2020; the year no one saw coming, and the year no one wished came.
From COVID-19 lockdowns to killer Japanese Hornets, it’s been a rough year.
Instead of taking that 2-week vacation to the islands of awesomeness that you had planned, you’re stuck indoors, isolated, and trying to redo that puzzle of the Eiffel Tower for the 300th time.
The isolation, the boredom, the stress… it takes a toll.
According to the CDC, in June of this year, 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse.
And the numbers only get worse.
In September 2020, Mental Health America reported a 93% increase of people seeking help for anxiety and depression, and of those people seeking help, 8 in 10 scored moderate to severe depression due to the pandemic.
It would seem that many people — maybe even you — are struggling to find happiness and peace in these crazy times.
The good news? Dopamine and its siblings can lift your spirits.
So let’s meet your friendly neighborhood brain chemicals.
EDITOR’S NOTE: If you are struggling with severe or chronic mental health problems, please seek professional help. We highly recommend BetterHelp, our favorite online counseling platform.
What Are the 4 Happiness-Boosting Brain Chemicals?
Your body naturally produces four types of hormones: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins.
These chemicals help boost feelings of happiness and inner peace, and, most importantly, they do so when you take specific every-day actions.
In other words, if you know the natural triggers for your happiness hormones, you can generate more of them whenever you want!
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine is the brain chemical associated with motivation and reward.
When you finish cleaning the house, survive another Crossfit session, or complete that big project you’ve been working on, those feelings of pleasure you feel are all thanks to dopamine.
And it doesn’t stop there.
Dopamine also motivates you to repeat those actions (returning to Crossfit again and again, for instance, despite that last time, you wept tears of blood), solidifying the habit.
In reverse, many sources associate low levels of dopamine with low levels of motivation and decreased happiness.
So what actions increase dopamine levels?
How To Boost Dopamine Levels in Everyday Life
Here are three ways to boost dopamine in your everyday life.
Dopamine is produced from amino acids called tyrosine and phenylalanine.
These both occur when you eat protein-rich foods such as eggs, turkey, beef, and soy, which boosts your dopamine levels and promotes deep thinking and memory.
So try to:
- Eat protein every day. It can be as easy as having a good protein snack such as hard-boiled eggs.
Getting Enough Sleep
When dopamine is triggered in the body, it makes you feel more alert and restful.
According to Healthline, dopamine increases in the morning when it is time to wake and then gradually decreases in the evening before bed.
But there’s one caveat: when you don’t have a consistent sleep schedule, it limits your ability to produce dopamine naturally.
So try to:
- Set a sleep schedule and STICK to it. For me, it’s going to bed at 11:00 pm and waking at 6:00 am.
- Make sure you plan for at least 7-9 hours of sleep, which is recommended by the National Sleep Foundation.
Listening to Music
Getting a boost of dopamine can be as simple as clicking play on an Apple Playlist.
There are brain-imaging studies that show listening to music can increase activity in the areas of the brain that produce dopamine.
Emotional parts of a song can increase dopamine levels by up to 9%.
So try to:
- Create a station on either Pandora, Spotify, or Apple music that is instrumental music (all current studies are on instrumental music so it’s not known if your favorite music genre will affect dopamine release).
- You can make the station connected to something you already love. For me, I have a Pandora station for music by Ramin Djawadi, the composer for Game of Thrones.
- Listen to it while you commute to work, wash dishes, or get ready for bed.
What Is Serotonin?
Serotonin is a chemical messenger that regulates your mood (which is vital for reducing anxiety and depression), promotes good sleep and healthy digestion, improves learning and memory, and contributes to overall self-confidence.
If however, your serotonin levels are low, it can reverse those benefits, making you feel more impulsive, worsening sleep, and even making you crave sweets and carbohydrate-rich foods.
So how do you increase your serotonin levels?
How To Boost Serotonin Levels in Everyday Life
To optimize your serotonin levels here are a few things you can add to your daily routine.
According to research done by the US National Library of Medicine National Institute of Health, during changes of season — in particular, transitioning to seasons with little sunshine — people have much lower serotonin levels. That’s why seasonal depression and anxiety are a thing.
So try to:
- Get at least 10 to 15 minutes outside every day when the sun is shining (just don’t forget to wear your sunscreen!).
- And if the weather is raining, hailing, or all-around miserable, try using a Light Therapy Box which can be purchased online through Amazon (just make sure to read the instructions as there can be some side effects).
Exercise is one of the best ways to naturally boost all four brain chemicals. For serotonin, exercise triggers the release of tryptophan and decreases the amount of other amino acids, allowing a serotonin-buzz to incur.
So try to:
- Do some form of Aerobic exercise (which is the most beneficial for serotonin levels). This could be jogging, swimming, hiking, or even dancing.
Massages help increase serotonin and dopamine (bonus points!) production and decrease cortisol (a stress hormone).
So try to:
- Get a massage weekly. You can either pay for a licensed massage therapist or (my personal favorite) take 15 minute-turns with a significant other or family member/friend.
What Is Oxytocin?
Oxytocin is often called the love hormone, cuddle hormone, or bonding hormone.
When released, it makes you feel loved, content, and trusting.
It helps you feel bonded to others, which in turn makes you feel happier and more at peace.
If your oxytocin levels are low, it can make you feel estranged from those you love, less secure in relationships, and increase levels of depression, stress, and anxiety.
So what should you do to ensure your oxytocin levels aren’t suffering?
How To Boost Oxytocin Levels in Everyday Life
Here are some things you can easily add to your routine to improve your oxytocin levels.
Petting or snuggling your favorite canine or feline friend is shown to increase not only your own oxytocin levels but theirs too (although the research is specifically with just dogs… maybe cats don’t always need their pet humans).
Petting your pooch can even reduce blood pressure and cortisol levels, is shown to have a positive impact on coping with chronic health conditions (such as heart disease, dementia, and cancer), and people who have had a heart attack have a significantly higher one-year survival rate compared to those who don’t have pets.
So try to:
- Convince your partner that you need a cute f*cking dog.
- Buy a cute f*cking dog.
- Cuddle the cute f*cking dog err’ day.
Spend Time With Friends
Investing time in your friendships is a great way to boost oxytocin.
Quality time with friends increases your bond with them, which increases oxytocin, which makes you feel happy.
So try to:
- Have weekly get-togethers. You can even do this virtually if your best friends (like me) live in other states. Create a designated time to chat about life while drinking wine together or discussing the book-of-the-month.
- Try doing something new with them. Going on a new hike, trying a new bar, or taking a “Sip and Paint” class are all great experiences to try with a friend. And when it is something new, it gives an opportunity to bond over the experience, releasing additional oxytocin.
Being affectionate with your significant other is a sure-fire way to release oxytocin.
And this doesn’t have to be just sex.
It can be as simple as holding hands, cuddling, or kissing.
But if you want to get freaky under the sheets and spice things up, I’m sure that your partner won’t mind. 😉
So try to:
- Spend a few minutes each day being physically affectionate. I suggest doing so at convenient times, such as holding each other’s hands as you go places, or cuddling for a little bit when you first get in bed.
- Try and be sexually active with your partner as often as you can!
What Are Endorphins?
You’ve probably heard of this one — it’s almost always linked to working out.
People say things like “just keep running till your endorphins kick in.” Or “I only workout because I just love the endorphins.”
So what actually are these brain chemicals everyone seems to love so much?
In simple terms, they are your body’s natural painkillers.
In fact, the name endorphins comes from combining the words endogenous, which means “from inside the body”, and the word morphine, which is an opiate pain reliever.
So they literally are your body’s natural opiates.
And they don’t just reduce pain, they increase pleasure which can give people that “high” they talk about.
The other benefit to endorphins is that they make it so we actually enjoy doing things that cause discomfort (i.e. exercise). It even encourages us to come back again and again for more (which builds a habit).
So yeah, people who exercise consistently are basically just drug addicts.
But that’s okay — you need endorphins.
If your endorphin levels are low, you’re more likely to have trouble sleeping and suffer from anxiety, aches and pains, depression, and moodiness.
So what can you do to keep your endorphin levels healthy?
How To Boost Endorphin Levels?
Here are some ways you can boost endorphin levels (don’t worry — it’s not just exercise… although, that is the first one).
Didn’t see that coming, did you?
Working out, specifically cardiovascular workouts, trigger a release of endorphins. Generally, you have to work out past the initial discomfort to fully experience that high (at least 30 minutes).
So try to:
- Figure out a form of cardiovascular exercise that YOU enjoy. You might choose exercises like CrossFit, Zumba, running, cycling, sex, swimming, boxing, rowing, HITT workouts, or my personal favorite, Ashtanga Yoga.
- Commit to a number of days to workout AND stick with it. I’d recommend starting as low as two days a week for a month. After you achieve that goal (you’ll also get a bonus hit of dopamine), you can either increase the number of workouts per week or maintain.
Drink Wine and Eat Chocolate
This is probably my favorite way to boost endorphins.
Adding my two favorite things into my daily life — what a hardship.
Seriously though, chocolate is shown to boost your mood, reduce inflammation, and naturally trigger endorphins.
Both red wine and white wine contain antioxidants and red wine is known to contain resveratrol (which reduces inflammation, slows aging, is helpful for heart health, and triggers endorphins).
So try to:
- Consume wine and chocolate regularly. You can even pair your wines to your chocolate flavors (check this out for some ideas).
- But don’t overindulge. Just stick to a glass of wine per day and a little square of chocolate (sorry).
Triggering endorphins doesn’t always require a crazy intense workout, and if you aren’t a fan of chocolate and wine, consider adding meditation to your daily routine.
The act of relaxing your mind boosts endorphins (dopamine and serotonin, too), flooding your body with feelings of peace, contentment, and happiness.
In fact, there was a study done showing that running and meditation have a very similar effect on mood, as both activities release endorphins and promote happiness (Harte, Eifert, and Smith, 1995).
So try to:
- Use an app that does guided meditation, such as Headspace.
- Commit to doing it at whatever time of day is the easiest to relax. For me, that’s in the evenings when my daughter is asleep but for my husband, he enjoys meditating after he exercises in the morning.
Hello Happiness Hormones, Adiós 2020 Blues
You can’t control if there will be another COVID-19 shutdown.
Or if killer Japanese Hornets suddenly arrive in your State.
But you CAN boost hormones that help you feel happier and at peace.
So say goodbye to 2020.
And say hello to your action plan of boosting dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins.
Micaila is an avid reader of fantasy and historical fiction (you can check out her book review site over here). She’s passionate about Ashtanga Yoga and, recently, she learned how to do a headstand (with the wall’s help). She also loves learning about anything that allows her to eat chocolate instead of exercising (see above article).