Happiness isn’t a state of being. It’s not a permanent feeling, a goal you can reach, the result of a pill, or the absence of pain and negativity.
Happiness is actually a fleeting, temporal impression.
That’s not to say you don’t enjoy the things you enjoy! Feelings of happiness can be found everywhere, any time, and from anything. Connecting with nature, receiving a thoughtful present, finishing a project before the deadline…
All of those things certainly produce physiological happiness-responses!
Blushing, faster heart-rate, involuntary smiling, goosebumps, etc. But it’s important to understand why we’re having those reactions.
Philosophical musings aside, happiness feelings occur when you trigger the right chemicals in your brain and produce them in the correct quantities.
Those four chemicals are:
You probably recognize those names and even have pre existing associations with them. Endorphins rise when you exercise, for example, and oxytocin levels surge when you snuggle.
While the actual production, or production break down, of these chemicals is a little bit more complex than that, simply being able to identify these four chemicals as the most involved in the feeling of contentment we all seek is a great start.
We’re going to get into what each of these chemicals do, how they’re made, what can go wrong, and how to get more of each.
Serotonin is a chemical produced by nerve cells in the body.
Its primary function is to stabilize your moods – so if you’ve ever heard about anyone taking mood stabilizers, the purpose of those drugs is to help you make serotonin. Those with clinical depression and other mood disorders often have trouble making it themselves.
Serotonin acts as a neurotransmitter, helping to send signals across the brain. It’s mostly produced in the brain, by cells that use tryptophan and a tryptophan chemical reactor to create 5-hydroxytryptamine – known to us as serotonin!
Although it’s largely created in the brain, almost 90% of our body’s supply of it can be found in the gut! (Another reason why gut health is so important.)
You can help encourage serotonin production by meditating, walking in nature, soaking up sunshine, eating whole foods (plenty of tryptophan!), swimming, biking, and running.
Dopamine is another neurotransmitting chemical responsible for relaying messages in the brain.
However, unlike serotonin, its job isn’t to stabilize moods – it’s to lift them. Dopamine gets released when we do something to activate our reward center.
The body makes dopamine through two amino acids, tyrosine and phenylalanine, so eating foods rich in protein can help the body make dopamine when it needs to.
In order to be released, you must do things that light you up to gain access to dopamine. Although it differs for everyone, dopamine generally gets released when you complete a task you’ve assigned yourself, performing self-care, eating your favorite food, and feeling conscious gratitude.
That’s what we talk about when we talk about retraining the brain to find joy in small things, or to think carrots and hummus are as delicious as chocolate cake. You want your brain to believe you did something worthy of dopamine, and then it will keep releasing it every time you do that thing!
It’s often called “the cuddle hormone” for a reason.
Oxytocin is responsible for that full body warm-and-tingly feeling you get when you’re snuggling. It gets produced by the hypothalamus at the base of your brain, and then it’s released by the pituitary gland.
Oxytocin has almost magical properties – it can overwhelm you, fog your brain, even relieve pain.
To release it, snuggle with pets, hold hands, snuggle with your partner, with a baby, breast feed, hug your friends and family, give someone a compliment, or fish for one yourself!
If you’ve ever heard of the runner’s high, you know what endorphins can do. They’re a chemical that gets released in the brain that lowers your perception of pain by activating opioid receptors in the brain that block pain and increase feelings of euphoria.
And they’re triggered by exercise! (And other, more hedonistic enterprises.)
To occasion the flood of endorphins that researchers compare to morphine, exercise, have sex, eat chocolate, drink wine, laugh long and loud, and meditate.
These four chemicals won’t solve all of your problems, but it’s important to know what you need, when you need it, and how to get it!