The Chemistry of Happiness

Yogis, sages, wisemen and philosophers have long questioned the human search for happiness – it purpose, role, how to achieve happiness and even if happiness exists.  Well in this post I will examine how the body’s “chemical factory” may provide a series of keys to how and why we experience the state we describe as happiness.

Happiness is often described as the inner state of joy, lack of worry, contentment or absence of inner agitation.  But why is happiness sought and what is the purpose of happiness.  The modern world is awash with anxiety, depression and absence of happiness.

It is argued that our evolutionary biology makes us feel good or happy to reward behaviours that increase our chances of survival.  For example the pleasures of food or sex, drive us to indulge in these behaviours.  However the development of modern cultures with new technologies  have switched off our body’s chemical happiness factories through lack of exercise, poor diet, social isolation, repetitive activities and isolation from nature.  Most of the chemicals described below are hormones (chemical messengers), produced by the brain or for the brain.

Happy Hormones

1. Endocannabinoids – “The Bliss Molecule” 

Endocannabinoids are self-produced cannabis substances that work on the receptors of the cannabinoid system in the brain.   Aerobic and endurance activities are said to increase their production, eg the “runner’s high”.  Many spices (especially those traditionally used in curries) can stimulate these chemicals and foods rich in omega 3 can also help these “bliss” chemicals

2. Dopamine –  “The Reward Molecule”

Dopamine is responsible for reward-driven behaviour and pleasure seeking. Every type of reward seeking behaviour that has been studied increases the level of dopamine transmission in the brain. If you want to get a hit of dopamine, set a goal and achieve it.

Many addictive drugs act on the dopamine receptors in the brain (especially stimulant drugs like cocaine).  Extrovert people often have high levels of dopamine.

Foods that can help include oily fish, plants rich in omega 3 oils, nuts/seeds, cheese and eggs.  Dark green leafy vegetables are also useful.   These foods help both dopamine and serotonin production.

3. Oxytocin –  “The Bonding Molecule” 

Directly linked to human bonding and increasing trust and loyalty.  This hormone can be stimulated by skin to skin contact, affection, love making and other forms of intimacy.  In fact any of close personal human contact stimulates this hormone (some studies have shown having a pet and cuddling it produces the same chemicals!).

In a cyber world,  we often lose sight of the fact we absolutely need human face to face contact – digital contact is a very very poor replacement for this.

Foods that have high levels of phyto – oestrogens may help stimulate oxytocin.

4. Endorphin: – “The Pain-Killing Molecule”

Endorphins resemble opiates in their chemical structure and have analgesic properties. Endorphins are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus during strenuous physical exertion, sexual intercourse and orgasm – make these a regular part of your life to bring more happiness into your life.

Spicy foods, dark chocolate and ginseng can all have a positive effects on endorphin levels.

5. GABA: – “The Anti-Anxiety Molecule” 

GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is an inhibitory molecule that slows down the firing of neurones and creates a sense of calmness. You can increase GABA naturally by practicing yoga, meditation and relaxation.  Benzodiazepines  that work as anti-anxiety drugs by increasing GABA.   Studies show Yoga may increase GABA significantly.  Nuts, seeds, good plant oils and oily fish can also increase GABA production.

6. Serotonin –  “The Confidence Molecule” 

Serotonin plays so many different roles in our bodies.  High levels bolster self esteem, increase feelings of worthiness and create a sense of belonging. To increase serotonin, challenge yourself regularly and pursue things that reinforce a sense of purpose, meaning and accomplishment.  

Foods that can help include oily fish, plants rich in omega 3 oils, nuts/seeds, cheese and eggs.  Dark green leafy vegetables are also useful.

Low levels are associated with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, OCDs and increased pain perception.

A variety of popular anti-depressants are called SSRIs help keep serotonin levels high artificially.

7. Adrenaline –  “The Energy Molecule” 

Adrenaline, technically known as epinephrine, plays a large role in the fight or flight mechanism. The release of epinephrine is exhilarating and creates a surge in energy. Adrenaline causes an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and works by causing less important blood vessels to constrict and increasing blood flow to larger muscles.

An ‘adrenaline rush’ comes in times of distress or facing challenging situations. It can be triggered on demand by doing things that terrify you or being thrust into a situation that feels dangerous. You can also create an adrenaline rush by taking short rapid breathes and contracting muscles. This jolt can be healthy in small doses, especially when you need a pick me up.

Taking risks, and doing scary things that force you out of your comfort zone is key to maximising your potential.   Coffee, tea, citrus juices, chocolate and cocoa can all elevate levels of this hormone.

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