires the brain’s reward system, depletes neurotransmitters and increases tolerance over time. Alcoholism leads to severe health decline, social problems and neurological disorders. While alcohol may provide temporary stress relief and relaxation, it is an unhealthy long-term coping mechanism that undercuts stable positive mental health.
THC, the primary psychoactive in cannabis, can induce euphoria, sensory enhancement, creativity and feelings of transcendence at lower doses. But chronic use correlates with declines in motivation, memory, intelligence, and life satisfaction. While cannabis may temporarily reduce pain, anxiety or depression, THC intoxication impairs functioning long-term. However, CBD, a non-intoxicating cannabis compound, shows promising medical benefits for mental health without the impairment of THC.
Psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin (‘magic mushrooms’) powerfully alter perception, emotion and cognition. Some studies show they can produce transcendent mystical states and enduring positive personality changes like openness. Single doses have helped treat anxiety, depression and addiction when used therapeutically. However, psychedelics carry mental health risks with inappropriate use. More research is still needed, but medical psychedelics could assist psychotherapy under controlled conditions. Recreational use often prioritizes drug-induced epiphanies over integrating insights into daily habits.
MDMA or Ecstasy increases dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin producing euphoria, emotional openness and sensory enhancement. Clinical trials show MDMA-assisted therapy helps treat PTSD when used with proper medical support. However, recreational abuse has side effects like neurotoxicity, anxiety, confusion, depression during comedowns. The serotonin depletion from regular use can damage mood and cognition long-term. Using MDMA therapeutically vs recreationally has very different mental health outcomes.
Prescription opioids like oxycodone relax the mind and body while increasing dopamine and endorphins. This provides temporary pain relief and feelings of bliss. But daily opiate use changes brain structure,reward systems and body chemistry to create dependence. Opioid addiction devastates psychological health through drug-seeking behavior despite negative consequences. The opioid crisis illustrates the severe dangers of improperly using opioids to artificially boost mood at the expense of overall well-being.
Pharmaceuticals for happiness?
Antidepressants like SSRIs, SNRIs, and MAOIs alter neurotransmitter activity to ameliorate depressive symptoms. While not direct happiness pills, antidepressants can help stabilize moods by correcting chemical imbalances underlying conditions like depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, and chronic pain. But pills alone aren’t enough. Therapy, lifestyle changes, social support, and self-care practices maximize antidepressant benefits. They assist mental health treatment but don’t substitute for psychological, social and behavioral health interventions.
Mood stabilizers, particularly lithium, are primarily prescribed for bipolar disorder. By regulating neurotransmitter balance, lithium smooths out mood highs and lows. It reduces mania and depression severity and frequency. Mental clarity, focus, impulse control and sociability can improve. But it takes weeks to stabilize mood at optimal dosing. Side effects like reduced cognition, motivation and emotional depth are common. Lithium cannot produce happiness in otherwise healthy people. But it helps stabilize dysfunctional mood changes – a prerequisite for long-term happiness.
|Effects on Happiness
|Beer, Wine, Liquor
|Temporary mood lift and sociability while drinking. Long-term unhappiness from overuse.
|Short-term euphoria, sensory enhancement. Chronic use linked to amotivation, memory issues.
|LSD, Psilocybin, DMT
|Induce mystical states and personality changes. Unpredictable effects.
|Acute euphoria, emotional openness. Neurotoxicity and serotonin depletion from misuse.
|Strong temporary analgesia and euphoria. High addiction and overdose potential.
|Prozac, Zoloft, Wellbutrin
|Improve depression, anxiety, OCD by stabilizing neurotransmitters.
|Lithium, Depakote, Lamictal
|Reduce bipolar mania-depression episodes. Side effects common.
Healthy, sustainable happiness habits
Lasting happiness cannot be chemically induced. It emerges through healthy body, mind and lifestyle habits over time. Here are evidence-based ways to cultivate sustainable well-being:
Exercise and sleep
Regular exercise and good sleep hygiene balance neurotransmitter systems for improved mood and cognition. Aerobic exercise in particular elevates endorphins while reducing stress hormones. Strength training boosts self-esteem. And adequate, quality sleep allows brain chemistry to reset daily. Make sleep and exercise high priorities, not afterthoughts.
Eat a nutritious whole foods diet low in processed sugar while staying hydrated. Complex carbohydrates boost serotonin availability. Probiotic foods like yogurt promote gut bacteria linked to brain health. And omega-3s, leafy greens, nuts and seeds provide essential nutrients that foster neuronal growth and positive mood. Diet significantly impacts brain structure and function.
Meditation activates the brain’s frontal cortex associated with happiness. It reduces negative rumination and stress while increasing present moment awareness. Regular meditation boosts mood, focus, self-esteem and social connection. Just 15-20 minutes daily can lead to measurable changes. Apps like Headspace and Calm provide guided meditations.
Writing down things you’re grateful for trains the brain to focus on life’s positives. Gratitude reduces materialism while scientifically enhancing happiness and health. Maintain a daily gratitude journal. Or try writing gratitude letters to loved ones. Practicing gratitude actively reshapes neural pathways over time.
Cultivate kind, accepting attitudes towards yourself and your flaws. Self-criticism fuels unhappiness, while self-compassion breeds confidence and motivation to improve. See mistakes as opportunities to learn without judgment. Speak to yourself as a caring friend. Self-compassion aligns thoughts, emotions and values for greater life satisfaction.
Engage in hobbies that challenge your skills such that you attain a state of immersive, focused attention known as flow. The right balance between skill and challenge creates enjoyment and fulfillment. Flow activities could include art, music, sports, games, writing or any passion that absorbs you. Schedule regular time for these vital interests.
Make nurturing social connections a priority. Loneliness and isolation undermine both mental and physical health. Shared experiences and mutually supportive relationships stimulate oxytocin and serotonin circuits critical for happiness. Contribute meaningfully to your family, friendships, and community through affection, service and quality time.
While temporary chemical mood boosts are possible through substances, lasting happiness arises from how you choose to think, feel and act day-to-day. Prioritize self-care routines like proper sleep, exercise and nutrition. Cultivate healthy mental habits through practices like mindfulness, gratitude and self-compassion. Spend time doing activities that challenge your skills and ignite passion. And foster nurturing relationships and a sense of purpose beyond just yourself. True happiness comes from aligning your daily choices with your deepest values. Any substance or activity that undermines this overall mind-body alignment will ultimately provide fleeting joy followed by long-term damage. Make decisions thoughtfully to choose sustainable well-being in all areas of life.