The 4 “Happy Hormones”

What are “happy hormones”, why do they make us happy, and how do we get more of these into our system?

Happy hormones generally refer to endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. Technically, some of these are neurotransmitters and not hormones, but we shan’t bother ourselves with those scientific details here.

I’m leaving out adrenaline (also called epinephrine) 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. An easy way to remember this is that “endorphins” is the shortened term for “endogenous (containing) morphine”. 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 for example 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 to 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.

Ways to increase serotonin:

(1) Choose positive thoughts: When we choose to remember happy events in the past, or focus on what we’re grateful for in the present, our brains seem to produce more serotonin.

(2) Expose yourself to sunlight: When sunlight reaches our skin, we produce vitamin D which in turn helps produce serotonin. This explains 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 helps motivate us to take action to achieve the 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: Apart from the physical relaxation of muscles, a massage increases our emotional wellbeing since the prolonged physical contact releases oxytocin in our system.

(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 not only causes addiction, but would also make us strive towards every goal with no ability to prioritise meaningfully or manage our time.

Happy hormones and happiness

Let’s be grateful for these happy hormones while they course through us, while understanding and accepting that they cannot be our permanent state.

In any case, 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!