I am often amazed at the multitude of books, courses, seminars and podcasts held every year with the ultimate objective of assisting people to become happier.
We know that finding our purpose, living in the present moment and practising gratitude are all extremely helpful and beneficial strategies that we can adopt to be happier, but what else can we do?
Lately, as we all know, things have been quite difficult and many students have been speaking to me about their worries and concerns for the future. I have found myself more and more looking beyond mindset strategies and towards neuroscience.
A “DOSE” of neuroscience
Happiness is mostly impacted by four hormones in the body – Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin and Endorphins (DOSE for short). Many situations can trigger these neurotransmitters and what I have been encouraging students to do is instead of being a passenger, to find ways to “hack” them or help cause them to flow.
Dopamine is the reward/pleasure hormone which is triggered by achievements and pleasurable experiences. 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 easier option, and less reward; those with higher levels of dopamine exerted the effort needed to receive double the amount of food.
So how can we hack dopamine? Break big goals down into little pieces and celebrate the completion of each part. Create new goals before achieving the current one. That ensures a consistent release of dopamine. Celebrate your accomplishments however small to stay on track and to increase future motivation and productivity.
Oxytocin is the love hormone which can be triggered by touch and emotional bonding. It is often referred to as the cuddle hormone so a simple way to keep oxytocin flowing is to give someone a hug. Paddington, our therapy dog, is very helpful here too as studies have shown that the simple act of patting a dog can release oxytocin. Giving a simple gift or compliment can also have the same effect.
Serotonin is the mood hormone which flows when you feel significant or important, this is where gratitude comes into things. Loneliness and depression are present when serotonin is absent.
How can we hack serotonin? Accessing sunlight, getting adequate sleep, being in nature can all stimulate serotonin. So can reflecting on your past achievements as doing this allows your brain to re-live the experience. Your brain actually has trouble telling the difference between what is real and what is imagined, so it produces serotonin in both cases. Gratitude practices are popular for this reason, they are reminders – mental pictures – of all the good things you’ve experienced. Meditation works in the same way.
Endorphin is the pain/stress hormone, triggered by exercise, laughter and even some kinds of food. Endorphins are released in response to pain and stress and help alleviate anxiety and depression. The “runners high” experienced during intense exercise are the result of endorphins. Along with exercise, laughter is an easy way to induce endorphins.
Finally, it has been found that it is quite easy to “trick” the brain into producing these hormones through a simple smile (even an artificial one) and hence make us feel happier. Through understanding and using these triggers for the “DOSE” hormones we can amazingly hack our brains to increase happiness!
Wellbeing Coordinator / Registered Psychologist