What Really Makes People Happy
I started forwarding the video, hoping my friends would feel what I felt: awe, surprised delight, teary joy.
Within a few minutes, the replies started coming in:
"Oh no, I'm crying at work!"
"I'm Facebooking this now. Amazing."
"Wow—just what I needed. Thanks!"
And then I wondered: Does this feeling come in prescription form?
Especially in our current moment of doom and gloom, stories like Jason McElwain's seem like just what the doctor ordered. When forces beyond our control have upended what we thought we knew for sure (about our savings, our homes, our country, our future) and a drizzle of apprehension settles over us, we hunger for uplift. We want a nudge toward happiness, a little magic to open the pressure valve of everyday life—the sublime thrill of transcendence to be found in a Mendelssohn symphony or a Turner landscape, in a perfect kiss or perfect morning jog, in time spent with our families and friends. And then we want to hit Forward on that feeling: because the more we share it, the stronger it grows.
But a yen for uplift isn't just a sentimental reflex (grumps and pessimists, stick with us!). The physiology that makes McElwain-brand exhilaration possible is also the bedrock of our instincts for compassion, caretaking, and connection. The capacity for uplift is part of what makes us essentially, euphorically human. According to a growing body of scientific research, it's critical to our health and well-being. And luckily, lifting our spirits doesn't depend on finding YouTube miracles in our in-box. (Well, not entirely.) For the most part, it's up to us.
We can start in the general vicinity of our cleavage, with that serene warm-chest feeling that washes over us when we're moved by an extraordinary act or by a person of great virtue (whether it's Nelson Mandela, Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, or the amazing woman who runs your local soup kitchen). But to reach the physiological root of those sensations, we need to take a close look at the vagus nerve—actually a bundle of nerves that starts at the base of the brain and branches out through the body, linking up with the facial and vocal muscles and the heart, lungs, and gut. Acting as a messenger between the central nervous system and the major organs, the vagus nerve slows the heart rate (through the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine), calms the immune response (by controlling the release of proteins called cytokines), and communicates with the muscles that control respiration and digestion.
When we give a reassuring smile or sigh in sympathy with another person, the vagus nerve is quietly at work behind the scenes, "reducing our heart rate to a more peaceful pace [and] enhancing the likelihood of gentle contact in close proximity with others," social psychologist Dacher Keltner writes in his recent book, Born to Be Good. The mellowing vagus is also closely associated with oxytocin, the all-important hormone of human trust and devotion. For a study published last year, researchers Jonathan Haidt and Jennifer A. Silvers invited nursing mothers to bring their babies and watch a clip from The Oprah Winfrey Show in which a musician paid moving tribute to his former teacher for steering him away from a life of crime and gangs. The moms who watched (and, sometimes, cried through) the elevating Oprah clip were more likely to nurse and hug their babies—suggesting heightened levels of oxytocin, which cues lactation—than another group who laughed along with a video of Jerry Seinfeld telling jokes.
Oxytocin, often released along the smooth and orderly Route Vagus, is essential to uplift, according to Haidt, an associate professor in social psychology at the University of Virginia. (His name, aptly, is pronounced "height.") In his view, human happiness derives neither from external validation nor solely from within, but from "between": through the relationships created by love, work, and "something larger than yourself"—whether it's a religious group, a volunteer organization, or a political campaign. "If happiness comes from between," Haidt says, "then oxytocin is the hormone of between. It's the catalyst that helps bond people together."