How happy we feel is strongly influenced by 4 neurotransmitter chemicals: endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. They are often called “the quartet.”
Here’s a very basic idea of what they do for you and 7 ways to help boost your happiness:
They promote a sense of well-being, lesson pain and are primarily released when we are in pain or stressed. Endorphins work in similar ways as prescription anti-anxiety drugs and opiate painkillers but provide the benefits without all the side-effects.
Low levels of endorphins are linked to opposite effects: physical and emotional pain (including chronic pain linked to disorders like fibromyalgia), addiction and risk taking behavior.
Serotonin is often called the “happy hormone”. It improves your mood and helps beat depression. Not only does it help with mood stabilization but plays a big role in getting good sleep, dreaming, emotional and social stability.
Low levels serotonin are associated with various mental disturbances including: depression, anxiety, PMS, sugar/carbohydrate cravings, trouble sleeping, obsessive thinking and addiction to alcohol or drugs. Too high levels can be problematic as well.
Dopamine is one of the strongest “feel-good hormones”. It makes you feel energized, alert, motivated and in control. Within the brain, dopamine helps control the reward and pleasure centers as well as helping regulate movement and emotional responses. Interestingly, it enables us to not only see rewards, but to take action to reach them.
Dopamine deficiency is implicated in Parkinson’s Disease and people with low dopamine levels may be more prone to addiction. Low levels can trigger depression, lack of concentration (brain fog), poor motivation and difficulty initiating and/or completing tasks.
Oxytocin is often referred to as the “love hormone” since it’s released during highly emotional moments, such as childbirth, being in love, and during orgasm. It motivates us to strengthen personal relationships, be faithful and facilitates compassion. Oxytocin is a powerful hormone, produced mainly in the hypothalamus, and acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain
On the flip side, as a facilitator of bonding among those who share similar characteristics, oxytocin fosters distinctions between “in-group” and “out-group” members, and sets in motion favoritism toward “in-group” members and prejudice against those in “out-groups”.
7 ways to get the “Happiness Quartet”
working more for you:
We are all capable of producing our own natural highs (without taking illegal or prescription drugs) and when we repeat behavior that facilitates the release of neurotransmitters we become naturally motivated to create positive habits.
Neurotransmitters that signal the release of endorphins come mostly from nutrients in our diet, like amino acids, vitamins, fatty acids and minerals.
Serotonin is made primarily through intake of tryptophan-rich foods, such as turkey or milk. Most proteins will help release serotonin, including meat, fish, chicken, poultry, cheese, milk and eggs, which are complete proteins. A number of different plant foods, such as beans with sprouted grains, will get the same effects. Whole foods like seeds, nuts, beans, lentils, peas, corn or the germ of grains, such as buckwheat and oats, are all good plant sources of amino acids that help increase serotonin.
Fats comprise 60 percent of the brain. Essential fatty acids support the activity of neurotransmitters, including serotonin. Get healthy fats from coconut or olive oil, wild-caught fish like Alaskan salmon, nuts, seeds and avocado.
Laughter is a quick-fix for feeling almost instantly better, thanks to the release of endorphins. Studies have even linked laughter with an elevated pain threshold. Try regularly doing something to keep your sense of humor: play with children, watch funny shows, recall a funny moment, share jokes, spend time with friends who have a sense of humor.
Give a hug, get a massage or simply have a deep conversation with someone you trust will all help release oxytocin and other chemicals that help you feel calm and comforted. Some studies show acupuncture and other hands-on treatments have similar effects. Make time for friends, reach out to others in need, find a sense of purpose and notice how good you feel when you do something nice for someone else.
Every time you experience something novel or learn something new dopamine’s reinforces you. With the internet, learning is at your fingertips. Use your techno-time to look up something that peaks your curiosity, travel, take up a hobby or get better at something you already do and release feel good neurochemicals.
The release of endorphins helps you feel calmer almost instantly when you smell the aroma of something that reminds you of fun or comforting times. It can be as simple as the scent of fresh baked cookies, a parent’s favorite perfume or a dab of essential oil scents such as vanilla, chamomile, rose and lavender. Your nose, after all, is close to your brain.
6. Sunning & Nature
Sunshine and nature sites/sounds/colors seem to help regulate the release of serotonin and melatonin. It only takes about 20 minutes a day to help your skin produce vitamin D (sunscreen will block this), which is important for your mood. Studies indicate that exercising outdoors elevates mood better than indoors.
A large body of research shows that people who exercise regularly have added protection against depression, reduce anxiety and get better sleep. Exercise is one of the most endorphin-boosting things we can do. It also increases self esteem, gives a sense of mastery, increases energy levels, and thanks to dopamine, keeps you motivated to continue and improve. You don’t have to do 10,000 steps or do intense workouts. Research indicates that 3 times a week of brisk walking will do the trick.
Putting into practice all 7 ways to get the Happiness Quartet working for you:
Eat a hardboiled egg while walking for 20 minutes in the park with a trusted friend, practice speaking Mandarin Chinese, laugh at your bad pronunciation and stop occasionally to smell the flowers. How easy is that!