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Hacking into Happiness

Have you ever heard this type of dialogue?

“I just want you to be happy.”

“I don’t feel happy.”

“You have to work at it. Just try to be happy.”

Seeing others in distress can make us feel sad; however, telling someone to be happy when they are not does not seem to work very well. In fact, trying to be happy is often a recipe for unhappiness! Psychology researchers have even put it to the test: People who were instructed to feel as happy as they can when listening to pleasant music felt lower mood than those who were exposed to the same pleasant music with no instruction.[1]

The pursuit of happiness is a cultural phenomenon in Western culture, and debates exist whether this pursuit is doing more harm than good.[2] On one extreme, using our will to be happy all the time does not seem to be a genuine approach to happiness.[3] The mind and the body, although connected, can sometimes create conflicting directions. Think, for example, about an argument with a loved one; we know we care about the other person, yet we would like to be physically distant from that person? The feelings we experience, as part of our body awareness and sensations, may not overlap with our psychology. So, we may think we are happy, yet our body is telling us that we are not. We can override these impulses by understanding how to hack into our happiness so that the opposing chemical, cortisol (also known as the stress hormone), does not take over.

Plan Happy Times

Prioritizing and planning for moments and activities that genuinely create positive emotions have been one idea that has been studied by psychology researcher Dr. Lahnna Catalino. Dr. Catalino and her team have discovered the prioritizing happiness project, whereby we can predict happiness based on prioritizing happiness through setting and planning an itinerary of moments that create the happiness within us, versus monitoring the moment-to-moment emotional experience.[4] One strategy for creating these moments is “situation selection,” where we base decisions on what matters most, what is meaningful, or what brings joy. Examples could be setting time each day for a meditation break, setting aside some time to start a new hobby, or creating a “home spa” day. This strategy consistently weaves enjoyable activities into our schedule, rather than expecting joy by waiting for the next happy event, which can sometimes feel like a roller coaster of highs and lows. An important point: It appears that judging our happiness is one of the fallbacks to experiencing happiness, meaning that overly analyzing whether we are happy may block us from feeling happy! This is one of the core features of living in the moment.

Neurotransmitters

How do we distinguish between a high versus genuine happiness in our body? One possible road map is to understand a basic box of our neurotransmitters. Why are these neurotransmitters important? They are the little messengers that link our nervous system to our body, that is, to our muscles, our glands, or to another nerve. I like to think of them as an orchestral symphony! Sometimes, one takes the lead and other times, they harmonize together.

  • Dopamine is the reward hormone;
  • Oxytocin is the love hormone;
  • Serotonin is the mood hormone; and
  • Endorphins are the pain-stop hormones.

Each of these hormones are naturally produced inside the body, and the following conditions may suggest how these compounds allow us to feel happy, rather than to think it.

Dopamine

This is the reward hormone for celebrating the little wins, completing a task, eating food, or the art of self-care. This neurotransmitter helps to create in us a sense of satisfaction. It is also implicated in motivation and attention; and it helps to regulate movement, learning, and emotional responses.[5] Dopamine sparks curiosity, sensation-seeking behaviour, arousal, and goal-directed behaviour. Sleep deprivation has been demonstrated to downregulate dopamine and may contribute to diminished focus and attention.[6] Foods that help boost dopamine are tyrosine-rich foods—like lentils, cheese, fish, and nuts—and magnesium-rich foods—such as seeds and whole grains. l‑Theanine, found in tea, can also be helpful for dopamine balance.[7]

Serotonin

Serotonin is the mood hormone empowered by meditation and yoga, sun exposure, or steady movement like walking in nature, running, or cycling.[8] Scientific studies on mindfulness and other meditation techniques suggest that adopting these in your lifestyle may improve low-mood states.[9]

Oxytocin

This is the love hormone created by hugging a family member, playing with a dog, nurturing a baby, holding someone’s hand, giving a compliment, or having good conversations. Empathy appears to increase oxytocin, which in turn can stimulate generosity that may contribute to happiness.[10] An article published in Harvard Business Review saliently points to the efficacy of leadership through positive conversation and the impacts on oxytocin. Judith Glaser, the author of Conversational Intelligence, describes in the article that business managers are most successful when they offer a sense of inclusivity, listening, and open discussion; this mindful approach to conversations can literally impact our brain and body chemistry.[11] Oxytocin is known as the cuddle hormone, as it is associated with bonding and love. It’s no wonder that animals—and especially dogs—are used as “emotional support providers” in so many situations.

Endorphins

Endorphins are pain-stop hormones found through laughter, certain essential oils, chocolate, and exercise; it is thought to promote endorphin release. Lavender essential oil as aromatherapy has been demonstrated in a small study to help sleep disturbance in elderly patients with dementia, and it is thought that the compounds in lavender are responsible for this effect through the release of endorphins and serotonin.[12] beta-Endorphins are natural peptide hormones and the “endogenous” or body-produced opioid. The molecule morphine, isolated from the opium poppy plant, is the most potent antipain compound, and the word “endorphin” is derived from the combination of “endogenous” and “morphine.”[13] These chemicals bind to opioid receptors in the body that inhibit the pain signaling pathways. The role of beta-endorphins in mood states and happiness is still not fully understood; however, being mindful of these chemicals and their impacts on pain perception could be one theory behind hacking your happiness molecules.

The Bottom Line

The saying that happiness comes from within does have some truth! While life circumstance does play a role in happiness levels, it is not realistic nor a good predictor of overall happiness. We can return to happiness by understanding a little better what we can do to make ourselves feel happier, by tuning in to our body, and by listening to the little signals, keeping in mind that there is a natural rhythm and order to our psychophysiology. I encourage you to create these little moments and prioritize your happiness!

Dr. Melanie Kusznireckyj, BSc, ND

A naturopathic doctor, graduate from CCNM, dedicated to helping individuals live their best lives through mind-body connection.

References

1.      Schooler, J.W., D. Ariely, and G. Loewenstein. “The pursuit and assessment of happiness may be self-defeating.” In The Psychology of Economic Decisions, edited by J. Carrillo and I. Brocas, 41–70. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

2.      Ford, B.Q., et al. “Desperately seeking happiness: Valuing happiness is associated with symptoms and diagnosis of depression.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 33, No. 10 (2014): 890–905.

3.      Mauss, I.B., et al. “Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? [corrected] Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness.” Emotion, Vol. 11, No. 4 (2011): 807–815. [Erratum in Emotion, Vol. 11, No. 4 (2011): 767.]

4.      Catalino, L.I., S.B. Algoe, and B.L. Fredrickson. “Prioritizing positivity: an effective approach to pursuing happiness?” Emotion, Vol. 14, No. 6 (2014): 1155–1161. [Erratum in “Correction to Catalino, Algoe, & Fredrickson (2014).” Emotion, Vol. 15, No. 2 (2015): 175.] [Erratum in “Prioritizing positivity: An effective approach to pursuing happiness?”: Correction to Catalino, Algoe, & Fredrickson (2014). Emotion, Vol. 16, No. 3 (2016): 319.]

5.      [No authors listed.] “Dopamine.” Psychology Today, accessed November 13, 2020, https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/basics/dopamine.

6.      Volkow, N.D., et al. “Evidence that sleep deprivation downregulates dopamine D2R in ventral striatum in the human brain.” The Journal of Neuroscience, Vol. 32, No. 19 (2012): 6711–6717.

7.      Nathan, P.J., et al. “The neuropharmacology of l‑theanine(N‑ethyl-l‑glutamine): A possible neuroprotective and cognitive enhancing agent.” Journal of Herbal Pharmacotherapy, Vol. 6, No. 2 (2006): 21–30.

8.      Young, S.N. “How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs.” Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, Vol. 32, No. 6 (2007): 394–399.

9.      Young, S.N. “Biologic effects of mindfulness meditation: Growing insights into neurobiologic aspects of the prevention of depression.” Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, Vol. 36, No. 2 (2011): 75–77.

10.   Barraza, J.A., and P.J. Zak. “Empathy toward strangers triggers oxytocin release and subsequent generosity.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 1167 (2009): 182–189.

11.   Glaser, J.E., and R.D. Glaser. “The neurochemistry of positive conversations.” Harvard Business Review, posted June 12, 2014, https://hbr.org/2014/06/the-neurochemistry-of-positive-conversations.

12.   Takeda, A., E. Watanuki, and S. Koyama. “Effects of inhalation aromatherapy on symptoms of sleep disturbance in the elderly with dementia.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Vol. 2017 (2017): 1902807.

13.   Merriam Webster, s.v. “endorphin (n.),” accessed November 13, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/endorphin.