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The Biology of Happiness

Welcome to Your Body: How does happiness work in the body?

Ever fantasize about duplicating yourself? Like when you want to go to your kid’s
little league game and be at an important business meeting at the same time?
Imagine a world where there is not one, not two, but trillions of you! (Yes, that
would require lots of retirement condos in Florida.) Welcome to your body!

Who Are YOU Biologically?


Biology of Belief According to Dr. Bruce Lipton, author of The Biology of
Belief, “you are a cooperative community of approximately 50 trillion single-
celled citizens.” (p. 27). That’s trillions of “Mini-Yous” which breathe, eat,
work, laugh, have fun, and yes, even mess up. Cells specialize and band together
to form what you affectionately refer to as your skin, eyes, heart, or liver. Each
of your cells knows that it is you, but also knows that it is a liver cell thanks
to the genetic happiness_pie.jpghappiness_pie.jpgmaterial in the nucleus. Since
the nucleus holds DNA and sends forth RNA to the rest of the cell to create
proteins, it has been thought of as the powerhouse or the brain of the cell.

How Cells and Moods Relate

Here is where the mystery starts: if DNA is the powerhouse of the cell, then is it
true that your happiness is set at birth? Not exactly.

Yes, the genes in your DNA have a role. For example, there are genetic differences
among people that affect the production and transportation of serotonin, a
neurotransmitter that modulates anger, aggression, and mood. Thus you may be more
genetically prone to depression and experiencing less happiness than some other
people because of the genes that control your serotonin system. But believing this
is the whole story is a recipe for learned helplessness. Truly believing you are
doomed by genetics may prevent you from ever taking steps to make positive changes
in your life. Happiness and life-satisfaction levels are only partially pre-
programmed. Making yourself happier is not as futile as trying to make yourself
taller.

Research by Dhappiness_pie.jpgrs. Ken Sheldon, David Schkade and Sonja


Lyubomirsky, show that changing your happiness level is worth the effort.
Approximately 50% of the variation in happiness across individuals in a population
is genetic, 10% of it is situational and, 40% of it is attributable to behavior
and thought patterns. Recent debates on this topic show some researchers
believing in an even lower genetic component.

If Your DNA Is Not the Boss, Then What Is?

What other parts of the cell affect smiling?

According to Lipton, DNA does not predict how the cell will act. DNA simply
functions as a blue print that can be interpreted multiple ways.

External stimuli from the environment cause the cell to act in a specific way.
When an estrogen molecule gets near a cell with an estrogen receptor, the molecule
uses a lock-and-key method to bind itself to the outside of the cell. Depending on
the blue-print of the cell, that estrogen can cause the cell to reproduce, or
produce hair, or do other estrogen governed actions. This means that the brain of
the cell is not solely the nucleus. It is also the cell membrane. (Click here for
an animated description of this process).
Is this wide cell membrane surface really what makes you giggle? Think of the
cell membrane as the entrance to a highly secured office building. Revolving doors
regulate the flow of people coming in. The cell membrane does the same thing
through protein receptors and channels, fondly referred to as Integral Membrane
Proteins (IMPs). The cell membrane reacts to physical proteins and vibrations such
as light, sound, and radio frequencies. Compare the different sensations you feel
in your body when you are listening to heavy metal music compared to hard rock.
That acoustic frequency is actually permeating your cells, causing them to respond
a certain way.

Lipton (2008) further demonstrates how our reactions and interpretation to the
stimuli in our environment affect our cells. Each time you get stressed out, your
body pumps out adrenaline, which gets registered in cells through the membrane.
Cells try to move away from toxins. The body snaps into fight or flight mode with
blood shooting to your extremities and away from the visceral organs that sustain
growth. (See Wayne Jencke’s discussion of the sympathetic nervous system.)
Negative emotions, triggered from our interpretation and responses to our
environment, keep the cell in protection mode. According to Lipton, “Most
biological dysfunctions (except injuries due to physical trauma) start at the
level of a cell’s molecules and ions” (p. 110). Hence, diseases are attributed to
some form of stress.

How Can You Talk to The New Boss?

Activities that produce positive emotions produce endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin


and other feel-good chemicals that cells gravitate towards and that support cell
growth. Hence, on a cellular level, positive emotions support cells in
flourishing.

This means that we are a product of our interaction with the world around us. We
can choose the quality of our interactions and our responses to them. According to
Lipton, “Genes are not destiny! Environmental influences, including nutrition,
stress and emotions, can modify those genes, without changing their basic
blueprint” (p. 67). Positive interventions such as expressing gratitude, putting
healthy foods into your body, spending time with friends, dancing and singing, not
only contribute to your happiness, but make biological changes in your body.

References

Lipton, B. (2008). The biology of belief: Unleashing the power of consciousness,


matter, and miracles. Hay House.

Lipton, B. (2006). The wisdom of your cells: How your beliefs control your
biology. Audio CD from Sounds True.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2001). Why are some people happier than others?: The role of
cognitive and motivational processes in well-being. American Psychologist, 56,
239-249. Available here.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2006b). Is it possible to become lastingly happier? Lessons from


the modern science of well-being. In Vancouver Dialogues (pp. 53-56). Vancouver:
Truffle Tree Publishing. Available here..

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the


life you want. New York: Penguin Press.

Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). Is it possible to become happier? (And,


if so, how?) Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1, 129-145.