Thilo Beck at WEF Roundtable - A Roadmap to Sustainable Health and Better Well-being in the Workforce and Society

Goals House Roundtable, World Economic Forum, Davos – Thilo Beck

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Hacking into our Happiness System

Happiness has become one of humanity’s ultimate goals. But, paradoxically, our quest for it is increasing our levels of dissatisfaction. We explore how to healthily boost yours.

The odds are even more stacked against the ultra-wealthy. With success comes an expectation of happiness and fulfillment. But one doesn’t necessarily follow the other. And yet, if a very successful person is open about their difficulties, they are likely to be branded as ungrateful.

As a result, when the stress of leading a business, managing wealth or living in the public eye causes genuine health issues, people in these positions often see it as a shameful failure and hold back from opening up about their problems. This not only prolongs their suffering but further entrenches the myth that wealth creates happiness.

Before we look at how to boost your happiness, it’s worth exploring exactly what happiness is.

What Does the Science Say?

Your happiness depends on two distinct factors:

  • Socio-cultural influences, known as the exogenous causes.
  • Biological factors, or the endogenous causes.

Of course, these factors are deeply interconnected to each other. An event in your external life will release certain chemicals in your brain. Equally, your internal chemical balance will influence how you perceive those events. For example, if someone has low levels of certain neurotransmitters and receives a job promotion, they might focus less on their achievement and more on the fear of letting people down.

What is clear is, as neuroscience studies continue to prove, the huge impact of the four key neurotransmitters: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins.

Let’s take a closer look at the D.O.S.E of happiness:

i. Dopamine

Originally known as the brain’s reward system, dopamine is released during eating, shopping, and sex. But recent landmark studies show there is more to dopamine than hedonistic pleasure. Researchers have discovered different types of dopamine neurons, the nature of which will determine how consistent your motivation is and how determined you are to achieve your goals.

Low levels of dopamine disrupt the transmission of neural messages. And when messages do not reach their destinations properly the brain operates less effectively, as if it is going into a room and forgetting why it went there in the first place. This leads to procrastination, an inability to focus and, in some cases, depression.

For children raised in wealthy families, who are exposed to enthralling experiences from a young age, there is a danger they will continually search for wilder experiences to keep dopamine flowing. To some extent this is a natural part of a child’s psychological development. However, studies show that excessive levels of dopamine can lead to fear-based disorders, which helps us understand why wealthy children are three times more susceptible to anxiety compared to their non-affluent peers.

ii. Oxytocin

Oxytocin is our ‘social trust’ hormone. It increases the effort we devote to engaging in social activities and inspires us to build more meaningful relationships. It is the hormone that is released during skin-to-skin contact between mothers and babies, a time when they learn about each other’s special scent and form crucial bonds.

Because it is stimulated by genuine connections those suffering from loneliness often have less oxytocin in their systems, which can lead to them isolating themselves even further.

Ultra-high-net-worth (UHNW) individuals are particularly susceptible to loneliness. Wealth often attracts opportunists, which means successful people are accustomed to second-guessing others’ intentions. This can create trust issues and increase a sense of alienation.

iii. Serotonin

Serotonin continues to fascinate scientists. Aside from its direct correlation to your mood and wellbeing, serotonin also plays a major role in how your organs function, especially in the cardiac, digestive, and immune systems. Its ability to protect us against mental and physical disorders is only just being fully understood.

Groundbreaking research has found that a deficiency in serotonin levels leads to unfocused hyperactivity, especially in home environments. Moreover, the loss of serotonin alters our sleep rhythm and disrupts sleep-wake homeostasis, the processes that control sleeping and waking periods. This causes fatigue, makes us overly sensitive and triggers an ongoing sense of uselessness.

iv. Endorphins

Released during exercise and sex, an endorphin rush is commonly known by athletes as ‘runners’ high’. Endorphins also reduce our perception of physical pain and alleviate anxiety, encouraging feelings of euphoria and excitement.

Endorphin deficiency can lead directly to muscle spasms and chronic headaches. The natural human reaction to this is to become irritated by the pain, which can lead to self-blaming for feeling “bad for no reason”. But the reasons are very real and serious.

Do D.O.S.E hormones correlate with addiction?

These feel-good chemicals are so vital to our health and wellbeing, that addiction can occur without them. This is because the addictive component of alcohol, drugs, gambling, food and so on is that they release these hormones. So, when we are feeling stressed out and down, aka lacking our D.O.S.E, our brains start to seek out the quickest way to obtain them. As a result, we sow the seeds for substance abuse. To understand this, think of how alluring fast food becomes when you are stressed out and in a hurry, but very hungry.

That being said, some of us are also more likely to seek out these feel good hormones than others. In fact, David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins’ School of Medicine, found the traits of CEOs such as strong drive, high-risk taking and a passion for innovation, match those of dopamine enthusiasts.

Our brain has a tightly regulated mechanism to keep neurotransmitters balanced. As soon as dopamine is released, the body rushes to downregulate it, which explains the feeling of ‘come down’ after, for example, an exhilarating party. Consequently, our innate human drive for joy urges us to find another source of fulfillment to bring those levels up again.

The success of major social media platforms is based on this. They are deliberately programmed to take advantage of how our brains are wired. Theoretically, scrolling around looking for the next funny video provokes the exact same reaction as micro-dosing on cocaine.

How Can I Naturally Increase my Happiness D.O.S.E?

It is no surprise that the best ways to boost your D.O.S.E hormones are by building healthy habits such as eating a nutritious diet, getting at least six hours of sleep a night and regular exercise. But they are not the only ways to raise your happiness levels, why not try these techniques?:

1. Savour the moment

Dr. Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University, advises us to focus on savouring. This is the act of stepping out of your body and looking at your situation from someone else’s perspective. They are likely to see positives that you may not. This simple act will help you appreciate the moment and increase gratitude for the experiences you have while you are having them.

2. Acupuncture

We are not always in the right frame of mind to be sociable or engage with our surroundings. But there are other ways to boost your oxytocin levels. The simple act of touch during an acupuncture session can increase them just as much as activities such as snuggling up with a pet. Acupuncture can also improve blood circulation and release endorphins.

3. Create new goals

To-do lists are so satisfying because every time you tick off a task, your brain releases dopamine, no matter how little the task is. So instead of setting yourself massive goals such as running a marathon, embrace smaller steps every day.

By doing this, you will build a habit of focusing on your wins which will boost both your dopamine and serotonin levels. Something else you can try is making small conversations with random people. As author Thomas H. Cook put it: “You are the most alive when you feel the most vulnerable, not when the arrow is still in the quiver but when it has been released by the string and is flying toward you.”

We hope you can build some of these science-backed happiness hacks into your life. If you have room for even more take a look here:

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