The Science of Happiness

The happiness hormones. Apologies to GABA,
I couldn’t find an image that included you.

Today’s post is a more scientific approach to happiness where we are going to look at several neurotransmitters and hormones that have been known to play a role in happiness. The five that I am going to discuss are: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, GABA, and endorphins. Entire books can be and have been written about each of these molecules so there is no need for me to bore you all into tears by writing my dissertation on the happiness hormones. I will give you references to books and studies where you can further your own understanding and education on the matter, but for purposes of this blog I will simply cover at the most superficial level, what these hormones are, how they affect our happiness, what we can do to increase their presence, and where and why we should exercise caution. Happiness means different things to different people, but at some level we all experience happiness based on our levels of and relationships between these molecules.

Dopamine is associated with risk and addictive behaviors
like gambling addiction

Let’s begin with dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that acts as a precursor to norepinephrine (adrenaline). If we think about it in terms of its relationship to adrenaline, a lot of us can recall a time when we did something epic or thrilling, like sky-diving, winning the lottery, winning a sporting event etc. People experiencing this rush of awesomeness will say, correctly, that they are loving the adrenaline rush. Their heart rate and blood pressure go up and sympathetic nervous system, the system that governs our innate flight or fight response to danger is on full alert. This feeling is caused by a massive rush of dopamine. Dopamine creates a feeling of excitement and enters our brain via the mesolimbic dopamine pathway, which is simply called “the reward pathway” for short. Dopamine serves as exactly that, it is a rewarding feeling to us based on some accomplishment. It also factors heavily in memory. Our brain will remember what it did to create that feeling and will urge us to repeat it. Dopamine is closely associated with motivation. Low levels of dopamine have been observed in depressed individuals who report little motivation to do anything or little excitement out of life, even things they previously found enjoyable. A healthy presence of dopamine is necessary to feel normal and happy and we can keep levels high by engaging in activities that bring us joy. However, we must be extremely careful against the overcorrection against low dopamine which can push us to addiction. The role of dopamine in our reward pathways can lead some to addictive drugs, the consumption of which creates a temporary dopamine rush, but ultimately leads to a withdraw that can only be satisfied with yet more drugs. The same is true of other addictive and dangerous behavior such as sex, and gambling, where one can become addicted to the feeling – specifically the dopamine rush. As with most things in life, moderation is key, as a low level of dopamine can create a sense of withdraw and general un-enjoyment of life, while the opposite can lead to destructive behavior.

Let’s talk next about serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays roles in a number of bodily and neural functions including but not limited to: sleep regulation, mood, appetite, cognition, and memory. Higher levels of serotonin are associated with better moods and greater capabilities of dealing with rejection. Among the most common anti-anxiety/anti-depressant drug families are Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s). SSRI’s increase the presence of serotonin in an individuals brain leading to better mood, and less stress, thus enabling better coping with certain problems. Low levels of serotonin, like other neurotransmitters and hormones is associated with mood disoreders, anxiety and depression. High levels of serotonin are not necessarily a bad thing but they are capable of reaching depletion. Just as addictive drugs influence dopamine so too do they have an impact on serotonin. A cocaine high creates euphoria in part by causing the body to expend all of its serotonin at once, causing immense feelings of joy and excitement for a brief period. However, once the drug is processed through the body, the individual experiences withdrawals, a feeling that anyone who has experimented with cocaine, alcohol, ecstasy and other drugs has felt before and knows as the low. During the low, where serotonin is depleted, people experience depression, lower moods, and even memory impairment until such time as their body is able to replenish its serotonin supplies.

Oxytocin is associated with physical touch
and builds a sense of trust and love

Oxytocin is one that we have discussed recently in my post on pets. Oxytocin is a hormone that is known amicably as the love hormone. Oxytocin levels rise when we come into physical contact with another, and which according to the research done in my post on pets, can be increased by physical contact across species boundaries. Oxytocin is exceptionally high in mothers during child birth and is part of the reason why the mother in particular has such a strong affinity of love and protection over the child. Oxytocin even helps the mother lactate in order to feed her offspring. Oxytocin promotes feelings of affection, love, trust, and comfort internally and between those who are touching. The lack of oxytocin in young infants, those who may not be held or hugged as often as needed for example, is associated with increased risk of mental and psychological disorders later in life. Humans evolved as social creatures, something that has profound impact on our lives. One of the consequences of withdrawal from normal society is the decreased presence of oxytocin compared to those who live normal social lives. This is just part of the reason why solitary confinement, a complete removal from society, has such profound effects on prisoners and is why many deem it to be the cruelest punishment imaginable.

Endorphins create a sense of euphoria and block pain
enabling us to engage in long-duration activity

Endorphins are yet another hormone that we have previously discussed, specifically in my several posts that have talked about exercise and physical activity. Endorphins are closely associated with dopamine as they both create a sense of euphoria, however endorphins are specifically released during exercise and are intended to act as a pain-killer of sorts, allowing us to continue our activity, while dopamine acts as an incentive to produce a reward. Lack of endorphins does not necessarily correlate to depression as we have very low levels when we aren’t engaged in repetitive types of physical activity, but the increase of endorphins has been associated with temporarily increased moods. Endorphins are what is responsible for what many describe as “runner’s high” where after they have been running for some time, they reach a point at which they no longer feel pain and feel as if they could carry on indefinitely, a feeling that persists well after they have ceased activity. 

Lastly, I want to talk about Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid or GABA. GABA, rather than most of the above, is an inhibitory neurotransmitter rather than an excitatory. GABA has the effect of reducing sympathetic nervous system activity, our flight or fight response, and instead allows us to experience calm and think rationally. Because of its role as an inhibitory, anti-excitatory hormone, low leves of GABA are associated with anxiety, wherein individuals are unable to think rationally and everything seems a threat. Healthy levels of GABA enable us to problem solve and cope properly. An extreme excess of GABA would be similar to a heroin or opium high, where the individual would be desensitized to pain, and mentally distant, so inhibited as to barely be thinking at all.

I hope this post has been insightful. By now you may at least have a somewhat better understanding of how the body works, and what is occurring within your brain when you feel a certain way. The best way to maintain a healthy level of the above referenced hormones and neurotransmitters is by getting adequate sleep, healthy amounts of physical activity, and a nutritious diet. Excesses and insufficiencies of any of the above can cause severe mood changes, cognitive effects, or dangerous behavior. In the future I will elaborate in greater detail about thinking exercises, meditations, activities and more that can be done to help promote greater balance of these molecules.

Sources: 

Darius Dfarhud et al. Happiness and Health: Biological Factors, Systemic Review Article. Iranian Journal of Public Health. November 2014. 
Kringelbach and Berridge. The Neuroscience of Happiness and Pleasure. Soc Res NY. Summer 2010. 

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