If you’re one of those people who is naturally prone to happiness, it may be difficult for others to understand where that joy comes from. It could be genetics, their upbringing or the decisions they make in life. Regardless of how you define happiness, research shows that happy people do have some common characteristics. For example, they don’t dwell on the negative aspects of their lives and focus instead on how great things are. They also find ways to give back and help those around them.
For centuries, we thought love (and other emotions) came from the heart, but researchers have now found that love starts in the brain. Functional MRI scans reveal that primitive neural systems associated with drive and reward recognition light up when we gaze at someone we love, suggesting that romantic love shares the same biological roots as other basic survival-related desires.
As you fall in love, the area of the brain that triggers rewards releases chemicals including adrenaline and the “cuddle hormone” oxytocin. These are the same neurochemicals released during childbirth, breastfeeding and orgasm. In addition, the brain’s ventral striatum, which is involved in drug addiction, becomes activated when we talk about our loved ones. This may explain why so many of us can become obsessive about our partners and why we are often unable to think of anything else.
These changes lead to obsessive behavior and a desire to spend more time with our significant other, but they can also increase feelings of anxiety and paranoia. These early stages of love can also deplete serotonin to levels similar to those in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorders. Luckily, these feelings tend to fade after the “honeymoon period,” and when they do, we can fall into enduring love that is characterized by trust, affection, intimacy and commitment.
This type of love is what most of us are looking for. It involves a deep sense of empathy and an eagerness to help out when you’re needed. It also helps cement bonds and raise immune function. Oxytocin receptors in the nucleus accumbens, which controls reward and motivation, are increased during this stage. In fact, studies of prairie voles, which mate for life, have shown that those with more oxytocin receptors in this region were more likely to form lifelong pair bonds.
While you’re in enduring love, it’s still important to take care of yourself. That means doing activities that bring you satisfaction and making sure to set aside time for yourself. It’s also crucial to avoid comparison. Happy people know that they should never compare themselves to others, especially those who are happier than them. Those people may have good reasons for being happier, but everyone is different.