Dopamine and Words — The Intimate Connection to Happiness

What is your measure for happiness?

“Let us make up our own game,” I shared with my 7-year-old. She was equally animated.

The tiles on the floor gave me an idea. The game was simple (see picture above) — speak aloud a positive word and jump forward.

And the words trickled — good, excellent, fabulous, delighted and more. As we crossed each other, we turned 180 degrees and continued by jumping backwards facing each other. We played the game, back and forth, for a couple of rounds.

Soon, positive words were in short supply and so, we switched to “something that makes you happy.” Personally, I was glad we improvised. As parents, we all have prisms on what small things make our children happy and my daughter surprised me [more about this later].

As I reflect back, what amazed me the most was how we had to pause and think for positive words — they did not pour out at a pace I had taken for granted.

When I shared this with a friend of mine, a teacher, she was sympathetic. When she gathered her kindergarteners in a circle, she had asked them to say something positive to the kid on their left. Almost all of them paused and pondered. The best line she had heard from her most articulate kid who looked up and down at the neighbor and said, “your hair looks good today.”

Puzzled, I researched. Per Tony Robbins, who used the Roget’s Thesaurus as a guide.

In other words, only 1/3 rd of the emotive words are positive! When I saw that, my respect for Abraham Lincoln grew manifold. Here is why.

Emotions sway us both ways — that is ingrained in our human construct. The more you position to speak only the good — it is great on paper and closer to a crash diet in the short run. I believe Abraham Lincoln found the perfect balance that made him one of the wisest man to walk this earth. The story below exemplifies it best.

He wrote a letter to a General, George Meade, after the Battle of Gettysburg. He did not sign it. He poured his words on paper reflecting and respecting the natural emotions he was endowed with. The letter was part of his unsent collection. Truly a measure of success for this great man — what he chose to share with others. During conversations, he had preponderance for the 1,051 positive words that tugged human connectivity.

I wondered, could there be measures beyond positive words? Words that bring human connectivity and happiness center stage. My work experience brought me aha moments.

Beyond Positivity: I connected the dots @ Work

What happens when you airdrop a geek amidst well-spoken folks. He could be lost in his pursuit of precision or he could attempt to do what Jerry Seinfeld did best- observe the world around him. Well, I chose the latter. That happened about 5 years ago.

Like an optimization problem, I started with an objective– assimilate the smoothness of the sales maestros, the way the words were pieced together drawing the right emotions. Like any good startup entrepreneur, I quickly pivoted into what was their (sales) true master class — the words they chose to evoke my own, independent images as a listener.

In my pursuit of precision, I would have said earlier — we got customer proposal done in the most economical way. What I learnt from sales virtuosos — we lumbered through the wee hours and sprinted to the finish line with the customer proposal in hand.

Even for the least arcane acts, I love it when I can imagine it like my own movie scene. It does something inside me — those picture words create a positive buzz.

Chuckle for the Unexpected

I feel the same positive buzz, when a sports team I support wins a nail-biting game or when I learn something unexpected, something new that completely surprises me — reading that one book, watching that one movie or savoring that one article.

This feeling reminds me of dialogues in certain memorable movies — short, unexpected response that brings out a chuckle. The movies centered around human relationships that come to my mind are directed by Mani Ratnam — a very renowned director in India with one of Time’s All-Time 100 Movies to his name. I am sure you have your own movie scenes that brought you a chuckle for the sheer unexpectedness.

What is the science connection?

I researched what was common between the positive words, chuckle words and picture words. It was dopamine.

The “buzz” substance released by the almond shaped grey matter in our temporal lobe — amygdala. Yes, the same reward areas of the brain that are triggered artificially by drugs and gambling.

Bringing it all together: My Metric for Happiness and Success

What better measure of success than the art of being useful in pleasant ways possible? I am in the pursuit of dopamine release in natural ways through the charm of learning from others.

So, one number that governs my happiness is the world of words around me — words that evoke positive triggers, string of words that rake up my curiosity quotient. Words mouthed by the people I surround myself with — to learn, to explore and to create poetry that calms my mind to greater heights.

In the letters Abraham Lincoln never sent, he personifies the greatest metric of human connectivity. I believe he profoundly understood the reason for the smaller ratio of positive words among emotional words. His words refrained are his own yardstick of greatness. A true respect to the reality that the wise human mind is still gullible — in subtle and not so subtle ways. To vent your stress or ventilate for the world is a personal choice that (re)define our outlook.

For my outlook, the success metric for happiness is simple — the measure of the words of those around me — positive in their emotion, curious in their unexpectedness, vivid in their imagination.

Well, that was the original intent for the jumping game with my daughter. The beauty of life is the perpetual mysteries we encounter. The re-pivoting of the game gave me an unexpected gem- she loved the idea of roasting marshmallows in an outdoor fireplace. Never in a million years I would have guessed. Dear grocery store, I am on my way.

On my way out, my question for you: What is your measure for happiness?

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Karthik Rajan
I enjoy writing at the intersection of analytics and human relationships. Within Medium, I enjoy sharing my why.

Stories to fuel your mind. Theme: life’s hidden treasures in plain sight. Goal: Warm tone, solid content, crisp stories. About me: one google search away.

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