As I drove through the gates of the Londolozi Game Reserve a few weeks ago, returning from vacation, I was overcome by a feeling. Feelings at the best of times are hard to describe and can change from day to day or minute to minute. But the feeling I get after winding down my windows and looking out into the open savanna of the southwestern plains of Londolozi is happiness. But what exactly is happiness and how can we steer ourselves towards a more consistent state of this magical feeling? Better yet how can we find places that will allow us to be happier people not only in that specific place but simply overall regardless of where we are?
We’re going to tackle this in three parts:
- What is Happiness?
- The Science of Happiness
- How a Safari at Londolozi can help you be happier
What is Happiness?
Happiness is one of the most sought-after states of mind that people worldwide are constantly trying to obtain. There is no one size fits all description of happiness and it is difficult to calibrate from one day to the next, let alone from one person to the next. Researchers have been studying it for decades and there are a few findings that I would like to explore.
Firstly, there is no measurement for happiness even if laboratories are measuring the neurochemicals present in different individuals at specific times. Generally speaking one needs to rely on the language used by a person to describe their feelings at any given moment. But as we all know, we can also get lost in translation. Luckily there are a few aspects of daily living that can generally be correlated with higher levels of happiness.
The Science of Happiness
In my opinion and experience, there are two fundamental aspects of my day-to-day schedule that have a direct impact on my overall happiness.
Sleep is the first aspect of happiness that sets the foundation for everything else. Unlike giraffes who only need 20 minutes of sleep a day humans require a significant amount more. The amount may differ from person to person based on one’s stage of life, lifestyle, or individual needs but there is no escaping the fact that we need sleep in order to feel rested and rejuvenated. A good night’s rest sets in motion biological cascades throughout the day which have an impact on our mood and our general ability to feel good. But simply just sleeping is not necessarily enough, it needs to be great sleep. So how do we achieve this?
Our brains and bodies need cues and inputs during the course of the day that will set us up for great sleep. These cues and inputs are an essential part of an internal body clock that defines our circadian rhythm.
A circadian rhythm or circadian cycle, is a natural, internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours.
While talking about sleep we need to also look at the mirror image of sleep which is wakefulness. Both of these govern everything about our mental and physical health and therefore are critical in obtaining happiness. Sleep is critical for us to reset our ability to be focused and alert during our wakeful hours; inversely what we do during our wakeful hours impacts our sleep. As we are somewhat unconscious during our hours of sleep it is obvious that we can only focus on aspects of our wakeful day to improve the full 24-hour cycle.
There are two forces that govern our ability to fall asleep and the timing of the onset of sleep. The first is a chemical force called adenosine. Adenosine is a molecule in our nervous system and body that builds up the longer we are awake. The higher our levels of adenosine get the more sleepy we feel. The second is a circadian force which determines when we want to be asleep. There are several factors that determine this force but the most powerful factor of this force is light and in particular sunlight and the effect it has on important circadian hormones; cortisol, epinephrine and melatonin.
Most of us wake up around the time of sunrise. At this point, our adenosine levels are at their lowest and there is an internal trigger of the release of two hormones, cortisol and epinephrine, from our adrenal glands which makes us feel awake. This sets in motion an increase in our heart rates, a tensing of our muscles and that it’s time to start moving. The release of cortisol is important as it sets a timer in our nervous system that dictates when the hormone melatonin, which makes you sleepy (much like adenosine does), will be secreted about 12 to 14 hours later from your pineal gland. The pineal gland is a small gland in the brain that is the only source of melatonin in our bodies. So the signal to be awake is essentially triggering the timing of when we will start to feel sleepy later in the day.
Hormone – a chemical that is released by one organ in your body that goes and acts on other organs elsewhere in your body.
The takeaway from this is that it is critically important to get the timing of the release of cortisol and melatonin right in our bodies in order for us to feel awake and sleepy, respectively, at the right times of the day. The best way to set this internal clock that sits right above the roof of our mouths, called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, is by exposure to light. We all have receptors in the retinas in our eyes that perceive a particular type of light which sends an electrical impulse to this internal circadian clock to properly set the correct timing of the release of these hormones.
This particular type of light is sunlight but more specifically light from the sun at a low solar angle. When the sun is low in the sky around sunrise there is a particular contrast between yellows and blues that triggers the activation of these cells. We don’t necessarily need the sun beaming directly into our eyes but the quality of light that we get around sunrise hitting our retinas will optimally set our circadian rhythm for the day. Ideally, one should look to get exposure to sunlight for 5 to 10 minutes within an hour or two of sunrise to properly set your circadian rhythm.
If sunlight at a low solar angle has such a substantial impact on our circadian rhythm for the day then you might be asking yourself what impact similar light around sunset may have. Interestingly, exposing oneself to light around sunset can negate some of the negative impacts of viewing artificial light during the hours post-sunset. The negative effect of artificial light exposure after sunset is that the production of melatonin can be inhibited to a certain degree. This means that instead of feeling sleepy as the night wears thin, we keep ourselves more awake than we should by not having as much melatonin released into our bodies. But this effect can be combated simply by spending 5 to 10 minutes watching the sunset. So sunrise and sunset light essentially provides our circadian clock with morning and evening anchor points.
Simply spending time in the morning and evening sunlight, however, is not going to magically make us the happiest version of ourselves. There are certainly other influencing factors.
Most of us have heard of dopamine at some point but it was only fairly recently that I discovered its importance in how I am feeling as I go through my day. But what exactly is dopamine and how does it affect my well-being?
Dopamine is a chemical released in the brain that makes you feel good. Having the right amount of dopamine is important both for your body and your brain.
We all have a baseline level of dopamine that is circulating in our brains and bodies all the time. This baseline is important for how we are feeling all the time. During the course of the day, we can have peaks in this baseline level that are due to a number of different factors. When we experience something or crave something that is really exciting or desirable to us and we have a peak in our dopamine level this actually results in lowering our baseline level of dopamine. This may sound counter-intuitive but is an important aspect of understanding how we can best attain sustained levels of high dopamine.
Dopamine has everything to do with how we are feeling at any given point, our level of motivation, desire and our willingness to push through effort. Our levels of dopamine are the primary determinant of how motivated we are, how excited we are and how willing we are to lean into life and pursue things. It is responsible for pleasure, motivation, drive, craving, and time perception. It is important for us to be able to access increases in dopamine at different timescales which is necessary to sustain effort and be a happy person over long periods of time.
There is a critical aspect to understanding dopamine and its effects on our experience of life and our levels of motivation and drive. It relates to how much dopamine you have in your body at any given time relative to your recent experience. An example of this would be if you have just seen a mother leopard and her cub playing in a tree and interacting for half an hour and shortly after you find a leopard sleeping in the long grass. If you had first seen the leopard in the long grass your level of enjoyment of the sleeping leopard would be far greater than in the first scenario (This is not to say that viewing a leopard in any situation is not amazing in its own right). The same holds true, however, if only a few days later you find a sleeping leopard in the long grass after seeing the mother and cub days before you will have more enjoyment than viewing it directly after the first sighting. Our dopamine history matters.
Ok, so that is a lot of science related to the two aspects I find most crucial in setting me up to be the happiest version of myself. But bear with me as I show you how a safari can tackle them.
How a Safari at Londolozi can help you be happier
We have believed in the power of safari since 1926. Until recently, we have only really had our own anecdotal proof from our guests as to how their safari has made them feel so well. But science is catching up and we now have the evidence to prove that being in nature, and being on safari, has such a positive effect on mind, body, and soul.
“Our guests talk of an altered state of being when they come to visit us. It doesn’t always happen immediately; for most it happens gradually over the course of a day or two. The first afternoon on safari is often all about decompressing after a long journey from wherever they have come. It can all be a little overwhelming: the planning, paying, packing, flying, and arrival. At some point, however, everyone surrenders to nature and what she is beginning to do for them. This is why they have come, whether it was part of their travel plan or not. Safari has a way of working on you. And this is the secret that our many repeat guests and the greater Londolozi family begin to understand the more time they spend in nature with us.” ~ Amanda Ritchie
One of my favourite times of the day is a morning game drive. The sense of anticipation to explore the wilderness before the sun rises to find out what has transpired during the course of the night when most predators are more active is tangible. Typically about half an hour into the morning drive, you will see the sun peek over the horizon and the low solar rays of blues and yellows will hit the retinas of your eyes while you are eagerly scanning the landscape for animals.
Search & Pursue
As any of you that have been on a game drive at Londolozi will know we are fortunate enough to work with some of the best trackers in the game. However, simply finding tracks of a leopard early in the morning does more than we realise for our ability to increase dopamine. The act of pursuing something that we really want will evoke the release of dopamine.
Picture it this way; after finding fresh tracks of a leopard and then driving road after road in search of it. You still have not found it. Your ranger turns off the vehicle to watch a herd of elephants cross the road. You hear the distant rasping territorial call of a leopard before heading off in the direction of the call. Twenty minutes pass and you still haven’t found it. Your tracker then points in the direction of a squirrel making an alarm call. Your excitement increases again and you bound through the brush towards the squirrel. Right before you is a male leopard that walks right past the vehicle. Your excitement that has been building since finding the leopard tracks and being in pursuit of something you truly desired to see has now peaked with a surge of dopamine that fills your body. The “track and find” can be addictive leaving you craving to do it again and again!
A safari almost doesn’t feel like one without a mid-morning coffee break. Stopping in a beautiful tamboti grove or dry riverbed to stretch your legs and decompress after a memorable sighting is a must. It does however add something else to your day that perhaps isn’t apparent at first glance. Caffeine is an adenosine inhibitor, the molecule that builds up during our wakeful hours that causes us to feel sleepy by the end of the day. Caffeine also has the ability to make us more alert and focused. Combining this with the social interaction of reliving the morning’s sighting while sipping on a cup of coffee will leave you feeling more satiated than you could imagine.
Regardless of the resource one uses to research the pursuit of happiness, exercise will always come up as a benefit. Exercise has the ability to double our baseline level of dopamine or put another way, make us double as happy as before. There are few places in the world where you can get the opportunity to run in the wild with the backdrop of a journey of giraffes or an implausibility of wildebeest. A bush run at Londolozi is a truly special experience where you not only get to work off a few extra calories but you get the invigorating feeling of being beyond the boundaries of the vehicle.
Post bush run on a hot summer’s day there is no better way to cool down than a cold water plunge. Our plunge pool is kept at a chilling 9 degrees Celsius (48 Fahrenheit). Submerging oneself in very cold water will immediately give your body a release of dopamine up to 250% of what your baseline is at. Bear in mind that we have already increased our dopamine levels exercising and so you will now be soaring!
Dopamine is the universal currency for foraging and seeking in our species. It is forged into our lives as humans to allow us to seek more. When I am driving around the reserve seeking animals I am constantly thinking, “around the corner we’re going to find a pride of lions walking down the road towards us.” If I come around the corner and the lions are not there my mind immediately thinks of where next to look. This is all part of the excitement of never knowing but always hoping and looking. An afternoon drive is precisely the opportunity to seek more on top of what you have found in the morning. It also provides the opportunity to anchor our circadian clock by watching the sunset on what is almost always a magical day in the wilderness.
Fire & Social Interaction
Sitting around a fire has been part of human behaviour for millennia. There is something that ignites our primal instinct when we sit around a fire and share stories of our day. Social interaction has been proven to increase our levels of happiness and furthermore a recent study has revealed that happiness is actually contagious. We’ve all been around someone that has an infectious smile and positive attitude and it truly does have an impact on our own well-being. Now imagine the heightened levels of happiness of a boma filled with guests and rangers that have all had a dopamine-rich day.
In summary, happiness is a feeling that in order to obtain we need to constantly be making the small decisions during our day that will set us up to be the best versions of ourselves. It is an ever-changing target and something we need to constantly be working on. However, even when not on safari these aspects of daily living can be incorporated into your life to hopefully make us all happier. Either way, Londolozi and the wilderness will always be here waiting to welcome you with open arms and a happy smile.
If this blog was of interest to you, make sure to read Amanda Ritchie’s blog – The Psychology of Safari…