There’s a lot going on in the world that can contribute to high levels of stress, from rising gas prices to surging inflation. Even so, there are a few simple rituals that always bring me happiness: cuddles with my puppy, reading before work, getting some exercise and even that first sip of coffee. I’m leaning into these small things that make a difference in my day.
Sure, a cup of coffee won’t change whether you feel truly fulfilled — but in uncertain times, there’s value in boosting your mood when you can.
There are four main hormones (a type of chemical your body makes) that trigger feelings of happiness, and each chemical is connected to specific events or rewards. Understanding these chemicals and how they work can help you figure out even small ways to feel better amid such a stressful time.
To explain exactly how these “happiness” chemicals work, I spoke to Loretta Breuning, founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and author of Habits of a Happy Brain.
Happy chemicals: The secret to a happy brain
Almost everything that makes you feel “happy” is linked to one of the four happiness hormones: dopamine, serotonin, endorphin and oxytocin. Here are some ways you can boost them naturally.
The hormone dopamine is associated with motivation and reward. It’s why you feel gumption when you set an exciting or important goal, and why it feels good to reach that goal. On the flip side, if you have low dopamine (which experts say can occur with depression), it can explain feelings of low motivation or loss of interest in something you used to enjoy.
“Approaching a reward triggers dopamine. When a lion approaches a gazelle, her dopamine surges and the energy she needs for the hunt is released. Your ancestors released dopamine when they found a water hole,” Breuning says. “The expectation of a reward triggers a good feeling in the mammal brain, and releases the energy you need to reach the reward.”
How to boost dopamine:
There are some not-so-healthy habits that increase dopamine like drinking caffeine, eating sugar or taking certain recreational drugs. But you can find ways to kick this hormone up without turning to potentially unhealthy or addictive substances.
“Embrace a new goal and take small steps toward it every day. Your brain will reward you with dopamine each time you take a step. The repetition will build a new dopamine pathway until it’s big enough to compete with the dopamine habit that you’re better off without,” Breuning says.