Meet your body’s four contentment chemicals – and learn how to trigger them to boost your mood

Hardwire your happiness

If you alter your brain chemistry you can improve your happiness © iStock

Being a happy person or a sad person is not set in stone. We can change the way we feel by altering our brain chemistry.

‘When you feel good, your brain is releasing dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin or endorphins,’ says happiness guru Loretta Graziano Breuning, author of  Habits Of A Happy Brain (£10.68, Adams Media).

‘But our brain doesn’t release a happy chemical until it sees a way to meet a survival need, like food, safety or social support.’

So daily doses of joy, contentment and confidence are ours for the taking once we know how to activate these four ‘happiness hormones’.

For confidence & joy

This neurotransmitter helps to regulate mood, and a lack of it has been linked to insomnia, binge eating and depression.

A study by McGill University in Canada showed that smoking cannabis in your youth decreases serotonin transmission, which can lead to patterns of depression and anxiety.

Loretta says serotonin is the key to our feelings of status and self-worth.

‘Confidence is the way to stimulate serotonin. Look for the good in yourself instead of just valuing things that come from outside you. The mammal brain is always making social comparisons, and if you esteem yourself by putting others down, you will end up feeling put down because you will presume others are doing that to you. Find ways to esteem yourself without putting others down.’

Positive triggers

EXERCISE Studies show that a workout boosts production of tryptophan, a nutrient from which serotonin is formed.
EAT TRYPTOPHAN-RICH FOODS Some experts think that foods that are rich in this precursor to serotonin, such as salmon, spinach and eggs, can make us happy.
CATCH SOME RAYS Several studies suggest that exposure to sunlight, which aids serotonin synthesis, can help to reduce regular depression, as well as seasonal depression.
COMPLIMENT YOURSELF Seeing yourself in a good light boosts serotonin.

Negative trigger

FEELING SUPERIOR Regarding yourself as better than others, and being too competitive,
might boost serotonin, but could damage relationships.

For pleasure & get-up-and-go

The neurotransmitter dopamine is the reason we get out of bed in the morning. It plays a big role in reward-motivated behaviour, thrill, pleasure, drive and concentration. Without it, we can lack a zest for life, and become addicted to new things – multiple love affairs, for example.

People with low dopamine activity can also become hooked on dopamine-stimulating drugs, such as cocaine. ‘Dopamine seems to keep mood up,’ says David Nutt, Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, ‘and a dopamine deficiency can lead to fatigue and depression.

‘A deficiency may be genetic, but can be created by viruses, and drug abuse. Exercise increases dopamine activity, and this healthy way to stimulate dopamine can become habitual and desired, even compulsive, although it isn’t as addictive as drug taking.’

Positive triggers

CARDIOVASCULAR EXERCISE A recent study at the University of Montreal showed that exercise, such as running, stimulates dopamine.
MARK SMALL GOALS Dopamine is all about reward motivation, so praise and reward yourself for completing tasks, such as spring-cleaning the house.
MOVE TOWARDS BIG GOALS Gradually working towards a big goal with small daily steps will stimulate dopamine.
EAT TYROSINE-RICH FOODS Foods that contain the amino acid tyrosine, such as eggs and spinach, help produce dopamine.

Negative trigger

✤ TOO MUCH CAFFEINE Caffeinated drinks, such as coffee or cola, stimulate the production of dopamine, helping us to focus, but too much leaves us pumped with adrenaline and cortisol, so that we feel wired and anxious.

Salmon and spinach

It’s thought that foods such as salmon, spinach and eggs contribute to our happiness © iStock

For calm euphoria

Responsible for the famous ‘Runners’ high’, anybody who has pushed themselves to complete a marathon will know the restful bliss that endorphins deliver.

Produced by the central nervous system and the pituitary gland, these opioid neuropeptides have a similar action to morphine. Our clever bodies produce endorphins when we’re injured, to temporarily mask the pain, while we seek aid.

If we push ourselves to the point of pain during exercise (for example, running twice our normal target), we are rewarded with a blast of endorphins. They’re also triggered by emotional pain, when we have a good cry – hence why we feel better afterwards.

But, thankfully, there’s a more pleasant alternative: ‘We receive a burst of endorphins when we laugh,’ says Loretta. ‘So anything that makes you laugh should have priority in your life.’

Positive triggers

GET GIGGLING Spend time with people who make you laugh or watch funny films.
HAVE A GOOD SOB Don’t hold emotion in – cry, and your body will release endorphins.
PUSH YOUR FITNESS Assuming you are medically sound to do so, challenge your fitness boundaries to release endorphins: cycling a little further or dancing a little longer than usual.
EAT CHILLI & CHOCOLATE Chilli peppers contain capsaicin, which the body reacts to by producing endorphins. Likewise, chocolate stimulates the release of endorphins (as well as serotonin).

Negative trigger

OVEREXERTION Exercising too aggressively will produce endorphins, but
if your body isn’t fit and healthy, you risk injury.

For belonging and compassion

Last – but definitely not least – is oxytocin, which is often dubbed the ‘love hormone’. If you only have time to focus on one happy chemical, make it this one!

Produced in the hypothalamus, it ignites a feeling of completeness, love, and connection, and the sense that we fit in. ‘Oxytocin is synthesized in the brain after positive social interactions,’ explains neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak, and author of The Moral Molecule (£8.99, Plume).

‘It reduces anxiety and means we feel good around those who treat us well, and motivates us to treat others similarly. Some people (such as those with depression, or social anxiety) don’t produce oxytocin after positive social stimulus, but the good news is that in such cases people can train themselves to release oxytocin.’

Positive triggers

HAVE A HUG Loving touch raises oxytocin, so cuddle loved ones daily.
BE LOVING & KIND Being non-judgemental and affectionate will boost oxytocin in yourself and those you interact with.
MEDITATE Regular Metta (love) meditation trains the brain to think kindly. Focus on generating affection for each of four people – someone you love, an enemy, a stranger and finally yourself. Spend five minutes on each person.
HAVE FUN WITH A FOUR-LEGGED FRIEND Playing with, and cuddling, your dog raises oxytocin and lowers blood pressure.

Negative trigger

✤ THE WRONG FRIENDS Bonding with people who have unhealthy addictions, a victim mentality or a negative outlook will stimulate oxytocin in us but might not be healthy in the long run as their negativity can rub off on us.


Petting a pooch lowers blood pressure © iStock