“You can manage your happy brain chemicals when you know how they work in the state of nature.” — Loretta Breuning, PhD
There are four major chemicals in the brain that influence our happiness and well-being (DOSE): dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. Many events can trigger these neurotransmitters to flow and this post will explore ways we can intentionally cause these chemicals to flow.
what is DOSE and what causes these chemicals to flow?
Dopamine is involved with the anticipation than the actual “happiness” feeling – it is the striving emotion. Dopamine motivates us to take action toward goals, desires, and needs, and gives a surge of reinforcing pleasure when achieving them. If you’re procrastinating feeling self-doubtor lack enthusiasm, you probably have low levels of dopamine. So how can we get more dopamine?
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! So everytime you achieve a small victory, celebrate. Further, instead of being left with a dopamine hangover, create new goals before achieving your current one. That ensures a continual flow for experiencing dopamine.
If you’re a leader in any capacity – as an employer or parent, recognizing the accomplishments of your team by rewarding them, will allow them to have a dopamine hit and increase future motivation and productivity.
Oxytocin is the neurochemical that has allowed us to become social creatures. It makes us feel empathy which helps us feel close and bonded to others when it’s released. It is the hormone of love, bonding and connection which add to the feeling of a peaceful life well lived and loved.
The easiest and 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.
However, if physical contact is not an option, you can raise your oxytocin levels by gift giving. You can actually strengthen work and personal relationships and thus your own happiness through small gestures of kindness!
If you’re in a good mood, you’ve got serotonin to thank. And if you’re in a bad mood, you’ve got serotonin to blame. It’s a regulator. An interesting fact is that 80 percent of serotonin exists in the gut, and is governed by your state of hunger (yes, this is why you’re hangry). You can raise your serotonin levels thorugh the foods you eat!
Serotonin flows when you feel significant or important. Loneliness and depression appears when serotonin is absent. Gratitude practices are so popular with offsetting depressive states because it allows our brain to re-live an experience. Our brain has trouble telling the difference between what’s real and imagined, so it produces serotonin in both cases. By recalling something you are grateful for, it reminds 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.
Another way to boost serotonin levels is to expose yourself to the sun 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.
Finally, endorphins are responsible for masking pain or discomfort, which explains their association with the “fight or flight” response. When it comes to designing happiness, endorphins help you “power through.” I love taking spinning classes and endorphins allow me to push farther and harder as I work toward distance goals.
Endorphins are released in response to pain and stress and help to alleviate anxiety and depression. It diminishes our perception of pain.
Along with regular exercise, laughter is one of the easiest ways to induce endorphin release. Taking your sense of humor to work, forwarding that funny meme, and finding several things to laugh at during the day is a great way to keep the doctor away.
Aromatherapies: The smell of essential oils like lavender and peppermint 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!
Together these D.O.S.E. chemicals create desirable brain states and keep us coming back creating habits and reinforcing their flow!