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.

Mindless Yoga

In an age where more is better, slow is boring and novel is neat the need for Yoga is never more needed to restore our overworked minds and bodies.   Many would argue we live in a fast, mindless, unlovely and disconnected World.  Yoga traditionally has offered focus, grace and connection.

But … if our Yoga practice has been “infected” by the anxieties, superficiality and mindlessness of the age … what is to be done?  When we leave our mat at the end of practice are we more or less at peace have we greater or less awarenessare we more detached or more opinionatedmore critical or less criticalPut simply true Yoga practice should NOT lead to an increase in attachment (Raga), aversion (Dvesha) and the creation of samsaras (habits or traits) – the purpose of our Yoga practice is to give us more freedom not less!!!


The application of the simple tools of mindfulness to our Yoga practice can do much to regenerate our practice and bring it back to a true spiritual practice.

Mindfulness, is a small subset of practices from Buddhism, which can be applied in everyday life.  Mindfulness has been defined as “Paying attention on purpose to the present moment, without judgement”.

The Application of Mindfulness to Yoga

Attitude and Mindfulness

  • Non judgemental/impartial witness
  • Patience – letting things unfold
  • “Beginner’s mind” – don’t let previous experiences cloud the present
  • Trust and especially self trust
  • Non-striving
  • Acceptance
  • Letting go of thoughts, feeling and situations

Simply Sitting

Use any simple seated asana to start your Yoga practice and aim to sit for 10 or 15 minutes.

  • Scan body for physical sensations. Note posture.
  • Scan for feelings and emotions that may arise.
  • Watch and witness thoughts and thought patterns. Be attentive that you do not engage with thoughts – this will give them energy.
  • Watch breath and attributes of breath.

Asana Practice

Mindfulness can be applied to any Yoga practice – strong or gentle.

  • INHALE when foot leaves floor and EXHALE when foot touches floor.
  • Breath – inhale entering (deepening) in posture and exhale when coming out of posture.
  • Watch for physical sensations of tension and relaxation in the body.
  • Watch for the upwelling of emotions during practice, especially ANGER, IMPATIENCE and BOREDOM.
  • It is said that the asana only really begins when we want to leave it.  Stay a little longer if possible.
  • When mind wanders from practice – REMEMBER YOURSELF – draw back and focus.

Relaxation Practice

Always finish each Yoga session with a period of relaxation.  Just lie and observe as when simply sitting to start the practice.

Sirtuins and Health

You may not know what sirtuins are – but if you have a chronic health problem and/or are trying to lose weight, you may be interested to find out!

Sirtuins are proteins found in the body that contain specific enzymes and regulate certain biological pathways – such as ageing, transcription (the copying of DNA on replication), apotosis (programmed cell death) and inflammation.  Particularly important is sirtuins ability to protect cells in the body from dying when they are under stress.

Also sirtuins may be able to influence the body’s ability to burn fat and boost metabolism leading to weight loss.  It is thought excess weight is both a sign of bodily inflammation AND excess weight can also stimulate inflammation.

Well what are these “superfoods”?  Common ones include –

  • Green Tea
  • Coffee
  • Dark chocolate (that is at least 90% cocoa)
  • Apples
  • Citrus fruits
  • Parsley
  • Turmeric
  • Onions
  • Kale
  • Blueberries
  • Capers
  • Olive oil
  • Red wine (high in polyphenols and resveratrol)

However like all diets there is a need to have a sensible balanced eating plan, but increasingly our consumption of sirtuin stimulating foods can do nothing but good.