What are “happy hormones”? Specifically, why do some hormones make us happy, and how do we get more of these?
Happy hormones refer to endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. Technically, some of these are neurotransmitters and not hormones, but we shan’t bother with those scientific details here.
I’m leaving out adrenaline which stimulates a fight-or-flight response. Adrenaline doesn’t make us happy per se, just highly excitable!
Happy Hormone #1: Endorphins
Endorphins block pain. They are the body’s natural painkillers.
Historically, endorphins helped our ancestors to keep on running through the pain in order to escape from predators. Today, we produce endorphins when exercising in our anaerobic zones. When rigorous exercise depletes our muscles of glycogen (oxygen stores), endorphins allow us to push on. This is why we often feel blisters only after and not during the activity.
Ways to increase endorphins:
(1) Exercise rigorously: Anaerobic exercise helps us to cope with chronic pains by activating our bodies’ natural painkillers. Endorphins don’t really help us to feel good, but they do help us feel less bad.
(2) Eat spicy food: Receptors on our tongues react to spice by sending signals to our brains similar to pain signals. This triggers the production of endorphins.
Happy Hormone #2: Serotonin
Serotonin boosts our mood and makes us more agreeable and sociable. Lack of it can cause irritability and depression.
(1) Choose positive thoughts: When we remember happy events or focus on gratitude, our brains produce more serotonin.
(2) Expose yourself to sunlight: When sunlight reaches our skin, we produce vitamin D. This in turn helps produce serotonin. That is why being outdoors makes people happier.
(3) Exercise at low intensity: While endorphins are produced in anaerobic zones, serotonin results from aerobic exercise. Serotonin also lingers in our system after exercise.
(4) Consume tryptophan with carbohydrates: Foods like milk and corn contain tryptophan, which our bodies convert to serotonin. High protein foods apparently don’t convert so well. Neither do bananas – the serotonin in these cannot cross the blood-brain barrier. Carbohydrates aid the conversion process so don’t skip these!
Happy Hormone #3: Dopamine
Dopamine is a “pleasure” hormone and is stimulated when we strive towards a goal. It motivates us to take action to achieve a goal so we can experience the pleasure of the reward.
Ways to increase dopamine:
(1) Set daily or monthly goals: Having specific, measurable and achievable goals give us something to strive towards, thus stimulating dopamine production. A purposeful life does make us happy!
(2) Exercise with an objective: Dopamine levels tend to rise together with serotonin when we exercise. Since dopamine is associated with goal achievement, setting a distance or time target will stimulate its production.
Happy Hormone #4: Oxytocin
Oxytocin is the “love” hormone released upon physical contact. Intercourse and childbirth release large amounts of oxytocin, but even a good old hug works. Oxytocin provides feelings of love and trust, which is why relationships boost our happiness.
Ways to increase oxytocin:
(1) Have a massage: A massage increases our emotional wellbeing since the prolonged physical contact releases oxytocin in our system. Our muscles become more relaxed too.
(2) Make physical contact: When you get a chance, hug your family and friends, put an arm around a colleague, or cuddle while watching TV. Ever notice that huggers tend to be happy people?
Give your Happy Hormones a break!
While these “happy hormones” help us to feel better, it is important to remember their roles in human survival.
Endorphins mask pain, which is useful temporarily. However, if pain were masked all the time, we would end up seriously injuring ourselves by pushing our bodies too hard.
Similarly, oxytocin is wonderful for building trusting relationships. But if we trusted everybody all the time, we’d fall for every scam on the planet.
Too much dopamine would make us strive towards every goal with no ability to prioritise meaningfully. It also causes addiction.
Happy hormones and happiness
Appreciate these happy hormones when they occur. But understand and accept that they cannot be our permanent state.
It’s nice to know that we are physically geared towards happiness through the production of “happy hormones”. Happiness is not only in our minds, it is also in our bodies!