A little post I put here seven years ago titled “What Happiness Looks Like ” continues to be one of my most-read posts and I suspect it is because of that “happy” part. We all want to be happy. And there are “happy chemicals.”
Can you stimulate happy chemicals? Perhaps you can, if you know how the happy and unhappy chemicals operate.
The expectation of something good, like a reward, triggers dopamine. Dopamine alerts your attention to things that meet your needs. It can be triggered by just thinking about and seeing a great meal even before you actually taste any of it. It pushes us to seek out what we need and persist in that seeking. Embracing a new goal and moving towards it in stages, perhaps daily, will reward you with dopamine.
Serotonin is another happy chemical. Confidence is one thing that triggers serotonin. Things that inspire confidence – like getting the respect of peers – gives you a shot of serotonin and then your brain seeks to repeat behaviors that triggered it in your past. Don’t focus on losses as that will depress your serotonin, focus on your wins.
Oxytocin is a third happy chemical and it is triggered by trust. In the animal kingdom, mammals stick with a herd because it releases oxytocin when they are part of a group they trust. Interestingly, reptiles don’t like being with other reptiles. They only release oxytocin during sex. When trust is betrayed, your brain releases unhappy chemicals. You can build trust consciously by creating realistic expectations in relationships and then when expectations are met, your brain rewards you.
Pain causes endorphins to be released, but we don’t want pain. There is the term “endorphin high” that runners can experience which is produced when they push past their limits. Endorphin masks pain which feels good. It is a survival chemical that keeps you going when you are injured. It disappears when the pain is gone, which is good because otherwise, we wouldn’t sense pain when we burned ourselves or some harm came to us. It’s an odd happy chemical that comes out of unhappy circumstances.
What are the unhappy/bad chemicals? Cortisol is one. It is our internal alarm system, a stress hormone that alerts the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain to change our mood, motivation, and fear. Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands located at the top of your kidneys.
Though it is bad because it is produced from stress, it does good things to protect us too. It keeps inflammation down, regulates blood pressure, increases your blood sugar (glucose), changes your sleep/wake cycle and boosts energy so you can handle stress. But constant stress produces too much cortisol which leads to anxiety and depression, headaches, heart disease, memory and concentration problems, digestion issues, trouble sleeping and weight gain. Very unhappy stuff.
There are medications to control the happy and unhappy chemicals. Many anti-depressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that are used to treat depression by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain. There are also supplements that claim to improve mood positively which I will not comment on here.
The natural ways to increase the happy chemicals are all things that we should try to do regularly anyway. Get out of the house or office, exercise even if it is just walking. Laugh! Laughing swaps the cortisol in our bloodstream with dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins. Do things you enjoy, from cooking, gardening, playing an instrument, doing artwork and, yes, having sex.
You can find online ways to increase the good mood chemicals. These will not pull someone out of deep depression or eliminate stress but they will help. Oxytocin increases when you listen to music, get or give a massage, spend time with friends in good conversation, meditate, and even from petting your dog or cat.