First, I’ll clarify that this post will only discuss chemicals that influence happiness that our body produces, not chemicals we add to our body. That is a discussion for another time!
Information about the chemicals our body makes that relate to happiness can fill a whole book. Basically, ‘happiness’ is a chemical state in the brain, but it is not due to a single chemical. Happiness is the result of a complex interaction of at least 7 brain chemicals (neurotransmitters). Behavior, diet and sleep, and many other things, can change the levels of these chemicals.
How do neurotransmitters work? They are chemical messengers. The neurotransmitter molecule is produced by a nerve cell, and waits at the end of the cell in little packets. The packets are released into a gap (the synapse) that exists between one nerve cell and the next when a signal arrives. The neurotransmitter molecules float across the gap and are picked up by receptors in the next cell. When the molecules ‘connect’ with the receptor it causes a new signal in that cell.
Your brain produces dopamine when you do something that results in a reward. It’s a good feeling, right? Our ancestors got this dopamine boost when they were hunting for berries and found a good patch, or pulled in a big fish for dinner. We feel it when we snag a good deal shopping online, or score a few bucks with a ‘scratch and win’ lottery ticket. Other activities can increase dopamine too. Even anticipation of a reward can cause dopamine release. Dopamine can be boosted by playing sports, starting a new hobby, or even driving home from work a new way.
GABA is a brain chemical that slows down activity in the brain. This causes a feeling of calm. Anything that triggers the ‘Relaxation Response‘…getting a massage, meditation, listening to soothing music…causes your brain to release GABA. Some relaxing activities are more effective than others. A study in the “Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine” found that participants who did yoga for 60 minutes had 27% higher levels of GABA than those who read a book for 60 minutes.
Serotonin is one of the most common chemicals produced in our brains. Its effects are also among the most complex. It has been called ‘The Confidence Molecule’ because it is involved with REDUCING anxiety. In other words, when serotonin increases, there is a feeling of calm accomplishment. The reverse, a lack of serotonin, can cause feelings of anxiety. A number of studies have shown massage is a good way to increase serotonin levels. Serotonin levels in pregnant women jumped 30% when their partners gave them twice-weekly massages for four months. A different studied showed serotonin levels in infants 1-3 months of age shot up 34% when their moms massaged them twice a week for 15 minutes for a period of 6 weeks.
Amazingly, just thinking about a happy event in your life can increase serotonin. Bright light, like sunlight, can have the same effect. This study also found that remembering sad events decreased serotonin.
The next post will discuss a few more of the neurotransmitters involved in feelings of happiness.