The 4 brain chemicals of happiness

Updated: Jan 4


The Human Infusion Project - 4 Happiness brain chemicals

Everyone wants a quick boost of happiness now and again. We work so hard, sometimes we just need a break from endless 'doing' and would like to find some quick relief from stress other drinking alcohol or zoning out with the TV. But in reality, we have great resources within our own brains and bodies that we can tap into at a moments notice. So once you have a basic understanding of how the four 'happy chemicals' work, you can learn to hack your way into a healthier 'quick fix'. Granted, although what is listed below may seem like a short-term solution, remember that the brain loves 'routine' and repetition and works by way of reinforcing loops. So the more frequently you tap into this chemicals, the more easily they are released. And you'll find yourself feeling 'happy' far more often.


1. Dopamine – the motivation and goal-achievement chemical

Dopamine acts to motivate you to towards your goals and get you to take action. And when you do, you get a surge of pleasure from achieving them. This action-response, when repeated, becomes part of a reinforcing loop. Self-doubt, lack of enthusiasm and procrastination are associated with low levels of dopamine. So if your dopamine levels are low, you feel less inclined to make an effort. But when those levels are high, we work harder towards our goals. Dopamine is also called the 'instant gratification' chemical and plays a part in the formation of both good and bad habits. So be mindful of this powerful chemical, so you don't get 'hooked' on habits that could be destructive to your health.


Dopamine - the goal achievement brain chemical

Healthy ways of activate dopamine

Break big goals down into little pieces.

Instead of allowing your brain to secrete a large burst of dopamine when you achieve a major goal, choose to celebrate several smaller goals along the way. This activates smaller, more frequent releases.

Create a new goal before achieving your current goal.

This way, you establish a more consistent pattern of dopamine release.

Give Dopamine ‘hits’ to others.

Acknowledging your partner, child or friend by giving them small doses of praise, benefits you, as well as the receiver. Noticing small acts of kindness or generosity activates a dopamine release and motivates that person to repeat the behavior.

As an employer and leader

Recognizing improvements and tasks that are done well are great dopamine triggers. Don’t under-estimate the power of sending an encouraging email or vocalizing a subtle ‘way to go’ to someone who has done solid work. These are small, easy gestures that will increase productivity and future motivation.

Dopamine hits to watch out for

Dopamine is also the 'instant gratification' chemical. So, other than kind acknowledgments from co-workers or friends, be mindful of how much you rely on validation from others. Dopamine effects are fleeting and humans do not always behave consistently. So relying on other people’s affirmation as your only source of dopamine can become problematic when they fail to supply it. Addiction can develop from a reliance on external dopamine activators, such as social media 'likes' or other people’s praise or acknowledgment. And this reliance can lead to a never-ending, repetitive cycle of 'chasing affirmation' through achievement, over-pleasing behavior, and performing simply for praise.


Serotonin - the community and status brain chemical


2. Serotonin the community and status chemical

Serotonin not is only helps with sleep and bowel regularity but is reduces depression and regulates anxiety. Serotonin is also released whenever you feel significant, important or as if you are part of group. Loneliness and depression can occur when serotonin is absent. Many current anti-depressants work by blocking the reabsorption of serotonin, so more remains available to the brain. Supplementation using 5-HTP, the precursor for serotonin, seems to be gaining popularity as it does cross the blood-brain barrier. However, you can also activate serotonin production without medication or drugs.


Healthy ways to boost serotonin


Be part of a group

It doesn't have be a big one, and it can social or work-related. If you are not in the habit of socializing, that's okay. You don't have to be or act any differently than what feels comfortable. But with Meetup groups of every imaginable kind available, you may be surprised how easy it can be to find your tribe.

Reflecting on your past achievements

This allows your brain to go over and re-live a prior experience where you felt significant or made a difference. Our brains have a hard time telling the difference between what you imagine and what is real. So it produces serotonin either way. So if you are needing a little boost during a stressful day, kick back and think about something you’ve done well in the past or where you felt like you contributed.


Gratitude practice

At the end of each day, before we go to sleep, my husband and I go over what we are thankful. It may sound trite, but this short reflection of positives during our day gives our brains a mini dose of serotonin right before we drift off to sleep.

Get outside

The impacts of sun exposure related to seasonal affect disorder (SAD) has been studied for quite a while. By exposing your body to UV light, this promotes Vitamin D production. This vitamin has many roles, one of which is promoting serotonin production


Challenge your limiting thinking patterns

As we’ve learned in the Whole-Brain Relationship class, our brains can get trapped in untrue, or irrelevant thinking patterns. These negatively biased patterns can subconsciously operate without our awareness for decades. Once identified, you can consciously work on replacing them with more positive and relevant thought patterns, which will make socializing and gratitude practice much easier.

Serotonin hits to watch out for

Your body can’t distinguish between healthy community and unhealthy community. So having status in a criminal gang that honors loyalty can get the same serotonin release as someone who is part of environmental support group. This also can become a self-reinforcing loop if you are not careful. Bottom line: be mindful who you commune with.

Oxytocin - the bonding and hugging hormone


3. Oxytocin – the bonding and hugging hormone

The release of oxytocin is a critical element to developing intimacy and trust within any relationship. It provides for longer periods of feeling calm and safe, compared to the short-term effects of dopamine. So longer-lasting boosts of oxytocin can help to counter the addictive qualities of dopamine. Both men and women release oxytocin through any kind of interpersonal touch or affection, especially prolonged hugging. Oxytocin is also released during orgasm and during breastfeeding, but it’s not exclusive to only female parents. A 2014 study found that with two bonded male parents, there was no difference in oxytocin levels in the primary caregiver compared to female parents.

Some studies suggest that oxytocin levels are related to increased monogamy. But whether you are solo or have a partner, giving someone you love a hug for no reason can always help improve your relationship.


Healthy ways of getting it

Hugs, cuddling and affection are key. Go for several hugs a day when you can.


Pets

Personally, I feel that humans give the best hugs back. But hugging or petting your pet can yield a similar boost of oxytocin.

Giving small gifts

Such as hand-written notes to your partner and helping with the to-do chore list can give someone in your life an oxytocin boost. Even honoring the birthday of a colleague at work with a simple card, will cause oxytocin levels to rise.

Social bonding

Sharing a meal with someone, having a meaningful conversation or working together on a project are all great sources of dopamine.


Endorphins - the pain and stress maskers

4. Endorphins – the pain and stress maskers

Endorphins help to alleviate anxiety by releasing in response to pain or stress. This is that surge of energy or “second wind” when you are really exhausted. Runners can experience a sort of euphoric “high” at a certain point in long-distance events. It’s action is similar to morphine. It acts as pain-reliever and sedative, decreasing your perception of pain. Endorphins are also released with anticipation of something new or unknown, a sort of response to heightened awareness.


Healthy ways of boosting endorphins


Laughter

This is one of the easiest ways to get a quick release of endorphins. The surge lies in the anticipation of the joke’s end, just before it is released through laughter.


Embrace the unknown

Doing or learning something new, traveling to new places, anything where there is anticipation and a buildup to an unknown conclusion. Scary or action-adventure movies (the first time).

Endorphin hits to watch out for

Food – we know that endorphins are related to chocolate or spicy food. But it may also related to anything we have a positive association with, like pizza or fried chicken. Coupled with the vagus nerve activation during digestion (which in turn activates the parasympathetic, calm and relax system), you can see why obesity can easily develop from too much 'comfort eating'. If eating is the only coping mechanism for stress and a primary source of ‘feel good’, it can easily become an over-used system that gets stuck in an unhealthy reinforcing loop.

Unhealthy sources

High risk activities that seek out anticipation of possible death, thrill seeking.


The Takeaway


We've covered four sources of 'feel-good' in our mind-bodies that we can tap into in different ways. And we've also shown how if we rely on one source or one delivery method too heavily, we can run into problems with addiction or symptoms of withdrawal, when they are not consistently available (anxiety, depression). So here's what I try to do.


  • have a few 'go-to' practices and habits that you source from your self. Find ways that you can boost your own mood and energy without it involving others. At any given moment, I know I can go outside, watch a funny video, think of something positive from my past, regardless if anyone else is there or not. This way I'm not completely dependent on other people to give my body that physiological chemical boost.


  • Diversify amongst the four chemicals. I try to get a few 'hits' of each chemical a day. A few hugs (oxytocin), daily gratitude (serotonin), set daily goals and then celebrate the one I got done each day (dopamine), and if I don't have an opportunity that day to try something new, I watch a funny movie or sitcom for a few laughs (endorphins). I try to mix it up, with small adventures, fun with friends and tasty (but healthy) meals. But this way, I don't become reliant on only one chemical source as a boost.


  • Enjoy time with some friends. Regardless of size, being part of a group of friends that appreciates your presence gives you boosts of serotonin and also offers opportunity to get oxytocin through hugs or deeper conversations. Groups can also be great sources of laughter, and endorphins. And if you decided to take on a group project or goal of any kind, can tap into the achievement and recognition aspects of dopamine in a healthy ways.



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