When it comes to being happy, we often have the idea we ‘ll find it in some big, grand gesture or achievement.
We’ll be happy when we lose weight or look thin. We’ll be happy when we’ve paid off the mortgage or have more money. We think we’ll be happy with a new wardrobe, a holiday, a better or new job.
This is not to suggest you won’t feel better if you achieve a goal like one of the above, but deferring happiness until ‘later’, whenever that might be, seems to be a waste of the days you have before then.
To feel happy – to give yourself a happiness boost – you just need to look within, literally. We have an inbuilt happiness system, fully equipped with four hormones designed to make us feel good, and understanding what triggers them can make your search for happiness a lot, lot simpler and easier to achieve on a consistent basis.
Happiness is a feeling. It’s not a goal or someplace we’re headed. It’s not something we can eventually arrive at – like a holiday destination or new home – and say: Here I am. I’ve made it!
Yet we go about life doing things like this is exactly what happiness is – somewhere we’ll get to if only we attain, achieve and acquire certain things, like money and status.
But the feeling of happiness is created through hormones. Or chemical neurotransmitters.
I heard an excellent explanation of this from Dr Andrew Huberman, a professor of neuroscience at Stanford University in the US, and it got me to thinking about how understanding this science could help stressed out women make some every day choices that would perhaps make them feel better, even if their circumstances didn’t change.
Dr Huberman was on the James Altucher podcast and explained how you can optimise your brain to be as happy as possible, and understanding how these four happy hormones work was part of the basis of that.
Understanding what triggers the release of these hormones means you can in fact, manipulate your happiness to a certain extent. I’m talking every day stuff – I’m not talking about depression or clinical challenges.
For busy women who quite often feel overwhelmed and not particularly happy, knowing how to turn on these chemical messages to feel happy, without having to change your schedule or circumstances, can turn a bad day to one that ends better.
The happiness hormones
There are four primary chemicals in the brain that effect happiness: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. In layman’s terms:
Dopamine – it’s what I think of as the happiness of indulgence. This is the happy hormone hit you get when the reward centre of your brain is triggered. It’s a high energy hit, like winning a game, finishing a task. Or the type you get from an addiction, whether it be substance, or scrolling social media. Your brain is geared up to seek this high again and again, more and more (hence the addictive qualities), so it pays to get this hit from something positive rather than negative.
Oxytocin – the love, or slow burn happy hormone. This is triggered from intimacy or togetherness – whether it be sex, breastfeeding your baby or cradling them, from holding hands with your partner or child, even just from sitting with your kids on the couch or simply being together with loved ones (that cosy feeling you get when everyone’s in the loungeroom reading at the same time).
Serotonin – this is our mood regulator, and it has antidepressant qualities. It’s triggered from a sense of achievement, pride, accomplishment, or recognitition from others. This explains that feeling you get when you’ve cleaned something, or finished a project that’s been dragging on.
Endorphins – this hormone is designed to mask physical pain – hence why we are flooded with endorphins during childbirth – and it’s the high you get from exercise.
Knowing what triggers the release of these chemicals, you can approach a bad day or cranky moment, a bit differently.
How to hack your happiness hormones each day
We can literally stimulate our biological system in order to feel happy, with no change in our circumstances.
This won’t last – the feeling is fleeting as all feelings are – but I think it’s really powerful to know that the feeling of happiness is actually scientific and biological, not financial or circumstantial and that you can literally turn on your happiness, to a degree, at will by triggering one of the four happy hormones.
This might look like:
- Moving. There are mountains of evidence to show exercise helps lower depression and can lift your mood. I’m not sure we need to go so far as eliciting a pain response to trigger the endorphins – simply going for a walk, or doing some yoga stretches will help. Or a bike ride, swim, or just dance around the loungeroom. When I’m feeling a bit blah or stuck, a walk around the block or at the beach is enough to boost my mood. Taking the walk with my daughter, more so.
- Do a quick check of your life’s achievements. Keeping other humans alive and well is a major one. What have you survived? Done? During the daily grind, we’re so often focused on what we haven’t yet done or what we still have to do, which adds to our feelings of overwhelm or inadequacy or fatigue. Thinking instead of something we have accomplished (or quickly finding something that you can get done easily), will stimulate your happiness hormones.
- Time outside around nature, around 10-15 minutes, is said to increase serotonin. You don’t even have to do anything while you’re there – just go outside and look up or out.
- Give your kids or partner a hug. Sit with the kids on the couch for no reason. Dr Huberman mentions in that interview that you don’t even have to talk to each other – just hanging out near each other triggers the oxytocin.
We can try flipping our thoughts about mundane tasks into seeing them as a happiness boost instead. Like …
- Cooking dinner? Get a kid or two involved in helping, and suddenly you’re spending time together and producing oxytocin.
- Dishes need doing? Think of the serotonin hit when the sink is gleaming and bench clear.
- Vacuuming? It’s going to give you endorphins and seratonin especially of you do it with some great music on.
- Cleaning the bench top of all the clutter. Wiping the fingerprints off the kitchen cabinets. Making the bed. None of them are exciting, but getting them done will likely trigger the release of some seratonin.
Aside from the actual happiness boost we can give ourselves, knowing this science is a reminder that you don’t need grand gestures or to make a huge effort to feel happy.