Have you ever sat and wondered where happiness comes from? Not what types of acts bring us happiness per se, but the biology behind why we actually feel the joy of happiness as human beings. While that can be an incredibly complex answer to solve that may require a doctoral degree in neuropsychology, there are four little chemicals that are crucial to the feelings of happiness that we feel in our lives. These four chemicals are known as the “happy chemicals,” and it’s a great life skill to learn how to trigger them.
Probably the most well-known “happy chemical,” endorphins are famous in modern society for being triggered by exercise. This happy feeling brought on by exercise-induced endorphins is what many fit people know as the “runner’s high.” While most types of exercise will trigger the release of endorphins into your body, cardiovascular exercise (such as running) and aerobics have been the types shown to release the highest amount. While exercise can’t (and should not) replace medication for many people, steady exercise has been shown to help with the treatment of mild forms of depression. While exercise is the most commonly known way to release endorphins, hot peppers can also be a trigger for this particular hormone.
Oxytocin is a hormone that is all about social bonding and physical touch. Also known as the love hormone, oxytocin is released when you hug and kiss another person, as well as through other physical contact. It can also be produced by spending quality time with people you care about, by being in close proximity to them. One of the most interesting ways to trigger the release of oxytocin is available only to women: through childbirth and breastfeeding. This release helps to foster the mother-child relationship and build a solid foundation of love during that formative time. This bonding is why some adoptive mothers of young babies will actually work with a doctor to induce the production of breastmilk.
When you are engaging in an activity you know will have a reward that you are looking forward to, the happy-go-lucky feeling you get in anticipation of this reward is causing by the release of dopamine. Dopamine is a neuro-transmitter that is responsible for the success of behavior modification with rewards. You know those rats that will do tricks for a piece of cheese? That is all thanks to dopamine. So how can we trigger this one on our own? By setting yourself up with goals that you know you will get a reward for, you can help increase your release of dopamine. While the science behind it is somewhat uncertain, some scientists also believe that eating foods high in tyrosine can trigger dopamine releases. Tyrosine can be found in high-protein foods such as cheese, chicken, turkey, eggs, and beans, among others.
Serotonin is considered a happy chemical because it has been shown to help regulate moods, as well as having a direct correlation between depression and low levels of serotonin (though it’s uncertain if the low serotonin causes the depression or the other way around). In fact, SSRIs, which are a type of medication used to treat depression and other mental illnesses, work by increasing serotonin production in the body. Melatonin, the hormone which helps humans sleep, is created directly from serotonin. One of the easiest ways to help produce serotonin is by exposure to bright natural light. You want to up your serotonin levels and increase your happiness? It can be as simple as taking a walk outside in the sunshine.