Happiness depends on many things. Your state changes depending on how you react to changes in your career, marriage, personal life and finances. Happiness can also be due in part to giving back to the people and community around you, adopting a growth mindset during challenging times and making progress in life. According to the United Nations World Happiness Report 2021, Finland was the happiest nation in the world.
We are often more in control of our happiness than we may think — we can figure out what causes happiness, then cultivate it through a set of strategies and behaviours that anyone can practice. Did you know that the warmth you feel from a long hug is caused by an entirely different chemical sensation than the high you feel after a long run or bike ride?
So then, what’s the real cause of our happiness? What makes us feel sensations of happiness, closeness, and joy? Simple science tells us happiness can be found in four common brain chemicals that we can activate more and more in order to lead us towards consistently better days. Those chemicals are dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins (D.O.S.E.).
Each chemical creates its own neural path towards happiness and each has a number of ways by which to arrive. By understanding how these brain chemicals work on a basic level, we can better decide for ourselves whether the latest trends will be helping or hurting our happiness.
Happiness Chemicals — What Are They and How Do They Work?
The four main happiness chemicals are serotonin, dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin. Each one has an impact on happiness, with effects ranging from boosting pleasure and satisfaction to controlling stress and anxiety.
Serotonin is the mood stabilizer that balances us out. When you’re having a bad day, it tips the scale towards the light, which is coincidentally the thing that kicks serotonin into gear.
Being outside and exercising, getting sun on your face and going for a run, going for a sunset walk or hike, sitting to meditate, being aware the breeze and your breath — all do the trick.
It’s in being with nature, away from your phone, and again, having gratitude for the things around you that you find a jolt of happiness in a potentially fruitless day. A lot of it has to do with perspective, too.
While many find their ecstasy in drug experimentation, we’ve discovered the surest and purest path to balancing our moods is found leaning towards the sun.
Dopamine is the rewards chemical, which happens in response to us taking positive actions, such as completing a task or making the time to take care of ourselves.
It’s in those moments that we feel the pure dopamine drip we so desire. Scrolling through social media, liking and getting liked for our delicately curated social posts, has become this shortcut to happiness that dissipates faster than the spicy nacho flavour of a cleverly designed potato chip.
Dopamine can be accessed by making a routine out of celebrating the small victories and self-help moments. Though we’ve become jaded at times, it can be advantageous for us to have and express gratitude for finishing a book, having a good meeting at work after preparing, learning to cook a meal, getting dressed up or even taking a shower when you don’t have to.
There’s no better feeling than completing a task, however small. The bigger the task, the bigger the commitment, the bigger the happiness payoff. It’s in making an effort we find happiness continually throughout our days, daily throughout our weeks.
Endorphins are the pain killer, and we all know the wrong kind of painkiller is a plague of our daily living. The most popular road to endorphins is by exercising.
Endorphins are essentially released in response to pain. They help us push our bodies beyond their comfort levels and persist when we might otherwise want to give up.
Once you remove the pain part of the equation, endorphins can feel like a “high” or even just a nice relaxing feeling. Taking a freezing cold shower in the morning, for example, can give you a huge boost of endorphins if you can stand a minute or two of physical discomfort.
It’s even been argued that the joyful feeling you get from deep belly laughs is caused by endorphins! The contracting of stomach muscles is enough “pain” to release a few feel-good endorphins into your body.
It’s in ditching the drugs and living for the real painkillers; exercise and laughter that we brighten our day.
Oxytocin is the love hormone, and you get it when you lead with love rather than hate.
Oxytocin is often affectionately referred to as the “hugging drug” because it is released by the brain during physical contact with others. It’s also the feeling behind love, friendship, or deep trust. If humans are social animals, oxytocin is one of the main reasons why.
How can you increase your oxytocin levels? Positive social interactions tend to be the best way to increase the output of this hormone. Working together with others, sharing a meal, giving a gift, opening up emotionally, providing full attention while listening to someone, and long hugs.
What’s especially great about oxytocin is that it often works two ways. Those long hugs give both you and the hug-receiver a dose of oxytocin. A kind gesture delivers a little oxytocin to both you and the gift-receiver.
On your search for happiness, oxytocin may be your best friend. It can help fight stress, improve your relationships, and promote long-lasting positive emotions. There’s even some evidence that oxytocin could assist in physical wound healing.
It’s in loving this world by showing how much you love it that we access the oxytocin inside ourselves.
Each of these chemicals plays a huge part in the way our bodies function: physically, mentally, and emotionally. I’ve only touched the surface, and I really encourage you to learn more on your own. By understanding the role these hormones have, you can better understand how they are affecting you in everyday situations. The more you know, the more you’ll be able to take control of those effects and enjoy a healthier, happier life.
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1: Sinek, S. (2014). Leaders eat last: Why some teams pull together and others don’t. New York: Penguin Group.
2: Gouin, J. P., Carter, C. S., Pournajafi-Nazarloo, H., Glaser, R., Malarkey, W. B., Loving, T. J., … Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (2010). Marital behavior, oxytocin, vasopressin, and wound healing. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 35(7), 1082–1090. Link
This post was previously published on Change Becomes You.
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