Science & Tech

Happiness Hormones— What Are They and How Do I Hack Them?

By Allison H. ‘25

There are four natural neurochemicals in our brains— serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins. Each chemical release triggers that “happy” feeling in our bodies, and each is linked to specific actions. Understanding how these actions and chemicals interact and how to trigger their release can help you maintain a more positive outlook during stressful periods, maintain positive relationships, and even contribute to your overall wellness. Thankfully, each neurochemical can be triggered by a wide variety of actions, and all are easily attainable.

Serotonin is probably the best-known chemical, as it acts as a mood stabilizer and is responsible for one’s happiness. An increase of serotonin in one’s brain can cause a more positive mood, regular sleeping habits, and decreased anxiety and depression levels. Serotonin is naturally stimulated during “outdoor” activities, such as running, hiking, swimming, cycling, meditating, or even just being exposed to the sunlight. In addition to those activities, serotonin can additionally be produced by eating foods high in tryptophan such as cheese, chicken, fish, tofu, milk, sunflower seeds, oatmeal, and peanuts. Eating these foods directly increases tryptophan concentration levels in the bloodstream, which then triggers serotonin synthesis in the brain. Humans are unable to produce tryptophan without external assistance, so merely eating some of the mentioned food items is a highly effective way to increase serotonin levels naturally!

Dopamine is organically released by receiving praise, reaching a goal, or winning, which is why it is often referred to as the “reward chemical.” As well as celebrating achievements and completing tasks or projects, dopamine can also be produced by listing to upbeat music, eating food, or practicing self-care. The Deisseroth lab conducted a series of optogenetic experiments to observe the role of dopamine in the behaviors of animals and found that when dopamine neurons were deactivated, the animals’ locomotor activity drastically decreased and stress and anhedonia levels rose. Alternatively, activating the dopamine neurons in the animals increased reward-related behaviors and increased activity levels. Due to anhedonia and lack of motivation being considered common features of major depressive disorder, researchers concluded that an increase of dopamine levels could possibly alleviate some depressive symptoms.

“Hugging for eight seconds increases serotonin levels,” a wise Crystal senior once stated. Although, in reality, hugging for ten seconds increases oxytocin levels, not serotonin, the senior had the right idea. Oxytocin is known as the “love” or “bonding” hormone. It’s released in “safe” or “connected” environments and works to strengthen bonds between individuals. Some ways to naturally increase oxytocin levels are playing with a pet or child, holding hands, hugging someone (for ten seconds), giving compliments, being in close company with friends or family, or sharing food. Along with strengthening social connections, oxytocin reduces stress hormone levels and produces a calming effect. The reduction of stress hormones such as cortisol can help lower blood pressure as well, meaning that an increase in oxytocin levels can directly improve one’s health as well. 

The last natural neurochemical is endorphin, which acts as a natural pain killer as well as a stress reliever. Endorphins are released when an individual is in a state of stress or discomfort, as a way to temporarily alleviate physical or emotional pain. However, endorphins aren’t only released in negative situations. They are also naturally produced during exercise or while eating certain foods. Activities such as running, swimming, or other aerobic sports greatly increase endorphin levels, which is why some people experience “runner’s high” or post-workout energy boosts. Endorphins are also naturally stimulated while watching comedies, eating dark chocolate, doing creative practices, stretching, meditating, or even simply laughing with friends. 

Although happiness can take on many forms and meanings between individuals, it’s a universal key component to a fulfilling life for everyone. Happiness plays a critical role in life experiences and successes, and hopefully knowing the chemicals responsible for those feelings and how to release them can help you make conscious decisions and start taking action to start choosing happiness.

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