Happiness comes from chemicals in your brain. Here’s how to increase them

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Out of rising gas prices and rising inflation Aside from general everyday concerns about work-life balance, there are many things in the world that can contribute to high levels of stress and anxiety. But there are also many rituals that make me happy: the first sip of coffee in the morning, cuddling with my kitten, writing in a diary every day on my terrace and drinking coffee exercise. Now more than ever I lean on these small practices it makes a difference in my day.

While a cup of coffee won’t change whether you feel truly fulfilled, during uncertain times there’s value in boosting your mood if you can.

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There are four main hormones (a type of chemical your body makes) that trigger feelings of happiness, and each chemical is associated with specific events or rewards. Understanding these chemicals and how they work can help you find even small ways to feel better during such a stressful time.

To explain exactly how these “happy” chemicals work, I spoke to Loretta Breuning, founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and author of Habits of a Happy Brain.

Happy Chemicals: The Secret to a Happy Brain

Almost everything that makes you happy is related to one of the four happiness hormones: dopamine, serotonin, endorphin and oxytocin. Here are some ways you can increase them naturally.

dopamine

The hormone dopamine is associated with motivation and reward. That’s why when you set an exciting or important goal, you feel confident and why it feels good to achieve that goal. On the other hand, if you have low dopamine levels (which experts say can occur with depression), it may explain feelings of low motivation or loss of interest in something you used to enjoy.

Middle-aged man playing tennis

Engaging in a hobby or sport can increase your dopamine.

Thomas Barwick/DigitalVision/Getty Images

“Approaching a reward triggers dopamine. When a lion approaches a gazelle, its dopamine surges and the energy it needs to hunt is released. Their ancestors released dopamine when they found a watering hole,” says Breuning. “The anticipation of a reward triggers a good feeling in the mammalian brain and releases the energy needed to reach the reward.”

How to Boost Dopamine:

There are some not-so-healthy habits that increase dopamine, like drinking caffeine, eating sugar, or taking certain recreational drugs. But you can find ways to get this hormone going without turning to potentially unhealthy or addictive substances.

“Embrace a new goal and take small steps toward it every day. Your brain will reward you with dopamine every time you take a step, better without it,” says Breuning.

You may already have goals related to your career, work, or how much money you want to make. But don’t forget about personal goals. Pursuing a worthwhile hobby or sport can be just as rewarding as pursuing a career. Don’t just set a few big goals that take longer to achieve—set shorter-term goals to keep yourself motivated.

“Set yourself a short-, long-term, and medium-term goal so that you always move towards one when another is blocked. Focus on things you have control over and don’t wait for others to set your goals for you,” says Breuning.

serotonin

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in mood but also helps regulate other bodily functions such as digestion, sleep and bone health. When it comes to happiness and how you feel every day, serotonin is important in reducing depression and regulating anxiety.

How to increase serotonin:

“Confidence triggers serotonin. Monkeys try to outdo each other because it stimulates their serotonin. Humans often do the same,” says Breuning. You’ve probably never thought about confidence at a neurochemical level, but according to Breuning, your serotonin levels could take a hit if you don’t prioritize confidence.

When you’re caught in a cycle of low self-esteem or others have eroded your confidence, it can be difficult to rebuild. It may sound strange, but don’t ignore your need for respect and status.

“You can develop your belief in your own worth. If you focus on your losses, you’ll lower your serotonin, even if you’re a rock star or a CEO. You can develop the habit of focusing on your winnings. Your serotonin will suffer if you don’t,” says Breuning.

Besides focusing on what you’ve accomplished in life, there are other ways to build confidence. One way to do this is to create or adopt a new exercise routine that will build your confidence if you stick to it over time. Something else you can try is finding ways to get out of your comfort zone each day. Every day you challenge yourself to adapt to something new, even if it feels uncomfortable at first, you build more confidence.

oxytocin

Sometimes referred to as the “love” hormone, oxytocin is associated with how people connect and trust. Certain activities like kissing, hugging, and sex can trigger the release of oxytocin in the brain.

It explains why petting or cuddling your pets makes you feel happy. It is important during childbirth as oxytocin helps the mother’s uterus contract to deliver the baby and oxytocin also plays a role in breastfeeding. It also helps parents bond with a baby after birth.

How to increase oxytocin:

You can increase oxytocin by being physically intimate with others. But beyond the physical aspect, it’s important to realize that there is an emotional connection to how oxytocin is released.

“Social trust is what triggers oxytocin. When you hug someone you don’t trust, it doesn’t feel good. Trust comes first. You can build social trust by taking small, positive steps toward people,” says Breuning.

You can reach out to a friend or contact you would like to get to know better. Send someone a thank you note or card to let them know you’re thinking of them. “Take a small step toward someone every day and they might reciprocate months later, but if you continue to do so, you build networks of trust,” says Breuning.

endorphins

Endorphins are known to be associated with exercise: it’s the phenomenon that explains the runner’s high, or endorphin “rush” after exercise. They act as “natural pain relievers” that help minimize pain and maximize pleasure. This chemical experience may explain why a runner may be able to get through a race with an injury they don’t realize until it’s over.

“In the state of nature, it helps an injured animal escape from a predator. It helped our ancestors to get help when injured. Endorphins evolved for survival, not for partying. Herd and walk on broken legs,” explains Breuning.

How to increase endorphins:

Laughter is one way to naturally increase endorphins. The same goes for eating dark chocolate, watching your favorite series on Netflix, exercising and meditating.

Endorphins are released in response to pain, but that doesn’t mean you should look for ways to harm yourself (e.g. by overexerting yourself or pushing yourself beyond your limits) just to feel good.

“Doing self harm to stimulate endorphins is a poor survival strategy. Luckily, there are better options: laughing and stretching. Both make your gut jiggle in erratic ways, leading to moderate wear and tear and moderate endorphin flow,” she says.

More for your health and well-being

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions about a medical condition or health goals.

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