The Science of Happiness
What makes us feel happy? I’m talking about what causes that buzzing feeling you get after buying a new car, or eating a particularly delicious piece of cake, or doing something good for a friend. I’m interested in learning about the scientific, biological response to these actions. In other words, what happens in our bodies that produces the buzzing feeling we all know and, innately, crave? The answer is dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins: the happiness quartet.
Dopamine is a chemical which is released into our brain when we do something that makes us happy. It transmits information from one neuron to another, spreading the happiness message all around our bodies. Commonly cited as causing a release of dopamine are: love, lust, attention, addiction. The inclusion of the final point on this list is important because recent studies suggest that as well as making us happy, dopamine is often more responsible for delivering a sense of anticipation. This striving emotion is what motivates drug addicts and gamblers to continue, reinforcing their habits and increasing the release of dopamine.
But dopamine won’t turn you into a drug addict and it doesn’t only make us feel happy. It also helps us move, talk faster, and raises excitement and activity levels. In fact, a depletion of dopamine neurons in one part of our brains can lead to the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. It is also a hormone which stops the release of breast milk after a child has been weaned. Schizophrenia treatment often target dopamine in an attempt to regular psychosis. And it contributes to heart and liver functions. So dopamine might make us feel happy, but it also does a hell of a lot more than that!
Oxytocin is released when we come into contact with people we like and trust and when we’re generous. Physical contact, social bonding, paying attention to someone (or being paid attention to), and eye contact all prompt the release of oxytocin which is sometimes called the cuddle hormone. An increase of oxytocin in the brain can promote attachments and make someone more empathetic. During different stages of a women’s monthly cycle, progesterone impacts oxytocin receptors, leading to an increase or decrease in happiness at different times. Oxytocin directly affects our mood, predominantly happiness, because it improves the delivery of dopamine and serotonin along our neural pathways. So as well as making us happy itself, the production of oxytocin increases our ability to feel happiness in other ways.
Serotonin appears to have an overarching affect on our mood. Curiously, or perhaps not, 80% of your body’s serotonin is in your gut. There’s a reason ‘hangry’ got added to the Oxford English Dictionary – it’s an actual thing. And yes, this is proof that food can make us happy. A good diet, therefore, is vital to sustaining a healthy release of serotonin. Lots of Vitamin B6 (fish, spinach, cauliflower), grains (buckwheat and quinoa), eggs, cheese, pineapple, and turkey are all good. These foods all contain tryptophan which the amino acid serotonin is made from. Oh and getting lots of sunshine is good too.
Serotonin helps us to sleep well by aligning our body’s physiology correctly. If you’re not sleeping well it may be because stress is affecting your brain’s neural pathways and limiting the movement of serotonin. Ironically, the release of serotonin helps to calm anxiety and relieve depression. One way to boost your serotonin levels is to pay attention to the little things in life and increase their presence in your daily routine. If you know music or spending time outside makes you feel happy, build that habit into your day and your serotonin levels will rise almost instantly.
Endorphins are the brain chemicals most commonly released during and after you have been exercising. If you have a friend who just loves going to the gym, it’s probably because they’re experiencing an exhilarating rush of endorphins after they work out. As well as making us happy, endorphins improve our immune systems and regulate our appetite. Endorphins are also incredibly powerful painkillers – three times stronger than morphine. They reduce depression, improve sleep behaviours, and boost sexual activity. Basically they’re good for us all round!
Getting the DOSE right
Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin, and Endorphins together are often referred to as DOSE, the four chemicals within your body which make you feel happy. It literally is a science. And whilst we can’t tell you exactly what to do to increase your DOSE dosage because every person is different, we can give you some pointers:
- Spend time doing things you enjoy
Surround yourself with people you like
Take regular exercise, ideally every day
Eat healthily but also enjoyably (no one is happy dieting)
Let go of stresses, worries, and negative thoughts
Do one good thing for someone else every day
Now you know the science behind happiness, perhaps you’ll be able to change your lifestyle in small, simple ways which will improve your body’s production of these chemicals, therefore boosting your happiness. Simple!