Finding happiness is within your grasp

There’s a link between the human brain and emotions, which you can take advantage of to learn how to be happy.

The limbic system is the part of the brain that controls our emotions, motivation and behaviour. The brain acts as a survival mechanism that produces chemicals which let our bodies know what’s good and bad for us, and that includes feeling happiness.

Our brain is always on alert and tends to focus on negativity to protect us from harm. But no one wants their brain to be always on alert and focused on negativity all the time.

Did you know you can actually boost the ‘feel-good’ brain chemicals that can make you feel happy? You just need to learn how to tap into these four main chemicals: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins (DOSE).

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While daily events and situations trigger these neurotransmitters automatically, there are ways to encourage the brain to produce them – allowing us to create and repeat feelings of happiness.

Truly happy people know what makes them happier, which releases those chemicals. And when those chemicals are released, we become more motivated, productive and experience greater well-being.

To start being happy, here are the four brain chemicals connected to your emotions that will boost your happiness:

1. Dopamine

Often referred to as the ‘happiness drug’, it’s responsible for motivating us to take action, make decisions and feel pleasure when we reach our goals.

Dopamine is the brain’s way of patting us on the back for a job well done when we score a goal, get an ‘A’, or cross the finish line, for example. Experiencing procrastination, self-doubt or lethargy? Low dopamine levels could be to blame. Time to manufacture a few wins for ‘team you’.

Here are ways to increase your dopamine levels:

Creating mini finish lines to cross instead of just a final, big one when a goal is achieved, helps us feel good over a longer period of time.

  • Initiating acts of kindness towards others gives the brain a hit of dopamine.
  • Quit smoking. A recent study showed smokers had 15-20% lower capacity for producing dopamine than non-smokers – but it’s reversible if you stop smoking.

2. Oxytocin

Affectionately referred to as the ‘cuddle hormone’, it’s released through social interactions like giving and receiving gifts, making eye contact, giving and receiving affection (like a handshake, hug or pat on the shoulder), giving birth or having sexual intercourse.

Did you know you can actually boost ‘feel-good’ brain chemicals that can make you feel happy?

Here are ways to increase your oxytocin levels:

  • Make eye contact during your conversations.
  • Have a massage.
  • Hug a friend, pet your pet, or share a more intimate moment with a loved one.
  • Meditation and prayer.

3. Serotonin

Are you in a good mood? You can thank serotonin, the brain’s antidepressant drug of choice. It surges when you feel your life and your efforts matter.

Feeling ‘hangry’ (hungry and angry)? As 80 per cent of serotonin exists in the stomach, skipping meals reduces serotonin, which can lead to grumpiness.

Here are ways to increase your serotonin levels:

  • Express gratitude.
  • Increase your exposure to sunlight. This produces vitamin D, which, in turn, triggers serotonin.
  • Think happy thoughts. Serotonin doesn’t distinguish between reality and imagination so when the imagination or memory is active, it produces serotonin as if the event is real.
  • Exercise. Even low-key exercise stimulates serotonin so gardening, dog walking, housework or playing with your children counts.

4. Endorphins

If you’ve ever hit your thumb with a hammer, stubbed your toe, or experienced a ‘runner’s high’, then you know what endorphins feel like. They work like morphine to alleviate pain and stress.

Here are ways to increase your endorphin levels:

  • Eat chocolate. Chocolate contains phenethylamine which boosts endorphins.
  • Exercise releases endorphins. As little as 30 minutes can do the trick.
  • Find opportunities to laugh. Laughter has been shown to release endorphins.
  • Use aromatherapy. Certain aromas influence the production of endorphins – try diffusing vanilla, lavender or peppermint into the air, your bath or your next cup of tea or coffee.

When you design your daily experiences and habits around this knowledge, you can activate these chemicals, increase your productivity and, most importantly, proactively increase your happiness.

Sandra Donati is the President of InteGreat Peak Performance. Work. Life. Play. LLC, and an adjunct professor at the American University in the Department of Public Affairs, Key Executive Leadership Development Programs. Sign up for her online course, ‘The Quest: Navigating a Path to Happiness’

This article was first published on YourTango.

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