The Science Of Happiness And How It Works

By Rachel Lustbader

Updated January 02, 2019

Reviewer Amy Brown


Happiness is an emotion that many have tried to give a more supernatural explanation too. We imagine happiness as being part of our soul, or another vague concept such as our "heart." There may be something more to us, but scientifically, we can measure happiness and know how it works to a degree. We aren't just talking about the chemicals in your brain, but also the various emotions used to measure happiness. While the science is still out on many things, we can look at some psychological concepts of happiness, along with the science behind it. Let's dive in, shall we?

Chemicals In Your Brain

Your brain is what controls your emotions, so it makes sense your happiness can be determined by how many hormones you have in your brain. Let's do a summary of what these chemicals are.


Endorphins are healing hormones that make one feel good. Pain is one of the reasons for unhappiness, so by having endorphins, it masks the pain and gives you a feel-good experience. Perhaps one of the best ways of getting more endorphins flowing through your body is to exercise. Working out gives you that endorphin rush, making you feel good and getting rid of any pain. Alternatively, spicy foods can have a similar impact.


Serotonin makes you feel good and can improve your social abilities. Social needs are one of the variables of happiness, and when you have high serotonin levels, it makes you more sociable. You can obtain serotonin by working out aerobically. In other words, do low-intensity workouts instead of giving it your all.


One of the ways you can be happy is by fulfilling your goals. Dopamine is the hormone that makes you feel good after accomplishing your goal. It's the reason why you want to set your goals and achieve them in the first place.


With that said, dopamine is also the reason why many people can become addicted to substances and/or experiences. Substances can give you a dopamine rush, which then creates a desire to keep doing them so that you can continue to repeat that experience. When wanting a dopamine rush, make sure you're doing it by achieving goals that are productive and healthy for you, rather than risky and unhealthy.


Oxytocin is a hormone that may be able to treat various mental conditions and diseases, and it's also the love hormone. You can get an oxytocin rush through sex, childbirth, or just hugging someone. It's also one of the reasons why many couples live longer.

Hierarchy Of Needs

Now that we look at the scientific reasons for happiness let's look at some psychological concepts. First, let's look at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who believed that happiness could be achieved if you followed his pyramid, going from the bottom step to the top. Let's look at those steps and climb the pyramid.

Step 1: Physiological

This step includes the necessities of human life. These are things such as air, water, clothes, food, sleep, and shelter.

Step 2: Safety

The next step is achieving safety and security. By safety, we are referring to being healthy and having well-being that is satisfactory. Living in dangerous conditions, such as a geographical area that has high rates of community violence and crime may mean that your safety needs can feel compromised. This step also includes feelings of financial security.

Step 3: Social

Social belonging is the third step. Everyone wants to feel their social needs are being fulfilled. Some may need more social interaction than others, but even the most antisocial people value having friends, family, and someone they can be intimate with.


This is because we all desire a sense of belonging. We are creatures of tribes, and by having a group of friends, a church you go to every weekend, or even an online community, you are fulfilling your need to belong.

Step 4: Esteem

We are almost at the top of the pyramid. Now, our next step is to achieve esteem. Esteem means many things. It can mean having good self-esteem or getting the recognition you deserve. For some people, this means that they want to obtain some power. They want to be in a high position and be respected, and if they don't, they feel inferior when compared others. Other times, a person does not need to have much power, but they need to learn how to be content with what they have and feel like they respect themselves enough.

In fact, Maslow divided these concepts into two parts. Low esteem is when you want to have respect from other people. This may be because you want to be validated due to your self-esteem being not very high. High esteem is when you respect yourself and don't get bogged down by what others think about you.

Step 5: Self-Actualization

This is the fifth and final step, and it's one where a person realizes their full potential. This is when you live life to the fullest and are happy and satisfied. This happiness and satisfaction level can vary for each person. The point is to strive for these goals, master them, and experience living a full life.

Of course, this method of testing happiness is not perfect, but it's an interesting way of mapping out your life and thinking through it. Most people reading this probably have the first three steps accomplished, but many of us struggle with esteem and realizing our highest potential. Why not map out your hierarchy of needs and discover what you can do to improve it? It may help out your happiness.

Happiness Among The World

Many countries will have different levels of happiness, and for the past few years, the UN has been trying to collect data on all the countries and measure their happiness levels. This is an interesting way to begin to analyze how various countries are contributing their citizens' happiness.

The results are both unsurprising and interesting. Countries that don't meet even the first two steps of the hierarchy of needs, such as third-world countries with violence and famine, are the unhappiest. World power countries may be wealthy, but they are usually nowhere near the top 10, as they tend to focus more on the power of the elite rather than helping the people as a collective group.

It's discovered that the happiest countries are the countries where its people are put first. Nordic countries rank among the top, as their public services help individuals prosper and live the best lives possible.

If you are interested in more details, check out the world happiness report.


Does It Take More Muscles To Frown?

We figured we would end this article with a fun topic. We've all heard the phrase that it takes more muscles to frown than to smile. In other words, it's less stressful to be happy with what you have rather than be upset. But is this true scientifically? Not really. The number of muscles needed to smile and frown is about the same, but the smiling muscles beat out frowning by just a little bit.

The twist is that smile muscles tend to be stronger, as most humans will end up smiling more than frowning.

Obviously, this phrase is just a motivator, and not indicative of any scientific truth, but the real-life answer is a motivator too. Your smiling muscles are strong, so why not flex them?

Seek Help!

When you are struggling with finding happiness, or even feeling depressed, there is no shame in talking to a counselor. Counseling can help you talk through your emotions and gain insight into the thoughts and experiences that create fluctuations in your mood. Plus, you can talk through how to meet your hierarchy of needs even better. The first step is acknowledging your self-worth, and a professional can help you move forward towards real self-actualization.

Everyone deserves to be happy, and talking to a professional is a great first step.

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