What Are the “Happy Hormones” and How Exactly Do They Work?
Hormones are the chemical messengers in the body. They have a widespread effect on both our physiology and psychology. Hormones are usually stimulated by the brain, then secreted into the bloodstream by the endocrine system – a network of glands and organs in the body. While the production of these chemicals relies heavily on your genetic makeup, your lifestyle choices – like what you eat, how often you exercise, and how much you look after your mental health – can also affect how your body secretes hormones. The amount of each type of hormone can drastically influence your life in many ways, whether it makes you healthier or not. Hormones are necessary for the long-term functioning of the body, and understanding their role is essential for knowing how your body works.
Of the more than 50 types of hormones that have so far been identified within the human body, four of them can help to give you a natural dose of happiness. Sometimes referred to as the “feel-good hormones”, these are known as the “happy hormones” or “happiness hormones”. As the names suggest, these can give you positive feelings. Not only can they elevate our moods, they can also offer various mental health benefits, and possibly help you get into a joyful flow state. By learning how to increase your happy hormone levels, you can naturally pave your way to greater happiness. Read on to learn which ones they are, what their functions are, and ways to boost them.
Dopamine: The Reward Hormone
Your brain releases dopamine when you are rewarded and praised. Do you remember how you felt the last time you completed an important project? How do you feel when your boss compliments you at work? Or what about when people say “thank you” after you’ve done something for them? Receiving compliments, appreciation, and recognition like this can make you feel over the moon. The joy you feel in these instances comes from a chemical reaction in your body, wherein these feelings are triggered by the release of dopamine. To be more specific, this chemical flushes into your bloodstream as soon as you activate your brain’s reward system. And the result? It gives you a burst of pleasure along with a sense of satisfaction.
Dopamine can not only help you to stay alert and focused, it can even motivate you to work harder to achieve your goals. Besides this seemingly magical power, it also plays a crucial role in controlling your prefrontal cortex – the front part of the brain that’s responsible for most cognitive functions. Dopamine can greatly benefit your brain health. Its cognitive benefits have also been presented in numerous studies, which demonstrate that higher dopamine levels tend to be related to better memory, attention, and flexibility. All these skills are essential for one to learn effectively.
How Do You Boost Your Dopamine Levels?
- Create a To-Do List: Try to write down your tasks in a bullet-pointed list before you start your workday, whether that’s on paper or digitally, like on your laptop or smartphone. As you check each item off throughout the day, you will almost certainly get a little dopamine bump from the satisfaction of having completed the task.
- Reward Yourself: Is there something you have achieved recently, but didn’t have time to give yourself a pat on the back for? If your accomplishment deserves a celebration, don’t be frugal with your self-recognition! Instead, reward yourself for reaching your goals, and be proud of your efforts. Feeling rewarded is a key way of increasing your dopamine levels. Consider sharing your joy with others by throwing a little party, taking yourself out to dinner with some friends, or nourishing yourself in a low-key manner through some self-care rituals.
Endorphins: The Natural Painkiller
Endorphins are best known for their function in relieving pain. Your brain releases these as you reach the “runner’s high” – a short period of euphoria that occurs during strenuous exercise. Although endorphins are commonly considered the body’s natural medicine for managing pain, this chemical doesn't work by removing one’s pain entirely. Rather, it works by reducing one’s sensitivity toward pain. This lowered sensitivity can enable someone to persist and endure with their goals or tasks, despite any challenges and discomfort that may come up along the way. The release of endorphins – and the increased pain tolerance, not to mention the euphoric mood they can give you – is one of the major ways exercise can benefit your mental and emotional health.
This chemical also blocks the pain receptors: an area of the brain that receives signals from the nervous system when the body senses pain. That being the case, endorphins can also be commonly found in medical products. For example:
- Opioids: Drugs intended to reduce physical pain, they can help to manage acute pain, and are typically used to help control it after a medical surgery.
- Antidepressants: Medications for treating mood and behavioral issues, including depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Individuals with insufficient endorphins tend to have lower pain tolerance. They are also more likely to experience stronger physical pain, like muscle tension, or psychological pain, such as stress and worries. Since endorphins also play a role in reducing stress, they are also important for protecting one’s risk of developing mental health issues.
How Do You Boost Your Endorphin Levels?
- Exercise: The quickest, simplest, and most easily-accessible way to boost your endorphins is to move your body. Consider exercising or being active for at least 30 minutes daily to keep your endorphin levels up. You don’t need to be a professional runner to experience a “runner’s high”, nor do you even need a gym membership. All you need to do is engage yourself in physical activities you enjoy, whether that’s swimming, dancing, or even going on a nice long walk.
- Laugh Out Loud: Laughter can not only give you a flush of endorphins, it can also help to mitigate the effect of negative emotions such as stress and anxiety. Why not watch a comedy, or hang out with a friend you love to joke with?
Oxytocin: The Love Hormone
Your brain releases oxytocin when you touch or are touched by people you feel close to. This hormone is responsible for that “butterflies in the stomach” feeling you get when you’re in physical contact with someone you love. It’s what makes you feel happier when you hold hands with or hug those you trust. Oxytocin is also the chemical that excites people when they are in a relationship. While your oxytocin levels may increase more frequently with your partner, it isn’t exclusive to romantic partners. Other types of relationships – such as friendships, family relationships, or even the connection you have with your pets – can also stimulate the release of oxytocin.
This hormone is responsible for trust, which is considered an essential social tool for facilitating interaction and establishing meaningful connections. Friendships, intimate relationships, and family dynamics all start with trust – it’s the foundation of every relationship. This chemical can not only help us feel and show love and affection, it can also help to relieve certain negative feelings such as stress and fear. It is beneficial for dealing with stressful situations since it calms people down, reduces their blood pressure levels, and makes them feel safe. People lacking oxytocin tend to be more vulnerable to loneliness and burnout. And beyond these mental challenges, they may also find it more difficult to maintain close relationships with others.
How Do You Boost Your Oxytocin Levels?
- Cuddle With Pets: Spending time and interacting with our animal companions can increase our oxytocin levels, which can, in turn, improve our mental and emotional health. If you don’t have a furry friend (or perhaps a feathered or a scaled one?) of your own, remember that they don’t technically need to be your pet – playing with a friend’s pet, or just spending quality time in the company of animals, can do the trick.
- Hug Someone You Love: Hugs can give you a flush of oxytocin and calm your nerves. They can be with anyone you already share a solid foundation of trust with, whether that’s your partner, friends, or family members. But always make sure that your relationship is one that is close enough to hug that person, and that the person on the receiving end feels comfortable with it, and that you’re not sending out the wrong message, so your actions are not misconstrued.
Serotonin: The Feel-Good Hormone
Serotonin regulates various bodily functions, from your moods and sleeping patterns to your appetite, digestive system, and body temperature. Over 90 percent of serotonin is produced in your gut. That’s why this hormone is particularly crucial for good digestive health, and why the health of your gut is just as important as that of your brain. It also helps us sleep well. Serotonin controls our sleep/wake cycle, commonly referred to as the circadian rhythm: a biological system that guides us to stay alert or become sleepy at different times of the day (or night).
People who have enough serotonin tend to be healthier, physically and emotionally. For instance, they are more likely to have a good appetite, and more stable emotions with fewer mood swings. Because of the major role serotonin plays in our sleep patterns, those with higher levels of serotonin typically experience better sleep quality. As a result, they also tend to enjoy better cognitive performance, including the ability to memorize things easily, recall things vividly, and multitask efficiently. It is believed that individuals with a serotonin imbalance tend to be more seriously affected by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. For this reason, a lack of serotonin could potentially cause someone to experience more mental health challenges.
How Do You Boost Your Serotonin Levels?
- Expose Yourself to Sunlight: Vitamin D is essential for serotonin production. One way to naturally get this vitamin is by exposing yourself to the sun. Consider going to the park or the beach in your spare time, and briefly let the sunshine soak into your skin. The sunlight can help stimulate vitamin D synthesis, raising your serotonin levels. While excessive exposure to sunlight can be harmful, the best way to get a dose of the “sunshine vitamin” is still through the sun. To figure out what a healthy range of time is for you to spend in the sun, you will have to take into account what time of day it is, the intensity of the UVB rays at that time, and even how much melanin is in your skin, to understand how long your skin is able to naturally spend in the sun without experiencing damage. Generally speaking, people with darker skin have more melanin than those with lighter skin, which means they can and need to spend more time in the sun in order to reap the benefits of its Vitamin D absorption.
- Diet: Foods that contain amino acids and carbohydrates can facilitate serotonin production. Consider adding foods high in these nutrients such as milk, yogurt, fish, chicken, and banana, to your diet. Consuming a balanced diet that provides a healthy serving of vitamins and minerals through vegetables and fruits can also help increase your serotonin levels.
Happy hormones might be good for your mental health, but this is one case where too much of a good thing can actually turn into a bad thing: an excessive amount of these hormones can actually lead to harmful effects. For example, an overproduction of dopamine can make it difficult for people to stop engaging in certain activities, such as indulging in addictive behaviors, or having poor impulse control and higher levels of aggression. In fact, addiction can lead to higher levels of dopamine too, leading to a vicious cycle that may require a bigger “hit” each time. It is for this reason that we shouldn’t indulge in the recreational or unnecessary use of dopamine (for instance, through pharmaceutical drugs).
The best way to ensure that you’re receiving – and maintaining – a healthy level of “happy hormones” is to cultivate healthy habits through a balanced lifestyle, and by remaining self-aware enough to understand when one of these is out of balance, so that we may work to regulate it in as natural a way as possible. Ultimately, happiness comes from within us. By eating healthily, exercising regularly, and paying attention to your mental health, it is possible to find holistic ways to balance your happy hormones, and naturally pave your way to happiness.
All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: Anatomy of the Endocrine System; Feel-Good Hormones: How They Affect Your Mind, Mood and Body; Dopaminergic Reward System: A Short Integrative Review; Dopamine and Cognitive Control in Prefrontal Cortex; Prefrontal Cortex - An Overview | ScienceDirect Topics; The Science of Accomplishing Your Goals; How to Achieve a Runner’s High; Understanding Endorphins and Their Importance in Pain Management; Endorphins: Natural Pain and Stress Fighters; Why Do We Need Endorphins?; 30 Minutes of Daily Exercise Enough to Shed Pounds; The Best Medicine: When We Laugh, the Ensuing Endorphin Rush Makes Us Feel Better. So We Can Stimulate Relief From Stress or Pain Just by Having Fun; The Power of Oxytocin; The Neuroscience of Trust; The Role of Oxytocin in Social Bonding, Stress Regulation and Mental Health: An Update on the Moderating Effects of Context and Interindividual Differences; More Frequent Partner Hugs and Higher Oxytocin Levels Are Linked to Lower Blood Pressure and Heart Rate in Premenopausal Women; Pets and Oxytocin, Their Connection; What Are the Benefits of Hugging?; IBS and Serotonin: The Brain-Stomach Link; Optimal Vitamin D Spurs Serotonin: 1,25-Dihydroxyvitamin D Represses Serotonin Reuptake Transport (Sert) And Degradation (Mao-a) Gene Expression in Cultured Rat Serotonergic Neuronal Cell Lines.
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