Happiness, sadness, anger, anxiety – all can be traced to what’s going on inside your head. In the past decade we’ve come a long way in the science of happiness and have a pretty good idea of what happy looks like in your brain these days. Rather than being in the passenger’s seat of this process, science has proven, without a doubt, that you can take control of your brain and hack into your happy neurochemicals. In other words, being happy, is a decision we all make. Here is how:
Dopamine motivates us to take action toward goals, desires, and needs, and gives a surge of reinforcing pleasure when achieving them. Procrastination, self-doubt, and lack of enthusiasm are linked with low levels of dopamine. Studies on rats showed those with low levels of dopamine always opted for an easy option and less food; those with higher levels exerted the effort needed to receive twice the amount of food. Break big goals down into little pieces — rather than only allowing our brains to celebrate when we’ve hit the finish line, we can create a series of little finish lines which releases dopamine. And it’s crucial to actually celebrate — buy a bottle of wine, or head to your favorite restaurant whenever you meet a small goal.
Instead of being left with a dopamine hangover, create new goals before achieving your current one. That ensures a continual flow for experiencing dopamine. As an employer and leader, recognizing the accomplishments of your team, e.g. sending them an email, or giving a bonus, will allow them to have a dopamine hit and increase future motivation and productivity.
Serotonin Serotonin flows when you feel significant or important. Loneliness and depression appears when serotonin is absent. It’s perhaps one reason why people fall into gang and criminal activity — the culture brings experiences that facilitate serotonin release. Unhealthy attention-seeking behavior can also be a cry for what serotonin brings. Princepton neuroscientist Barry Jacobs explains that most antidepressants focus on the production of serotonin.
Reflecting on past significant achievements allows the brain to re-live the experience. Our brain has trouble telling the difference between what’s real and imagined, so it produces serotonin in both cases. It’s another reason why gratitude practices are popular. They remind us that we are valued and have much to value in life. If you need a serotonin boost during a stressful day, take a few moments to reflect on a past achievements and victories.
Have lunch or coffee outside and let the sun shine on you for 20 minutes; our skin absorbs UV rays, which promotes vitamin D and serotonin production. Although too much ultraviolet light isn’t good, some daily exposure is healthy to boost serotonin levels.
Oxytocin Oxytocin creates intimacy, trust, and builds healthy relationships. Animals will reject their offspring when the release of oxytocin is blocked. The cultivation of oxytocin is essential for creating strong bonds and improved social interactions.
Often referred to as the cuddle hormone, a simple way to keep oxytocin flowing is to give someone a hug. Dr. Paul Zak explains that inter-personal touch not only only raises oxytocin, but reduces cardiovascular stress and improves the immune system; rather than just a hand shake, go in for the hug. Dr. Zak recommends eight hugs each day (hopefully we can do these soon!).
When someone receives a gift, their oxytocin levels can rise. You can strengthen work and personal relationships through a simple birthday or anniversary gift or thoughtful card. It doesn’t have to be large just thoughtful.
Endorphins Endorphins are released in response to pain and stress and help to alleviate anxiety and depression. The surging “second wind” and euphoric “runners high” during and after a vigorous run are a result of endorphins. Similar to morphine, it acts as an analgesic and sedative, diminishing our perception of pain.
Along with regular exercise, laughter is one of the easiest ways to induce endorphin release. Even the anticipation and expectation of laugher, e.g. attending a comedy show, increases levels of endorphins. Taking your sense of humour to work, forwarding that funny email, and finding several things to laugh at during the day is a great way to keep the doctor away. The smell of vanilla and lavender has been linked with the production of endorphins. Studies have shown that dark chocolate and spicy foods can lead the brain to release endorphins. Keep some scented oils and some dark chocolate at your desk for a quick endorphin boost.