We tend to think that our happiness is dependent upon our circumstances don’t we? Well, it certainly does help when life is good and the challenges are few, but the truth is that happiness is determined by how we choose to respond to our circumstances. This is referred to as thinking ‘from the inside out’ rather than ‘from the outside in’. It’s been said that ‘where a thought goes, energy flows’ and that may well be, but ‘where a thought goes, a chemical flows’ is a concept based in fact. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in our brain when we experience various emotions.
Any emotion that we experience is driven by biochemical processes in our body and brain. We very rarely have any thoughts that are totally divorced from emotion of any kind. Any vivid memory from our past, whether good or bad, has an emotion attached to it. We have chemicals that make us happy, sad, excited, depressed, angry, apathetic, euphoric, and the list goes on.
In this blog post I want to concentrate on the neurochemicals that are responsible for those times when we feel that life is good. There are four main chemicals that are responsible for all the feel-good emotions that we experience in life. This quartet of happy hormones is made up of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. These neurotransmitters can be triggered automatically by all kinds of positive experiences and life events. The good news is that it’s possible to exercise control over how they are triggered so that we can intentionally cause them to flow, and as a result, increase our overall happiness factor.
It’s common knowledge that the more optimistic and positive our outlook is, the more significant the positive impact on our health and general wellbeing. Let’s briefly examine the qualities of these four ‘happiness hormones’ and look at some simple ways to hack into them in order to experience a happier, and consequently healthier, quality of life.
Dopamine has many important functions in the brain. It’s responsible for purposeful motor movement, behaviour, cognition, motivation, and reward. Dopamine also stimulates initiative. It’s what causes us to take action, to move towards what we desire. And it’s dopamine that gives us that initial charge of satisfaction when we achieve our goals. On the other hand, low levels of dopamine have been linked with lack of motivation, lack of purpose, and self-doubt. One way to ensure that you receive continual doses of dopamine is to create smaller objectives towards whatever your larger goal may be. In this way you can celebrate lots of smaller achievements on your way to larger successes. And here’s the secret. Don’t just mentally acknowledge your success. Make a big deal of each and every achievement.
When you feel self-assured, confident, and believe that what you’re doing is significant, then serotonin is flowing. A lack of serotonin can result in loneliness, feelings of insignificance, and depression. This is why most antidepressants focus on the production of serotonin.
But we can stimulate the flow of serotonin in other ways. One is by reflecting on past achievements. Because of certain overlapping neural networks, our brain can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s imagined. So by re-living the past achievement in our imagination, it’s as if it were happening again.
Another way to promote serotonin production is by exposing yourself to the sun for about 15 minutes a day. Vitamin D is produced by the absorption of UV rays which in turn produces serotonin. As with everything, moderation is the key and when it comes to exposing yourself to the sun, caution must be exercised. Although too much ultraviolet light can be harmful, some daily exposure provides a healthy boost to serotonin levels. Alternatively, vitamin D3 in liquid form will do the same thing.
Otherwise known as ‘the love hormone’ or ‘the bliss hormone’, oxytocin is responsible for building intimacy, trust, and healthy relationships. It’s released by both men and women during sex, and also by mothers during childbirth and when breastfeeding. Oxytocin also helps men to be faithful in relationships. An experiment was conducted with men who were in monogamous relationships. Some of these men were given a specific dose of oxytocin and were put in a social situation in which they’d be interacting with single women. Interestingly, the men who received oxytocin interacted at a greater physical distance than the men who didn’t receive oxytocin.
So how can we keep ‘the love hormone’ flowing? Perhaps surprisingly, just giving someone a hug will produce oxytocin. Neuroeconomist Dr Paul Zak says that inter-personal touch not only raises oxytocin levels, but also reduces cardiovascular stress and improves the immune system. Dr. Zak actually recommends eight hugs each day!
Endorphins are referred to as ‘endogenous opioid peptides’ and therein lies the clue to the function of this powerful hormone. It’s quite simply a naturally synthesised narcotic that’s produced from within (endogenous). Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers which are produced in the brain and released in response to physical pain. Endorphins also help alleviate anxiety and depression. The euphoric ‘runner’s high’ experienced by athletes during and after a run are the result of endorphins. Like morphine, endorphins act as an analgesic and sedative, reducing sensations of pain. This is why athletes are sometimes able to perform without pain after sustaining an injury.
There are many ways to encourage abundant supplies of endorphins. Regular visits to the gym or exercise of any kind produce large quantities of endorphins. Having a good laugh is one of the easiest ways to encourage endorphin release. Certain aromas such as vanilla and lavender have been linked to the production of endorphins. Eating dark chocolate and spicy foods are other ways to guarantee an endorphin rush.
To reiterate, the truth is that happiness isn’t determined by our circumstances, but rather how we respond to them. It turns out that our bodies and brains together constitute the most comprehensive healthcare system known to man. The fact that we have much more control over our health and happiness than we’d previously realised is very good news indeed!