When you think of being happy, you probably have a list of special memories, certain people (including four-legged BFFs), or simple pleasures (think: sipping on a good cup of coffee, cozying up to a page-turner) that comes to mind. But news flash: The state of your happiness and the emotions that come along with it is actually biological. The feeling of happiness is the result of four neurochemicals and hormones in your brain: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. In other words, you can hack your happy brain chemicals for a better mood. Read on to learn the role each of the four happiness hormones plays in our fulfillment and how to (naturally) give them a leg up on their mood-boosting power. This way to happiness…
Originated from the words “endogenous,” AKA within the body, and “morphine,” an opioid pain reliever, think of endorphins as your body’s innate aspirin or painkiller. As chemical messengers in the body, endorphins are produced to help relieve pain and reduce stress on the body, allowing it to experience pleasure.
How to increase endorphin levels:
1. Exercise: One surefire way to get those endorphins going is getting your heart pumping. The best part? You don’t have to get after a grueling workout to get the most bang for your buck from endorphins. Hit the streets or tread for a brisk walk, try a lazy girl workout, or do a quick Tabata sesh.
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2. Have a bite of dark chocolate: If you ever needed a good excuse to give into your sweet treat craving, consider this it. Some studies have shown that nibbling on chocolate causes the brain to release endorphins.
3. LOL: No joke—laughing does your mind and body good. From a chuckle to laughing so hard you cry, laughter really is the best medicine. Start a folder of funny videos to have handy on your phone (dog ones are the best, IMO), cue up your favorite comedy or TV show, prioritize time with loved ones who deliver on the pick-me-ups.
4. Try aromatherapy: Essential oils have been touted for helping everything from anxiety to sleep to headaches. It turns out they can contribute to our contentment, too. According to a 2012 study, lavender aromatherapy seems to help relieve anxiety by releasing endorphins, and a 2017 study suggests euphoric essential oil aromas (think: lavender and vanilla) can lead to endorphin release.
5. Get busy: The euphoric high you feel from reaching the big “O?” You have endorphins to thank for it (FYI, they’re released when you have sex). So whether you engage in self-pleasure or sex with a partner, say hello to an improved mood and relaxation (but you already knew that).
Both a hormone and neurotransmitter that relays messages between nerve cells in the brain and throughout your body, serotonin has a hand in body functions such as mood, sleep, digestion, and sexual desire. Lack of enough serotonin is believed to be linked to depression, anxiety, and other health conditions.
How to increase serotonin levels:
6. Get more sunlight: It turns out the sun does more for you than just leave your skin with a sun-kissed glow. Exposure to sunlight cues areas in the retina to trigger the brain’s release of serotonin. The result? Enhanced mood, better focus, and a feeling of calmness. Whether you head outdoors for a workout, lay out in the sun, or spend time in nature, you can expect to reap the happiness benefits.
7. Reach for tryptophan-heavy foods: While there aren’t any direct food sources of serotonin (if only), there’s tryptophan, an amino acid that’s converted to serotonin in your brain and found primarily in high-protein foods, including turkey and salmon. Hot tip: Pair your tryptophan-rich foods with carbohydrates to help more tryptophan make it to your brain.
8. Take supplements: Speaking of tryptophan, adding some high-quality dietary supplements to your regimen may help stimulate the production and release of serotonin by increasing the amino acid. Think: tryptophan, St. John’s wort, or probiotics. But before you consume any supplement, check with your doctor.
9. Partake in activities that reduce stress: There’s no sugar-coating it: Chronic stress can cause low serotonin levels. So rely on your stress-relieving go-tos—be it journaling, yoga, therapy—even before the tension strikes. Bottom line: Chill vibes only.
10. Try massage therapy: PSA: A one-hour massage lowers cortisol in your body while also releasing serotonin (consider it an hour-long hug). By lowering cortisol and increasing serotonin, you’re fostering your body’s ability to repel pain, anxiety, and feelings of sadness. As if you needed convincing to be treated to a massage, you can’t go wrong with getting a professional treatment or DIY-ing a lymphatic drainage massage at home.
Dopamine, a neurotransmitter made in your brain, stars as the “reward center” and orchestrates memory, movement, motivation, mood, attention, and more. When you experience pleasure—food, sex, check off a to-do—your brain releases dopamine in large amounts, creating oh-so-good feelings, which motivate you to repeat a specific behavior.
How to increase dopamine levels:
11. Carry out acts of kindness: When you volunteer your time or do something good for others, there’s no denying the feel-good sensation you get (hi there, dopamine boost!). So sign up for a shift at your local food bank, pick up groceries for an elderly neighbor, or pay a compliment to a stranger.
12. Load up on protein: Dopamine is produced from the amino acids tyrosine and phenylalanine, and studies show that increasing their amounts in your diet can increase dopamine levels in the brain. Lucky for us, they’re both found in protein-rich foods, like chicken, turkey, beef, eggs, and beans.
13. Get enough Zzzs: We all can attest to the consequences of a night of tossing and turning (irritability, anxiety, and difficulty focusing, just to name a few). On the flip side, prioritizing consistent, high-quality sleep may help regulate your body’s natural dopamine rhythms and provide alertness during the day. The formula for a sound slumber? Establish a wind-down routine, follow a consistent sleep schedule, incorporate movement in your day, and keep your sleeping environment cool.
14. Meditate: New research has found that the improved mental and physical health benefits that meditation brings may be thanks to increased dopamine levels in the brain. One study in particular found a 65% increase in dopamine production in its participants after meditating for one hour, compared with resting quietly.
15. Try something new: Novel experiences prompt the rush of dopamine, which in turn leads to the creation of new neurons and new neural connections (read: the process of learning). It can be as simple as taking a new route on your daily walk or picking up a new hobby (join a book club, anyone?)
Known as the love, cuddle, or bonding hormone, oxytocin plays an important part in human bonding. It’s released during childbirth and breastfeeding, forging a bond between mama and baby. When we fall in love, cuddle, kiss, or have sex, we encourage oxytocin production, thereby positively impacting our mood and emotions.
How to increase oxytocin levels:
16. Prioritize social connection: Can you feel the love? Your answer should be an astounding “yes” if you get a daily dose of fostering positive relationships. Spending time with loved ones fills your oxytocin cup as it can help you feel more connected and socially supported, not to mention less alone in the world.
17. Play tunes: We listen to music to lift our spirits, improve our focus, and motivate us through a workout, so it should come as no surprise that the act also releases oxytocin. One study inferred that 20 open-heart surgery patients who listened to music while on bed rest had higher levels of oxytocin and felt more relaxed compared to patients who didn’t listen to music.
18. Pet a dog: Dogs are a “man’s best friend,” and for good reason. Research suggests that when dogs and humans interact with each other in a positive way (i.e. cuddling), both parties experience a surge in oxytocin. Enter: all the warm fuzzies.
19. Hug it out: If you’re not a hugger, FOMO applies. Embrace hugging, hand-holding, and cuddling to give your oxytocin levels some love. Not convinced? A study found that the perks of oxytocin were strongest in women who had better relationships and more frequent hugs with their romantic partner. Just how many hugs do we need daily to reap the benefits? According to family therapist Virginia Satir, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”
20. Share food: From your childhood days splitting your PB&J sandwich with a classmate to cooking dinner with your besties as an adult, you’re creating bonds and spurring on oxytocin release. Be the hostess with the mostest and put on dinner parties, set cooking date nights with your S.O., and make your work lunch outings family-style.