Hacking Into Happiness
The pursuit of happiness drives much of what we do as humans. We go to great lengths to chase it, which often determines how we spend our time and money. But what is true happiness? That answer probably varies for all of us. Happiness is not a destination that we magically reach one day when all of our circumstances are perfect and we have checked off all of our life goals. So how can we practically start hacking into happiness right where we are now?
The Science Behind Happy
When it comes to happiness, psychologists, economists, and neuroscientists have all contributed to studying the science of happiness by dissecting how we feel, how we respond to rewards, and what we value.
One neuroscientist whose work I love is Dr. Caroline Leaf. She has dedicated her work to focus on scientifically backed methods to improve mental health. Her award-winning work on neuroplasticity, or the ability to re-train our brain, is fascinating. Dr. Leaf says, “It is perfectly normal to be sad, unhappy, or stressed at times—this is not something we should be ashamed of.” In her book, Think, Learn, Succeed, she goes on to state that “happiness has more to do with a sense of inner satisfaction than external consumption—it is a mindset, a way of seeing and interacting with the world.”
The good news is that science is on our side. Research shows us that it’s actually the everyday things that build upon each other to make us happiest over time. By focusing on studying brain chemistry, scientists have learned much about how to build happiness in the everyday moments of our lives.
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Due to the new Department of Transportation (DOT) policy, Emotional Support Animals are NO longer allowed to fly in airplane cabins for free. However, Psychiatric Service Dogs are eligible.
What are the 'Happiness Chemicals' and How do They Work?
Studies show that boosting the four main happiness chemicals in the brain can improve your mood and lead to a happier life. The four main chemicals in your brain responsible for feeling happy are dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin.
Life isn’t a perfectly orchestrated Hallmark movie without pain or sadness. We can’t escape those negative things that can happen throughout our day that impact our mood. The good news is that studies prove that you can hack into your happy neurochemicals through some intentional effort. So, c’mon get happy! But, how?
Serotonin I The Mood Stabilizer.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood, sleep, and appetite. It also affects how you perceive pain. Serotonin is a wonder chemical thought to reduce depression, boost happiness, and regulate anxiety. Overall, it impacts our body helping make you feel focused, calmer, happier, less anxious, and generally more emotionally stable.
Dopamine I The Chemical Messenger.
Sometimes called a chemical messenger, dopamine is a neurotransmitter that your body uses to send messages between nerve cells to communicate with different parts of your body.
Dopamine is essential in your body and plays a role in your physical movement and overall well-being. It also helps you feel pleasure(i.e., when eating your favorite food or listening to your favorite song) and is linked to the reward system in the brain that influences motivation.
Endorphins I The Natural Pain Reliever.
Endorphins are chemicals naturally produced by the pituitary and hypothalamus glands in your brain. They temporarily relieve pain and discomfort as well as promote pleasure.
Endorphins produce positive feelings in the body and are released during pleasurable activities (think: laughing, exercise & sex) and painful experiences (think: injuries). Endorphins have many benefits on the body, including reduced pain and discomfort, better mood and self-esteem, and increased pleasure.
According to research, feelings caused when endorphins are released mimic morphine and interact with the brain’s opiate receptors. It is a powerful force in the body! Increasing your endorphins is a great way to support your overall well-being since endorphins can boost your self-esteem, mood, immune system, and brain function.
Oxytocin I The Love Hormone.
Oxytocin is produced in the brain’s hypothalamus or “command center.” It plays a crucial role in reproduction and bonding in humans. It is an important hormone related to childbirth and breastfeeding. It gets its reputation as the love hormone because it is responsible for sexual arousal and orgasm.
Oxytocin promotes building empathy, trust, nurturing, and creating relational connections. It has a calming effect and can influence your emotions and mental health, lower stress, and decrease anxiety.
Oxytocin could also be called the “warm and fuzzy hormone” since it provides a burst of feel-good, warm and fuzzy feelings when giving/receiving a hug.
The Life Hacks You've Been Waiting For
There are some ways to increase the “Happy Chemicals” naturally.
Many activities can improve your happiness, but the two most effective methods are eating healthy and exercising. Eating healthy contributes to your overall well-being, gut health, and brain health. Exercise increases dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin levels.
To boost Serotonin levels, try this:
Exposure to bright light. This can be in the form of sunshine or light therapy. Exposure to light is especially important in the winter months when we are more apt to be indoors due to the cold weather and having less daylight.
Walk in nature. Getting some sunshine gives us a good reason to enjoy nature outdoors. Being in nature is also calming and grounding.
Regular exercise. Exercise has numerous physical benefits and is a major mood booster.
Eat a healthy diet. Include foods that can increase serotonin levels, such as: eggs, cheese, turkey, nuts, salmon, tofu, and pineapple.
Meditation. Meditating helps to relieve stress and promote a positive mindset.
To boost Dopamine levels, try this:
Complete a task. A sense of accomplishment starts an upward cycle of satisfaction.
Doing self-care activities. Pausing to recharge by doing something we love is important and improves mood.
Eating food! Eating delicious food hits the pleasure center of our brain.
Celebrating small wins. Dopamine is linked to action and reward and drives us towards our goals.
To boost Endorphin levels, try this:
Exercise. You’ve heard of the “runner’s high” – this is why. Exercise provides a burst of endorphins that makes you feel amazing.
Laugh exercising. Laughter is medicine. Simply smiling or laughing starts a positive feedback cycle in your brain. I pause and watch cute and funny animal videos on social media when I need a laugh to lighten the mood.
Watch a comedy. Humor decreases stress, diminishes pain, and strengthens the immune system.
Eat dark chocolate. Eating dark chocolate stimulates the production of endorphins.
To boost Oxytocin levels, try this:
Cuddle or play with a pet! Pet Therapy is very effective at improving happiness and mental health. Studies support that interaction with pets boost our mood, provide stress relief, and even aid in healing.
Holding hands. Human connection and relational boding are vital components to happiness. Gazing into the eyes of a loved one works too!
Hugging a loved one. Physical touch increases our oxytocin levels quickly and gives us warm fuzzies all over.
Give a compliment. The “feel-good” hormone increases when we show care or compassion for another.
Oxytocin also decreases our cortisol levels. In contrast to the love hormone, cortisol is often called the stress hormone. Too much cortisol is linked to weight gain, weakening immune responses, high blood pressure, and more. Since holding or stroking a pet inhibits cortisol production, it helps counteract the adverse physical effects of stress, depression, and anxiety.
Touch is one of the most powerful ways to bond with your animal, and it doesn’t take much scratching or stroking to see the difference. One study found that cortisol levels were significantly decreased after 15 and 30 minutes of an owner stroking, petting, and talking with their dog.
A Case for Pets
Pets can provide a significant level of support in boosting our feel-good chemicals. There are benefits between interaction with a pet and our physical and mental health. Gentle interaction with a pet can:
- Provide comfort
- Lower blood pressure
- Improve cardiovascular health
- Elevates levels of dopamine and serotonin
- Raises endorphins and provide a calming effect
- Lessen symptoms of loneliness, anxiety, and depression
- Lowers cortisol(stress) levels
- Decrease overall physical pain
- Increase levels of oxytocin (bring on the pet cuddles!)
- Helps children overcome speech and emotional disorders
- Aid in relaxation
- Improve our sleep
Having a furry friend around won’t solve all of your problems, but it certainly has some powerful impacts on your overall well-being.
What Can We Conclude?
We don’t just become happy like we become old. It’s a conscious process. Since happiness is subjective, what works for one person may not work for another. You can incorporate natural, mood-enhancing activities into your daily habits to see where you can intentionally release more happiness into your life.
Regardless of where you find yourself and how you feel today, it is good to know that there are simple steps backed by neuroscience that you can take to improve your overall well-being. Small steps can help keep your brain in a positive, upward cycle and start bettering your life immediately.
The benefits of an Emotional Support Animal certification and a Psychiatric Service Dog certification are drastically different. Fortunately for you, American Service Pets’ network of active board certified doctors can help you find the right path to certification. To find out whether you need an ESA or PSD letter, take our easy, three-step Pet Owner Survey!
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