Are We Pre-Programmed to Be Happy?

I think we can all agree that a basic goal in life is the attainment of happiness, that mind state characterized by positive and pleasant thoughts and emotions. But how do we become happy? By definition, happiness requires some type of pleasure to be present. We need good feelings and good physical sensations. Furthermore, the pleasure must come first, before the happiness. Something, and I don’t care what it is, has to make you feel good before you can truly call yourself happy. As such, our behaviors and our motivations are shaped by that pleasure-seeking tendency. And that pleasure-seeking is mediated through the reward system, which has several different but interrelated components: liking, which describes the sensation of pleasure; wanting, which describes the desire to obtain the thing; and learning, the Pavlovian-esque conditioning. Basically, if we do something or expose ourselves to something (a fun social situation, a healthy food, the sun) that confers a survival and/or health benefit (improved social standing, some vital nutrient that our body needs, vitamin D production), our reward center “activates.” We like it, we want it, and we learn that having it is in our best interest.

Today, I’m interested in the “liking” part of reward – both the subjective experience of pleasure (“that hand massage feels good”) and the objective hedonic response (the neurochemistry that controls the hand massage feeling good). Ultimately, it’s the “liking” that we, well, like. It’s the sensation of pleasure we experience before anything else. We have to know that something feels good before we can want it, before a behavior can be reinforced or learned.

We like things for a reason that extends beyond the “liking.” There’s a biochemical component to pleasure, couched in the evolutionary drive to survive and reproduce and prosper. Thus, if hitting a squat PR, having great sex with your partner, and eating the bag of fat and protein and collagen known as a grass-fed beef rib make you feel warm and tingly, that’s probably a sign that those things are good for you, because our pleasure system was likely developed with those stimuli (lifting heavy things, sexual contact, animal fat and protein) in mind. Conversely, a gram of cocaine on a Saturday night, a hard drive full of every porn permutation imaginable, and a McRib might make you feel even warmer and tinglier, and they’ll certainly keep you coming back for more, but they are supraphysiological triggers of those same reward pathways and thus deserving of suspicion. Our reward systems likely weren’t developed to handle stimuli of that magnitude, because stimuli of that magnitude simply did not exist. Our reward systems developed for a reason: to reinforce behaviors that conferred a survival benefit.

How does it all work?

As neuroscientists are learning new things about the brain’s pleasure systems every day, it’s still a work in progress, but this is the basic gist:

Sensory data from touch, smell, taste, and sound travel to the sensory cortex, where they are interpreted in terms of magnitude. Was it a soft or a hard touch, a strong or a faint smell, a powerful or a mild flavor – that sort of thing. Strong sensations elicit lots of sensory cortex activity as seen in MRIs, while sensations of less magnitude elicit less activity. From the sensory cortex, the data is sent to various parts of the brain, including the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and a host of others. These are the “hedonic hotspots,” areas of the brain rich in opioid-and-cannabinoid-producing and opioid-and-cannabinoid-receptive neurons (PDF). The more a person reports liking a particular sensation, the greater these areas light up with activity when presented with data from said sensation. The OFC, it seems, is a hotspot where a lot of the initial liking happens. The ventral pallidum is another, perhaps the major, hedonic hotspot that has been shown to respond to “diverse human rewards from food to money.” (PDF) The VP receives data from a host of other brain reward areas, including the OFC, to which it applies “liking.” It is in this particularly hedonic hotspot that researchers think opioids and endocannabinoids effectively “paint” sensations with “hedonic gloss” to make them pleasurable to us. “Sweet” isn’t delicious if the hedonic hotspots don’t get their say in the matter.

Pleasure is also mediated and modified by context. Hunger is the best spice, after all, and there’s nothing quite so pleasurable as an ice cold glass of water when you’re parched on a summer’s day. If a sodium-replete rat is given a super-salty food to taste, there is no pleasure response in the brain. If a sodium-depleted rat is given the same super-salty food, it’s suddenly pleasurable (PDF). Thus, it’s not just the properties of the stimulus that determine the pleasure response, but also the physiological needs of the person responding.

What about dopamine?

Although it used to be viewed as the pleasure neurotransmitter, neuroscientists generally agree that dopamine is the driver of reward. It’s the neurotransmitter that creates “wanting,” not “liking.” Dopamine does not mediate sensory pleasure. Dopamine doesn’t make sex feel good. It just makes you want the sex. Or, with something like amphetamine, which increases dopamine, you “want” the drug even if you don’t “like” the feeling.

Now that we have a rudimentary understanding of how pleasure works in the brain, let’s look at some specific examples of how this neurochemistry plays out when we’re exposed to a pleasurable stimulus.


Food is perhaps the most fundamental trigger of pleasure circuits (and the most easily abused). Stephan from Whole Health Source and J. Stanton from both have excellent takes on the food-reward system that pretty much cover it all. Go read them.


I probably don’t have to tell anyone this, but orgasm feels good. It’s an overpowering pleasure, an intense culmination that somehow marries anticipation with sensation. Sure enough, during male ejaculation, the (male’s) brain apparently lights up like a heroin user’s right after shooting up, indicating a major role for opioids. Neuroimaging studies on women during orgasm also reveal significant activation of the brain’s pleasure centers. I also don’t have to tell anyone why sex feeling good helps the survival of the species, nor why our brains would insist on making sex pleasurable.


You’ve all heard about the runner’s high, right, that euphoric, pleasant state of mind you can reach through intense exercise? It used to be assumed that elevated serum levels of beta-endorphins (an endogenous opioid) were responsible, until scientists realized that beta-endorphins are too large to cross the blood-brain barrier into the brain, where the “pleasant state of mind” generally resides. In order for endorphins to be responsible, it would have to be the endorphins that the brain itself secretes. Only problem? Doing a spinal tap to check the opioid content of brain fluid is highly unpleasant and not very practical for human subjects. Luckily, a team of German scientists figured out a non-invasive way to track the activity of endorphins in the brain. They used this method on runners who’d just completed an intense bout of endurance training and found that endorphins do increase in the brain after exercise, particularly in the runners who reported the most euphoria. These brain endorphins aren’t just there to make you feel good, either. They’re also necessary for the exercise-induced creation of new brain cells. Furthermore, it appears that voluntary exercise is key. Plodding on the treadmill with the trainer’s proverbial whip at your back might not have quite the same pleasurable (and brain-boosting) effect as going for a trail run through your favorite piece of wilderness.

Endocannabinoids play a role, too. They’re small enough to pass through the blood-brain barrier, and mice with a cannabinoid receptor deficiency in the brain run 30-40% less than control mice. In humans and dogs, exercise increases anandamide (an endocannabinoid) signaling throughout the body and brain. They say we’re “wired to run,” but really, we’re “wired to do things that make us happy.”


Touch is both utilitarian and pleasing. You use it to grasp the handle of the shovel, to tell you that you’ve just bumped into something, to differentiate between sharp and dull objects, and to shake hands, among other activities. But touch can also be sensual and pleasurable, and research shows the large myelinated nerve fibers that pick up on “rapid skin movement” (hard labor, grasping door handles, shaking hands, utilitarian stuff) are separate from the nerve fibers that pick up on “innocuous skin deformation” (stroking, caressing). In fact, the sensual fibers, known as c-tactile nerve fibers, activate the orbitofrontal cortex, the same place that responds to pleasant tastes and smells, as well as other areas of the brain known to be activated by opioids. The large myelinated fibers activate and inform the tactile discrimination function (the ability to differentiate sensory data received through touch), which is mediated through another area of the brain.

Touch also releases oxytocin, a hormone that helps lower stress, increase relaxation, and promote bonding. Oxytocin probably isn’t directly related to hedonic pleasure, but the attenuation of stress and the feeling of bonding with another person are a kind of pleasure – and certainly improve one’s survival fitness.

Sun Exposure

Lying in the sun, particularly when you haven’t seen any for awhile, is an intensely pleasurable experience. You’re warm, you’re relaxed, you can almost feel the vitamin D synthesizing. For all intents and purposes, reasonable sun exposure is a healthy endeavor the pursuit of which should be mediated by the brain’s reward system. And yet study after study indicate that sun exposure does not increase circulating serum opioids. What’s the deal here? Well, seeing as how opioids in the blood can’t really cross into the brain, all these studies tell us very little about what’s going on in the brain and thus triggering (or not) our pleasure centers. I was unable to find any studies that looked at brain opioid activity, but seeing as how the addictive nature of tanning is being seriously explored, and getting sun is subjectively pleasurable, I’m confident it too triggers the pleasure network in the brain.

After all, even when you try to fool experienced tanners with fake UV, they know the difference and prefer real UV. Something is making the sun rewarding. If I had to place a wager, I’d bet that it has to do with the proopiomelanocortin (POMC) gene, whose expression triggers the secretion of melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH, a hormone that darkens the skin and protects it from UV damage) in the pituitary and beta-endorphins in the brain. If sunlight can trigger the release of MSH via the POMC gene, perhaps it’s also releasing beta-endorphins in the brain to make you feel good and get more sun (and thus vitamin D). This hasn’t been explicitly tested, but it wouldn’t be a surprising result.


Studies indicate that opioid action in the brain precipitates the “chills” or “shivers down the spine” you get when listening to a particularly good song. Indeed, as the intensity of the chills increased, cerebral blood flow to the areas of the brain involved with reward and pleasure also increased. Wait, wait, wait – but music isn’t “natural.” Why do we respond so strongly to it? Well, music takes advantage of pleasure centers that evolved to respond to the babbling brook that promises fresh water, the cry of gulls that means the coast is near, the crashing waves that accompany the gathering of shellfish. You generally don’t get chills from listening to the sound of nature, but rather a warm, relaxed, soothing feeling. Those pleasant feelings are happening in the same brain that produces music-induced chills, probably through similar avenues.

You’ve probably noticed that the neurochemistry of all this pleasure stuff isn’t quite as ironclad as, say, the Kreb’s cycle. We can recreate the latter on a poster using arrows and legends and symbols and know that it’s an accurate representation of what’s going on in your body. We can’t yet make a neat picture of what happens in the brain to make sensations pleasurable, because the brain is plastic and the pleasure “center” is actually spread out over many different regions. It’s not a linear path. Heck, the guys who study this stuff for a living admit that many questions remain unanswered. However, what we do know is this: the actual physical manifestions of happiness and pleasure are not learned, but innate.

Or, as Kent Berridge (PDF), neuroscientist of pleasure (sounds like a great male stripper name, eh?), puts it, “Evidence so far available suggests that brain mechanisms involved in fundamental pleasures (food and sexual pleasures) overlap with those for higher-order pleasures (e.g. monetary, artistic, musical, altruistic and transcendent pleasures). From sensory pleasures and drugs of abuse to monetary, aesthetic and musical delights, all pleasures seem to involve the same hedonic brain systems, even when linked to anticipation and memory.”

In other words, we come equipped with a robust and complex reward and pleasure system(s) whose primary job is to keep us healthy, strong, fit, and above all, happy. Sure, as I mentioned last weekthose systems can be hijacked by processed food, drugs, alcohol, tanning beds, and other hyper-stimuli to wreak havoc on our health and happiness, but the systems are not our enemies. If we use our better judgment, if we stop to think about why whatever we’re doing feels good and makes us happy, if we trust our intuition that things like bird songs, sunshine, the smell of dirt, and a babbling brook are good stimuli, I think we can actually use the reward/pleasure system for its intended purpose – to guide us toward smart choices that benefit our health, happiness and wellness.

Sorry, for the length on this one, folks, but the subject matter itself is a little dense. I hope you enjoyed it. Most importantly, I hope you learned a little something about why you like the things that you like, and why liking them isn’t just understandable, but absolutely necessary for health and happiness.

I’ll be covering how we can align our lifestyle behaviors with what our genes “expect” of us to live not only healthy and fit lives, but also happy, fulfilling, content and peaceful existences in the modern world, here on Mark’s Daily Apple and in my upcoming book The Primal Connection (due out first quarter 2013). Stay tuned and thanks for reading!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

83 thoughts on “Are We Pre-Programmed to Be Happy?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. So much to enjoy as humans. Yeah, I’d say we are pre-programmed to be happy. Here’s to good health!!! Enjoy good health and life can be happily fulfilling.

    1. +1

      Yet people sit, sit, sit and stare at screens all day long at work and then come home and do it some more.

      For me, the TV is the last thing that will make me happy. Send me outside with the Sun and perhaps a mix of clouds. A golf course will do the trick but I would not mind the beach or forest.

      Or just some grass…

      Set up a volleyball net and I’ll join. Grab a basketball and find a court with a hoop and I’m game. Or why not a racket and tennis court?

      Reading this blog makes me happy too.

      1. +1

        Even just going to eat breakfast, dinner, or lunch outside can really brighten up your day. I wonder if there is some sort of link between raised vitamin D levels and happiness.

        I find that when I go on camping or hiking trips, I always feel so much happier and more human. Just getting up and doing real physical work can even make you feel more accomplished and happier.

        1. I’m right there with you on the feeling you get while camping.

          Oh, now I really want to go camping!

        2. I’ve been sleeping in a tent for the past two weeks on an organic farm. I’ve never felt more in touch with nature! It’s an awesome feeling!!

        3. I second the “doing real physical work” part. The sense of accomplishment I cam gain in under an hour from working around the house or in the yard is great.

      2. “I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”
        “Enjoy the little things in life, for one day you’ll look back and realize they were big things.”
        “And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
        “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning do to do afterward.”
        ? Kurt Vonnegut


        1. love those snippets Ravi! I read them as I am about to start my day with a pre-dawn swim in a local lake with a handful of other appreciative folks.

  2. such a great post! i’ve always noticed that a day at the pool or beach just makes me feel so good. i’ve assumed it was the vitamin d, and this post helped make things even more clear for me!

  3. Happy moments in the last couple of days:
    Great workout
    Walking the dogs with shirt off, soaking in some vitamin S
    Licking the egg yolk off my plate this morning. (You know Grok would have done this too!)
    Simple pleasures.

    1. Love walking the dog with my shirt off.You get some looks, but its well worth it. I also love climbing a tree or two whenever I walk my dog. Ill see a try and I wont be able to pass up the opportunity.

  4. The Primal Connection!

    I’ve been waiting for this! Mark mentioned it at Primal Con last year. It’s gonna be huge.

  5. First off, great article.
    But this presupposes that a state of happiness is achieved when the sum of pleasureable stimuli passes some threshold. I am not denying the huge capacity of a human being for pleasure (indeed I think you can judge a man on his capacity for enjoyment/pleasure), but it seems to discount the Baudelairian weight (C’est l’Ennui!) that I do not think is just a byproduct of the absence of the pleasureable stimuli mentioned above. Sometimes a belly-rub just won’t do.
    When does one transition between happy/pleasureable experiences and fulfillment?

    1. To clarify: There are very few situations where a belly-rub won’t do, but I think I have heard they exist.

    2. Most of human organization and physiology is based on “thresholds”. Whether it’s a concentration gradient of salt somewhere around/in a cell, or the build-up of sodium and potassium necessary for nerve conduction, there is a necessary threshold before a signaling cascade occurs. I think this likely holds true for pleasure hormones as well. As Mark said, however, this ephemeral “threshold” may change due to the current state of the person in question – one man’s trash, another man’s treasure, cold water before/after exercise, etc. Sometimes life is out to get you and a belly rub won’t do – that’s why we have dark chocolate ;). Then, when you’re feeling all better and a minor inconvenience comes along, you can use the simpler belly rub to fix it because you’re closer to your “happy” state than before (shorter threshold).

      As for happiness vs. fulfillment? I think true happiness IS fulfillment, and the transition occurs when you successfully reach your intrinsic goals (self-actualization kind of stuff, if we’re talking psychology). Things like exercise, food, and social interaction are all very important and not just means to an end. But it is clear that the “end” is being the best person we can be (our genes like that idea very much, and I assume it’ll be a topic of conversation in Marc’s book). There’s a discussion of the topic here (which I just randomly googled to find), about restructuring Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to fit modern evolutionary psychology.

  6. Nice post Mark. I think their may be something to eating chocolate also, because I’ve heard it stimulated the same hormone as when you fall in love. Just a thought.

    Grok On!

  7. Happiness is yards and yards of fabric and all the time in the world to sew!

  8. great article, i am really glad you have decided to look at neuroscience from an evolutionary perspective. it is so fascinating and it really ties everything together when thinking about achieving true health. can’t tell you how excited i am for the book next year.

  9. Just returned from a camping trip to Yosemite…the smell of the air, the feel of the cold water and the hot sun, the sound of the running rivers and the wind in the trees and the euphoria of making it to the top (of Vernal falls–had our 3 young kids with us, and lost on the half dome lottery)! Lots of happy feelings this week!

  10. No I am not going to proselytize here–although I was never truly joyful until I became a Christian. But since that time I have been able to experience happiness in so many simple things– like primal eating, sunshine, workouts, laughter generated by observing my grandkids, mowing the lawn in 98 degree heat on a humid day in Tennessee…and by ravishing my wife (but having to catch her first).

    I have found happiness is a passing state, but pure contentment, pure joy is an ever present underlying realization. As Abe Lincoln once said, “People are about as happy as they decide to be.” And no– I didn’t hear him say that–I am not that old!

  11. So, as my wife prepares for another Ironman and her exercise addiction, I will watch her swim, bike and run all over the place. All the while I will be doing my Tabata sprints and eating bacon. I wonder who will have more happiness at the finish line……

  12. Great post! As the Dalai Lama has said, the purpose of our lives is to be happy!! 🙂

    1. Thanks for referring to the Dalai Lama. In his book on The Art of Happiness, he says that pleasure is fleeting and temporary. True happiness comes from “things” that are stable and consistent…in other words, to me anyways, that means to Thrive!

      I’m with his Holiness on what makes him happy, Good Food and a Good Sleep!

    1. See

      Before Primal I did Suzzanne Somers on the diet side and Tabata Protocol on the exercize side. Primal goes beyond both and includes, well, pretty much all good things which is why I like it so much.

  13. I don’t agree that something has to happen to us to ‘make’ us happy before we can be happy. We can make a choice to be happy and a choice to ‘see’ the world or think of the world in a different way than we currently are that may be causing unhappiness. I think many people believe that because ‘nothing good ever happens to them’ their bitterness, sadness, self loathing, etc…is justified. Little do they realize that it’s not happy people who are thankful but thankful people who are happy, no matter their circumstances!

      1. I agree too,
        Sure there is a brain effect but that elusive free will has an effect as well. I also feel that we have to be very wary and critical of modern media that tries to influence our definitions of happiness and contentment. I am preaching to the converted here, but it is so important to challenge our kids to question the notion that happiness is only obtained through the next new gadget/fashion accessory/drug/fad, rather than what we would call the simple things in life. It’s ongoing and we need to start young and stay resolute.

    1. The state of happiness is a complex interaction that spans chemical, environmental, social and will. We are creatures of “will” and that may give is what we want but that may not be ulitimate happiness. It may be argued that struggle is more importnat than happieness.

      to be more poilte:
      “the jouney is more important than the result”

      There is still so much to learn about our biology/physiogy.

  14. “I think we can all agree that a basic goal in life is the attainment of happiness, that mind state characterized by positive and pleasant thoughts and emotions.” What an SP thing for you to say.

    The SP’s, as you noted/exemplified, seek happiness/pleasure, and are present-oriented.

    The SJ’s seek security, and are past-oriented.

    The NF’s seek to love (they assume any problem is a sign they haven’t given enough love; this can lead to various problems), and are past/present/future-oriented.

    The NT’s (I am one) seek the Truth, no matter the consequences to self or others, and are future-oriented.

    I illustrated this intersection of the MBTI and Temperament theory using the cartoon/movie characters The Fantastic Four:

    1. I think he’s talking more at a base level here. Nobody can deny that they want happiness, which itself is defined by pleasant/positive emotions. Note he didn’t say pleasurable, however. I think the MBTI is also a little too specific in its attempts to label people as seeking either one or another higher-order acquisition (like Truth, or security, or pleasure). Everybody would like a healthy dose of all three, I believe, and I’m confused as to the utility of classifying people as anything further than introvert and extrovert (and even those break down when individuals are exposed to varying situations). You say the dividing line is between iNtuitive and the Sensible, which may be true, however it can be said from the neurobiology of sensation that everyone is a sensationalist. When I consider that Sensation and Feeling are somehow different components of the MBTI, and then I look back at how these brain hormones drive and intertwine with complex behaviors/beliefs, I am skeptical as to how accurately we can label people’s personalities. That being said, it is a fact that introverts and extroverts are wired differently, but I haven’t seen any studies on these other factors of the MBTI. I am an ISTP, by the way, which describes me very well (for some/most situations, anyways). Thoughts? 🙂

  15. “..the pleasure “center” is actually spread out over many different regions. It’s not a linear path.”

    Various parts of the brain – sometimes also including parts of the body outside the brain – interact with each other in such a way as to create “virtual organs”. We know them by their behaviors, but they cannot be physically located in one spot like “normal” organs, such as heart and liver.

    Even “the mind” or “the self” is the result of the interaction of your skull brain (100 billion neurons) and your gut brain (100 million neurons), which are connected directly by the vagus nerve, and indirectly by being in the same body together.

  16. insanely fascinating post today 🙂 especially for a positivity junkie like me. Thanks, can’t wait to delve into some of those links.

  17. Reading briefly through the comments, I’m curious about how cultivating happiness through altruism, cooperation,and choice become rewarding and self replicating events.

  18. It makes a lot of sense evolutionarily for humans to be pre-programmed to be happy and healthy. But what surprises me constantly is how Primal Living (or even any fat-burning diet that involves relatively low carbs) makes me feel happy/content/pleasure-seeking, whereas carb-burning diets make me feel depressed/moody/pain adverse. And weirder still, both states are self-perpetuating, though occasionally I find outside stress will tip me back over into the carb-eating/moody/miserable state.

  19. Great post. I wonder what it is specifically about endurance running that produces endorphins and brain cell generation as opposed to other forms of exercise.

  20. If we are programmed to be happy, my OS has some pretty serious bugs in the code.

    1. +1

      Somebody had to come clean about it! I’ve been debugging for years. Running better each year, now that I’ve got a REAL programmer working on it… (me)

  21. I would love to hear more about the supra-physiological triggers and their aftermath in the body. It seems like because our bodies aren’t designed for them, there’s always some sort of ‘crash’ associated with these triggers.

    I think the more people can be educated about the ‘crash’ of porn, food, gratuitous violence in the media, and all the wild stimulus in our lives, the better off we’ll all be.

    Any thoughts of where to find more information?

  22. I realize you didn’t have room to cover all the senses, but it’s interesting which ones you chose to prioritize. Why leave out smell and sight? Those are two major stimuli for a large number of people.

  23. This is a fine post on pleasure, but I don’t see what pleasure has to do with happiness. This may be because I’m a Presbyterian.

  24. I know someone who is “clinically depressed” and on anti-depressants. I realize that depression is complicated but I’m sure it’s no coincidence that she is also overweight, sendentary and has VERY poor eating habits. She’s envious of my “always look on the bright side of life” attitude, my energy and my lean muscular body but she won’t take the first step to try to acheive it. She’s in her 40’s. If she doesn’t change something she will lead a very sad life and likely die prematurely without ever seeing her grandchildren.

      1. I found that when I started on this journey, the first thing I gave up was sugar. I didn’t loose weight, but I was euphoric! I couldn’t believe the change in my mood, and outlook on life it was a huge step towards primal eating. I feel sorry for your friend, ultimately it has to come from her the need to change, maybe reminding her of the definition of insanity may help (doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result),

        1. Thank you for sharing Heather. That first step you took…cutting out sugar…was a very powerful one. It’s amazing how one small change can make such a huge impact on your life. You’re right she has to wake up and decide to change something (anything) if she ever hopes to start recovering from her “illness”.

  25. Gorgeous post! I wonder if the response to music is also partly a tribal thing? Along with dance, it’s such a timeless way to bring people together, so makes sense we’d be programmed to respond well?

    Something I’ve increasingly grown to appreciate with Primal Blueprint is that sense of life-enhancement, though. Especially the food – delicious, and I love how nourished my body feels for it – but also the stressless approach to exercise. I swear I do more of it now than I did when it was regimented!

  26. In my experience, happiness is more a decision than a response. Pleasure is result of an action. As a single woman over 50 who is always on the move, sex is only a lovely memory. My pleasures result from my kids, long walks with my dog, or just sitting out on the patio with my morning coffee. I love giving to the needy or just randomly complimenting strangers. It is enough.

    1. Perfectly said. My belief is if sitting alone in a room isn’t enough then there’s a problem. Also, if engaging the world with action with no expectation of return isn’t enough, that’s also a problem. It’s all about mindset moment to moment and resetting when necessary. Some days it is more necessary than others.

    2. Rachel:

      On Music being a “tribal thing,” you might enjoy Daniel Levitin’s book, This Is Your Brain On Music.

      On the stressless approach to exercise, I find that music can play a big role – have you found that? There’s something about synching your body’s movements to great tunes.

      I agree with you on nourishment and life enhancement. 🙂


  27. Interesting article. I think in looking at our evolution the greatest cause for happiness is connecting with other human beings, since our ability to work together and our acceptance within the tribe would have been absolutely critical to our survival. That said, I think our minds are always programmed to have a certain feeling of lack, as that is what constantly drives us forward to continue taking action towards survival/reproduction. Anyway, good read!

  28. Check out: Buss, D. M. (2000). The Evolution of Happiness. American Psychologist, 55(1), 15-23.

  29. Music isn’t natural? That’s kinda like saying tools,body adornments, cave paintings, and fire aren’t natural. Music is ephemeral and doesn’t fossilize well (with the exception of a few bone flutes here and there), but the same goes for language and love.

    I strongly disagree that “music takes advantage of pleasure centers that evolved to respond to the babbling brook that promises fresh water” etc. I think it is far more likely that music served the same purpose it serves today: to create and maintain group identity. To expand on Dunbar’s theory of language, you can groom one individual, you can converse with a few, but you can sing with thousands.

    Given our tremendous interdependence and the sheer volume and complexity of culture to be transmitted from generation to generation, I think social cohesion is sufficiently important to warrant a reward mechanism of its own. Music unites individuals as a group, therefore music is pleasurable — no co-opting of food cues necessary.

  30. I’m currently enduring a divorce due to my unfaithful husband, however, this post has reminded me of all the simple pleasures that I am still fortunate enough to be able to enjoy and be happy about.

  31. Really great post thanks dear for sharing this and really got the reason the happiness is not only the mind but also from our health it can be decided.

  32. I believe happiness can be found in how we allow our brains to think about things. Can you imagine what our world would be like if we thought about whatever is lovely…birds, flowers, first fallen snow, the sea, the smell of bacon….

    Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

  33. Mark,

    Great job, and thank you! I shared your insights in this article with my wife, and she suggested to add several more essential elements of pleasure and happiness to your list: shopping for women, and browsing car porn or regular porn for men. From my perch, I would add meditation and not being constipated.

  34. Very interesting article. After I read this I actually stopped and noticed this awesome arrangement of green tree line with a crisp blue sky above it. The sun was warm and the wind slightly cool up here in MA. The experience was only a couple seconds, but it was very pleasurable. Great to take a break from all the hustle and bustle to enjoy nature, even if it’s brief. Thank you for the inspiration Mark. Love these articles.

  35. Mark:

    Wow. You and I have both researched and written about pleasure and happiness and come to completely different conclusions. You’ve said here, among other things, that happiness is reliant on some type of pleasure, and that it’s the job of our pleasure systems to keep us happy.

    This is completely at odds with what I’ve found in all I’ve read. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has probably done more research on happiness than anyone on the planet. Over a 25 year period, he studied tens of thousands of people across the globe, from all walks of life, for the purpose of determining what makes people happy.

    Here’s what he determined: It’s not pleasure that leads to happiness, it’s enjoyment. The two are very different things. Pleasure is conservative in that it helps us maintain homeostasis. It comes from feeling. Enjoyment is evolutionary in that it helps us grow. It comes from doing.

    By “doing,” Csikszentmihalyi means flow activities, which are those requiring us to stretch ourselves and our abilities. A pattern of enjoyment and flow in life is what yields happiness.

    The pleasures you write about here may be necessary in life, but why do you see them as components of happiness? Is that your theory, or is there research that supports it?

    It would be great if you’d read my two-part post and let us know what you think. Here are the links: (Part I) (Part II)

    Thanks, Mark.

  36. peace be upon you
    if you have read the kyballion then you have the key to understanding what is written here.

  37. I read in New Scientist magazine that trees give off chemicals that have a calming effect on humans. They speculated that it was because we are descended from tree-dwelling apes, and trees mean ‘home’ to us.

    At the time I used to park in a vacant lot near a clump of scraggly trees. I walked out to the clump and stood there. Sure enough, I soon felt calmer. Thereafter, every lunchtime I would eat my lunch standing between the trees, and return to work refreshed.

  38. Mark,

    Great article. Thank you!

    There’s a great book, by Dennis Prager, called “Happiness is a Serious Problem.” It doesn’t really address any of the issues that you write about, which I’ve found are extremely valid and spot on, but instead takes the approach that we all have a responsibility to ourselves and to those around us to be happy.

    I don’t want a link to mark this as spam, so if you type “Dennis Prager Happiness is a Serious Problem” into Amazon, you will find it.

    10 years ago, I decided to be happy, which allowed my to lose 75lbs, and I’ve kept it off for 10 years, too!


  39. Mark:

    Wow. You and I have both researched and written about pleasure and happiness and come to completely different conclusions. You’ve said here, among other things, that happiness is reliant on some type of pleasure, and that it’s the job of our pleasure systems to keep us happy.

    This is completely at odds with what I’ve found in all I’ve read. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has probably done more research on happiness than anyone on the planet. Over a 25 year period, he studied tens of thousands of people across the globe, from all walks of life, for the purpose of determining what makes people happy.

    Here’s what he determined: It’s not pleasure that leads to happiness, it’s enjoyment. The two are very different things. Pleasure is conservative in that it helps us maintain homeostasis. It comes from feeling. Enjoyment is evolutionary in that it helps us grow. It comes from doing.

    By “doing,” Csikszentmihalyi means flow activities, which are those requiring us to stretch ourselves and our abilities. A pattern of enjoyment and flow in life is what yields happiness.

    The pleasures you write about here may be necessary in life, but why do you see them as components of happiness? Is that your theory, or is there research that supports it?

    It would be great if you’d read my two-part post and let us know what you think. It’s called “Pleasure vs. Enjoyment: What’s The Difference?” – an easy google.

    Thanks, Mark.

    P.S. I posted an earlier comment with the links, but it seems to be caught somewhere in spam.

  40. ” Furthermore, the pleasure must come first, before the happiness. “, not sure I agree with that. I think one can be happy by just deciding to be. I mean look at babies, they’re happy unless there’s negative stimuli. I decide to be happy all the time. it sure beats the alternative. And when I decide to be happy, I am. I just choose to be and forget the rest. One of the reasons I don’t watch or read the news. I get enough from people talking and what flashes by on my screen. Oblivious and happy about it.

  41. I will be anticipating this book like no other. Exciting read I’m sure!

  42. Humans are programed to receive every desire. We choose our environment to be the ultimate conduit between Our actions and desires. We are programmed to each feed our own small ego until exponentially growing desires cause it to grow too large to satiate.
    That’s where We’re at now, and humans are at the point of understanding that personal gains of wealth, sex, nutrition, health, and ever ambiguous-never useless Stuff will not make Us happy, but will make Us only to want more.
    Then We will start living for every person within our senses’ radius; and gains will go to neighbors while their troubles become Ours. But it’ll be okay, because everyone will be doing it.