Our fight or flight response can save lives – but why are we happy?

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

Have you ever wondered what the purpose of happiness is? Sure, it feels good, but is that it?

I’m sure you’re familiar with the fact that the purpose of fear is to save our lives.


Because when we’re facing a confronting or threatening situation that leaves us scared, we go into an acute physiological stress response called the fight or flight response. Our body releases a series of stress hormones, which prepare our body to either fight the threat – or run from it: we get a faster heartbeat and breathing, trembling (because the muscles are ready for some action) and dilated pupils (for better vision).


This stress response is rooted in the amygdala in our emotional or ‘reptile’ brain, which evolved over thousands of years of evolution and served as a life safer when facing predators. Today, its use is limited. In fact, it is more often hindering than not, as we respond with a fight or flight reaction in non-physiologically threatening situations as well, but more on that in the next chapter. The point is there’s usually a purpose for our emotions as they help us adapt to the environment and communicate our needs.


Interestingly, when it comes to happiness and its positive affect, we tend to think of it simply as a ‘nice-to-have’ consequence or end state. Something nice happens to us, so we feel happy. That’s it. However, researchers increasingly argue that happiness is more than just a nice side effect of our activities or circumstances. They argue, that happiness is an essential emotion, that we need it in order to function well in life.


It’s a bit like exercising. We didn’t know we needed regular exercise it in order to function well until studies increasingly showed the positive impact it has on the body and mind.


So, what is it about happiness that we need so badly?


Feelings of happiness or positive emotions in general, broaden our awareness and attention. This then leads to a chain reaction of other positive behaviour (also called ‘approaching behaviour’) and consequences: an increased repertoire of options and choice, the ability of thinking outside the box (i.e. a heightened sense of creativity), increased knowledge, better social interactions. Wonderful, isn’t it? Positive emotions also serve as internal feedback that things are going in the right direction.


This is something one of the leading happiness researchers, Professor Barbara Fredrickson, has been studying and calls the ‘broaden and build’ theory. Fredrickson says positive emotions have the benefit of broadening our attention. But her research also shows another vital purpose of positive emotion: the ability to bounce back from adversity quicker and more effectively and becoming more resilient. Happiness has even been associated with better immune system functioning and longevity!


It becomes evident very quickly, why mastering our own happiness forms a key part of our self-leadership journey, doesn’t it?


What is one thing you can do for your own happiness today?


Maike x


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