While outside experiences and events, such as our childhood experiences, can certainly affect our happiness and mental wellness, the actual feelings associated with happiness are actually a product of chemical interactions in our brains.
The Brain Chemistry of Happiness
Most people believe happiness is contingent on two factors: how satisfied you are with your life and how good you feel. When it comes right down to it, though, happiness is all in our head — in the chemical interactions in our brain.
First, there’s the hippocampus — the part of your brain that stores memories. The hippocampus is the seat of all happiness. It is the physical part of your body that determines how happy you are at any given moment, but it doesn’t work alone. There are also a number of neurochemicals that determine how happy you are.
Dopamine is a hormone that is released when you achieve a goal or complete something that offers a reward. Dopamine is your body’s way of rewarding you.
Oxytocin — the love hormone — is associated with our ability to bond with other human beings. It’s released during skin-to-skin contact, such as during a hug, and is a vital part of the bond between mother and child. The release of oxytocin also helps strengthen relationships by increasing trust and loyalty.
Endorphins are the feel-good chemicals in the brain that are released when you exercise — it’s why you feel so good after a run or a good workout. This chemical interacts with the opiate receptors in your brain, which helps relieve pain or reduce our perception of pain. Laughing, listening to music, eating chocolate, or smelling lavender or vanilla can also release endorphins.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate your mood and maintain your happy feelings. It is produced by everything from being exposed to sunshine to exercising or enjoying a plate of fresh turkey — the tryptophan that makes you sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner also makes your body release serotonin. This neurotransmitter also helps regulate your mood, sleep schedule and appetite.
Facts About Happiness and Brain Chemistry
Happiness is about more than the things that are happening to you — in fact, only 10 percent of your happiness is determined by your circumstances. Around 40 percent of your happiness is determined by your thoughts, behaviors and actions, and the remaining 50 percent is actually contingent on your genetic makeup.
One study into genetics and happiness found that one gene, 5-HTTLPR, is often connected to mood disorders and depression. By studying the connection this gene has with mood and life satisfaction, particularly in identical and fraternal twins, researchers have been able to target the variation of 5-HTTLPR that affects happiness.
Genetic factors are only one piece of a very complicated puzzle. Overall health also plays a big factor — studies have found that healthy individuals are happier than average, sometimes by up to 20 percent. These healthy individuals also have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, a stronger immune system, and live longer than unhealthy people.
Studies have also found that healthy people have higher levels of happy brain chemicals than their unhealthy counterparts. This is likely due in part to a more active lifestyle encouraging the production of endorphins and serotonin.
Now the million dollar question remains: how to increase happy brain chemicals to improve your overall happiness and well-being?
- Setting and achieving goals: Achieving a goal encourages the body to release dopamine, the neurotransmitter that helps improve overall happiness.
- Exercise: Regular exercise encourages the production of endorphins and serotonin, feel-good chemicals that improve your mood.
- Snuggling: Get close with the people around you. Snuggling makes the body release oxytocin, the love chemical, which makes you happier and strengthens your relationships.
- Soak up the sun: Not only does spending some time in the sun improve your body’s vitamin D production, but it also encourages the release of serotonin.
Follow these tips and you will be well on your way to creating the happiness brain chemistry in your brain to improve your overall happiness!
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