There’s a good chance you’ve already heard of the four ‘happiness chemicals’ — dopamine, endorphins, serotonin and oxytocin. They’ve each been identified as playing an important role in our capacity to experience happiness and pleasure.
The nitty-gritty of it, explains Sarah Cox, psychologist at digital mental health platform Lysn, is that these chemicals help us to regulate our moods, emotions, and other key physiological functions. They also communicate messages from our brain to the rest of our body, and vice versa.
So, why are these chemicals so important? Well, it’s currently thought that deficits or issues with them may contribute to a person’s vulnerability to a wide range of physical and mental health issues, such as depressive or anxiety disorders.
“We know relatively little about the complexities of how these chemicals interact to support happiness, wellbeing and mental health, but we are learning more and more through research and emerging technologies that can help us better study how these chemicals work,” says Cox. “What we do know is that there is a lot we can do through our behaviour and lifestyle to enhance the balance of these chemicals and support our happiness and wellbeing.”
Ahead, Cox shares, in her own words, some of the ways we can do exactly that — enhance the balance of these chemicals and live happier lives.
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in movement, learning and memory, as well as pleasure, satisfaction and motivation. When we do something that feels good or when we achieve something, our brain releases dopamine which makes us feel great.
This behaviour or activity hence becomes rewarding because it feels good, and we’re motivated to do it again. Sometimes we start to crave the good feelings associated with a dopamine release, and, if taken to the extreme, that can contribute to unhealthy habits, like constantly checking social media or turning to food when we feel stressed, or even addiction to substances or other activities, like gambling, shopping or sex.
How to Hack Dopamine
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help keep our dopamine levels in balance, so try to eat healthily, exercise regularly, get enough sleep and keep your stress levels in check. Foods containing the protein L-Tyrosin — like almonds, avocados, bananas, chicken, beef and eggs — may aid the production of dopamine.
To avoid the rollercoaster of dopamine spikes and dips, which can lead to chasing the ‘dopamine high’, try to put limits around things like social media, high sugar foods, alcohol and illicit substances.
What Are Endorphins?
Endorphins are hormones that our brain releases in response to pain or stress. There are actually about 20 different types of endorphins, and they are considered to be our body’s natural pain killers. They can also create feelings of wellbeing, so if we want to boost our happiness, doing things that release endorphins can help.
How to Hack Endorphins
Some tried and tested endorphin-releasing activities include exercise that gets the heart pumping and goes for at least 30 minutes, a good belly laugh, meditation, acupuncture, getting some sunshine, and physical touch through massage or sex.
Connecting with music, either through singing, dancing, playing or simply listening, can also give us an endorphin boost. Some research suggests that performing acts of kindness can boost endorphins for both the giver and the receiver, so that one is win-win.
What Is Serotonin?
Serotonin functions as a neurotransmitter and hormone in our brain and body. It supports our mood and mental health, and plays a role in regulating sleep, appetite, digestion, learning and memory, and sexual desire.
While serotonin is commonly associated with our brain, it’s estimated that about 90-95% of our serotonin is actually produced in our gut. Experiencing a ‘gut feeling’ about something takes on a whole new meaning.
How to Hack Serotonin
We can increase our serotonin levels by getting outside in the sun (aim for at least 10-15 minutes/day) and getting our heart rate up with exercise (aim for 30 minutes/five times per week). Foods containing the amino acid tryptophan may also aid the production of serotonin, so try to up your intake of nuts, cheese, eggs, salmon, turkey, pineapple and tofu.
What Is Oxytocin?
Oxytocin is known as the ‘love hormone’, and is involved in our capacity to build relationships. It’s released at moments of intense connectedness such as during sex, and during childbirth and breast feeding. It helps us trust, empathise, fall in love and feel bonded to others. It has also been linked to helping regulate stress.
How to Hack Oxytocin
We can give ourselves a boost of this ‘feel good’ hormone through pleasant physical touch, whether that be patting an animal, giving someone a hug, making love, cuddling on the couch, or giving or receiving a massage.
Less commonly known ways to get a boost include positive social interactions, meditating, exercise, being involved in a group activity, listening to music and singing, or doing something exhilarating like riding a rollercoaster, skydiving or bungee jumping.
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Source: The Latch