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Here’s what’s confusing about happiness: On the one hand, we can think that happiness means simply being cheerful. On the other hand, it’s supposed to be about a long-term sense of meaning and joy. Then we’re told momentary pleasures are often just habitual resignation to temptation… There are so many different notions of happiness, how do we make sense of it?

If momentary pleasure is bad, then why do we feel so good when we succeed at something, or have a wonderful time with a loved one, or have a good workout?

I’ve talked about the deeper, long-term sense of happiness that we earn over time; today I want to clarify something about the immediate feelings of happiness that will make more sense of these emotions – and make it easier to have a genuinely good time.

Having positive emotions and indulging in temptations are two different things, with very different consequences. Indulging temptation can cause big trouble, while positive emotions are fundamental to our good life.

In 1953, two researchers at McGill University in Montreal were experimenting with rats, putting electrodes in their little rodent brains to, supposedly, stimulate the fear center so they could train them with “aversive stimulus.”

But their aim was a little off that day and they hit the “pleasure center” of one of the rats by mistake – or so they thought. The rat would do just about anything to get a little jolt from the electrode and, before they knew it, they had that rat going around the cage like a radio-controlled toy.

But what they were stimulating wasn’t pleasure at all; it was the promise of reward. And biochemically, it came down to a jolt of dopamine.

That jolt of dopamine turned out to be a powerful force that underlies seeking and desire.

When we crave a donut or brownie, or a cigarette, or alcohol or other drugs, in that moment of craving, what is compelling us is that jolt of dopamine; we’re craving a short-term biochemical fix that we think will give us relief: relief from anxiety, relief from worry… relief from something.

It’s important to distinguish between the momentary relief that results from satisfying a habitual craving and the positive emotions we can savor, such as love, joy, elevation, gratitude, interest and hope.

Now comes the tricky part: We can train our own brains on which kinds of things will give us that jolt of dopamine and, if we work at it, some of those things can also be things that give us true pleasure and joy.

I can feel it whenever I look at my wife, or when I know I’m going to see my kids or other people I love. I can feel it when I think of going out in our yard or for a swim… these are things I’ve continually connected with good feelings, and I know they will also be rejuvenating and, if I’m feeling stressed, relieving.

So we can consciously work to connect some of our cravings with things that are also genuinely good and pleasurable.

But we can just as easily connect our cravings to unhealthy things, like smoking or eating crummy foods, or reacting in ways that hurt.

It’s important to notice what we’re habitually drawn to do, especially when we’re feeling stressed, and to pay attention to how we feel from doing those things.

If we’re drawn to eat some ice cream, maybe the first bite brings real pleasure, but how about the second bite? When we’ve eaten it all, then how do we feel?

How about when we’re drawn to go for a walk in the woods? How do we feel while we’re out there on that beautiful path? How do we feel having gone for the walk?

Our negative emotions – anger, fear, disgust, regret, worry – tell us to pay attention, because we may need to do something different, something to respond to a threat or danger, or change what we’re doing that hurts us.

Our positive emotions tell us to pay attention to what is going well. And they do more than that…

Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity, has shown that doing more of what brings us positive emotions has the effect of broadening and opening our awareness and curiosity, building greater resilience, improving our overall health and well-being, and even undoing the harmful effects of negative emotional states and experiences. The benefits are huge.

Our positive emotions affect our heart rate variability, our immune system and our overall health for the better. They also have the effect of strengthening us psychologically and emotionally. But aside from all of these benefits is the most obvious one: When we experience more positive emotions, we’re happier and we flourish.

In fact, there’s a general ratio of positive to negative emotions that is something of a tipping point between languishing and flourishing, and that ratio is about 3-to-1. For every negative emotional experience, we want to aim for three or more positive emotional experiences.

Being aware of this ratio shows us what to strive for. If we think that about 2-to-1 is good or 1-to-1 is okay, we may be wondering why we’re feeling unhappy. Knowing that those are pretty low ratios can take the mystery out of our misery; knowing that we’re aiming for a 3-to-1 ratio of positive to negative can help us to aim higher and make choices that can raise our ratio.

For example, we might catch ourselves ruminating over some negative event, or having an argument in our head with someone who annoyed us, or watching or reading media that reinforces a negative sense of life… and then we can make a different choice.

We can instead actively redirect ourselves from ruminating or having useless virtual arguments in our heads; we can turn off the TV or put down the paper.

Then we can actively look for the things that make us feel good, happy and joyful. A few of these that are very easy and have a lot of leverage are:

  • Think of what and whom we have to be grateful for.
  • Look for opportunities to do something kind for another person.
  • Decide to spend more time doing things that bring us a sense of joy or elevation. Give ourselves time to connect with the people we love and enjoy, read a good book, exercise, spend time in prayer or meditation, spend time in nature, absorb ourselves in creative work or hobbies… over time, pay attention to what brings you joy and happiness, and do more of those things.

Pay attention to your positive emotions, not your habitual cravings or temptations, but the activities and thoughts and people that bring you the kind of emotions you can truly enjoy. See if you can train your brain to crave those things more often.

Your heart, your health and your happiness will flourish from it.


P.S. My new Master’s Course in Happiness is designed to help you learn the skills and habits that will help you build a flourishing life now. For a limited time, I’m offering this to TTP Members at a special discounted rate of $39 a month.

Joel F. Wade, Ph.D. is the author of Mastering Happiness. He is a marriage and family therapist and life coach who works with people around the world via phone and Skype. You can get a FREE Learning Optimism E-Course if you sign up at his website,