How to design a lifestyle that generates happiness as an outcome
I’m a product designer and I smile a lot. I have the eyes of a smiler — the creases around them make me look older than my years but I don’t care, I’m happy.
Happy seems to be hard for a lot of people though. I’m not surprised, to be honest — I’ve tried mindfulness, it takes too much effort. Over the years a surprising number of people have asked me “how are you so happy, all the time?”. I had no idea. “I just am”, I would say.
It’s time I put in the effort to figure it out.
Did I mention I’m a product designer?
Product design is the craft of identifying and addressing user needs. I do it because I find joy in helping people and solving problems. This applies to my own life too — meeting my own needs is something that really drives me, from finding the right hotel for a weekend away to having the right task lighting in my bathroom.
There’s a physiological effect going on here: the release of Dopamine — a neurotransmitter (some people call it a happiness hormone) released in reward-motivated behaviour. Dopamine makes us feel good when our needs are met. It is responsible for the “thrill of the chase” feeling. It tells our brains that whatever it just experienced is worth getting more of.
In essence, it helps us enjoy the quest of solving a problem.
But it takes a lot of effort to solve problems well. I get my kick, but I have to work for it.
The victory dance
In Dr Loretta Graziano Breuning’s book Habits of a Happy Brain, she explains that our brains are inherited from people who survived — natural selection built a brain that rewards us with a good feeling when we see an opportunity for our genes.
The “good feeling” that she describes comes from Serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is released when we feel valued, when we feel pride in ourselves.
But here’s the secret: our brain has trouble telling the difference between what’s real and imagined, so it produces Serotonin in either case. This means reflecting on past achievements tricks our brains into re-living the experience, and gives us that “good feeling”, every time.
Reflecting on how right a hotel is that I put a lot of effort into finding, makes me do a little victory dance, every time I think about it.
So how am I so happy, all the time?
Next time I’m asked this question I will say something like this: I put in enough effort to understand and meet my own needs that I can savour the outcome, every time I experience it.
How does that make me happy? The process of finding a good solution to a problem releases Dopamine, then reflecting on how good the solution is releases Serotonin, which builds and builds every time I think about it.
But I know what you’re thinking: isn’t self-reflection a form of mindfulness? It is, but here it’s mindless mindfulness. Don’t put effort into finding happiness, put effort into designing a life that generates happiness.