Constantly chasing happiness? It’s time to stop the modern day rat race and focus on yourself!
Go on, admit it – how much do you actually know about what makes you happy? You may experience an overarching rush of joy after catching up with your best friend or an inspiring sense of delight after listening to your favourite song, but do you understand why? Well, as much as we all believe the secret to pure happiness resides in a tub of ice cream or the latest feel-good film on Netflix, it’s actually all about how our body reacts to different situations and the chemical messengers and processes working within us. Enter the four key happy hormones – oxytocin, dopamine, endorphins and serotonin. These pleasure-boosting substances are actually what make us feel excited, happy and stress-free – not a double scoop.
“Hormones are the chemicals that regulate literally everything happening in our brain and body, so having a basic understanding of how they work, especially our ‘happy hormones’, is a great first step to improving your overall wellbeing,” explains Sarah Phillips, a certified holistic nutrition coach (sarahwellness.co.uk). “The beauty of our happy hormones is they work in a virtuous cycle: the happier you feel, the more you want to take care of your wellbeing, and the more you take care of your wellbeing, the more these ‘happy hormones’ are produced.” Keen to learn more? Read on for our quick guide to happiness…
The Cuddle Hormone (aka oxytocin)
This is perhaps one of the most well-known hormones in our body and is commonly referred to as the ‘cuddle’ or ‘love’ hormone, due to the fact physical contact can ramp up its levels in our body. “Oxytocin makes us feel safe, connected, loved and in love,” says Sarah, who adds that it comes into its own during childbirth and breastfeeding. “It triggers uterine contractions during labour and, afterwards, when a baby is feeding, it triggers the release of milk,” she explains.
Oxytocin joy boosters
Hug your loved ones: We’re not encouraging you to break social distancing guidelines, but if you can safely cuddle your partner or children, this is your reminder to do so. “Time spent in physical contact with your partner, family or friends is the primary way to ramp up your oxytocin levels,” explains Sarah. “Cuddling a pet also works,” she adds.
Try selfless meditation: The idea of ‘lovingkindness’ meditation has its roots in the Buddhist tradition, but anyone can try it. It essentially involves radiating out feelings of love to yourself and to others. “If you’ve ever tried meditating while sending love and kindness to other people, you’ll know it feels wonderfully warm and fuzzy – and that’s because of the oxytocin being released,” Sarah says.
The Natural Stress Reliever (aka endorphins)
Feeling stressed? The key to introducing more zen into your life could be hiding within these little chemical messengers. “Endorphins are hormones produced in the hypothalamus and pituitary glands in the brain which help relieve stress and pain,” explains Sarah. “You can think of them as our body’s natural painkillers as they work similarly to opioids. In fact, they work very similarly to opioids: they bind with the opioid receptors in the brain and this has two major effects: firstly, it prevents pain signals being transmitted and, secondly, it triggers a massive release of dopamine.”
Endorphin joy boosters for happiness
Move more: According to Sarah, endorphins are naturally released during vigorous exercise such as running (there’s a reason why people refer to ‘runner’s high’), and also during mindful movement practices, such as yoga.
Meditate: Talking of mindfulness, the relaxing art of meditation has also been shown to trigger the hypothalamus region of the brain, and encourages the release of endorphins.
Treat yourself: “High-quality dark chocolate (with more than 70 percent cocoa mass) can boost endorphins and happiness,” says Sarah. “No wonder we crave it when we’re stressed or low.”
Laugh: Need an excuse to have a good giggle? Research has shown that laughter causes the release of these feel-good hormones too.
The All-Round Feel-Good Hormone (aka serotonin)
“Known as the ‘feel-good’ hormone, serotonin helps regulate mood and memory,” says Sarah, adding that low levels of this hormone are associated with depression. Like many chemicals operating in our body, serotonin has other several important roles to play, including regulating digestion and sleep.
Serotonin joy boosters
Look after your gut: “It’s estimated that 90 percent of serotonin is produced in the gut, so keeping this part of your body healthy is key,” says Sarah. “Don’t take antibiotics without needing to, supplement your diet with probiotics, and eat lots of high-quality whole foods.”
Enjoy the sun: Research has found that sunshine can help boost serotonin levels, so try to get outside every day and soak up the rays to boost your happiness (safely, of course).
Exercise: “Regular movement is also thought to boost serotonin levels,” Sarah adds.
The Rock ’n’ Roll Hormone (aka dopamine)
As Sarah explains, dopamine is the true pleasure hormone: “This gets released in the brain to reward us and motivate ‘good behaviour’,” she says. “Sex, delicious food, exercise and social interaction all trigger dopamine. But this is also the hormone that can lead to habitual addiction.
“Unfortunately, the most common way we get dopamine ‘hits’ nowadays is through messages, likes and other notifications on social media, meaning most of us are genuinely addicted to our smartphones. This is problematic because, just as we can become insulin-resistant from frequent sugar consumption, we can also become dopamine resistant. As a result, moments of true connection that should lead to joy, actually fall flat for many people now.”
Dopamine joy boosters
Take intentional digital breaks: In Sarah’s opinion, the best way to boost our dopamine levels in the modern world is to increase our sensitivity to the hormone. This means we need to find ways to get our ‘hit’ without being on our phones or social media. “It may seem unthinkable, but taking intentional digital breaks is essential to retaining your ability to truly feel the benefits of dopamine,” she says. “It feels impossible at first – then it feels really liberating.”
Practise mindfulness: With this in mind, feeling more connected and engaged in the world is a great way to boost your happiness.