The Brain’s Role in Happiness

There are as many definitions or experiences of happiness as there are people. Happiness is an emotion, a transient feeling generated by our thoughts in the moment. We experience moments of happiness, as it is a fleeting emotion and not a constant state. Though happiness is unique to each of us, one commonality is that people have control over their thoughts that lead to either happiness or unhappiness.

Why are people unhappy?

If happiness is cultivated from within us through positive thinking, then why are people unhappy? It seems we remain in jobs we dislike and relationships that are unhealthy, are skeptical about our institutions, and weigh ourselves down with managing our stuff. Many feel overextended, unappreciated, stuck, and more uncertain. Our response is to continue on autopilot and work harder to make a difference – a recipe for keeping our happiness at bay.

For some, feeling happy is not within reach. It’s not as simple as turning on a switch when we are dealing with trauma, loss, or a physical or mental problem. We have no control over our feelings of happiness – it cannot be forced.

Good news

The good news is we can learn ways to have some control over our thoughts. The happiest people are the ones who take charge of their attitudes, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Happy people are highly intentional. Knowing that the power to create positive thoughts and the possibility of happiness resides within each of us is empowering.

Let go of four habits

The first step to experiencing more happiness is letting go of four habits that interfere with it:

Life is hard

Our happiness is overshadowed when our dominating belief is that life is tough and full of relentless obstacles. Life is as hard (or as easy) as we perceive it to be. It’s not about minimizing difficult circumstances or traumatic events. It’s about being open to overcoming challenges, trusting that our life decisions will flow and work out with ease.

Control dramas

Things seem to go more smoothly, with much less stress, when we allow a situation to unfold naturally instead of controlling life and forcing a result. Nothing in nature forces itself.

Social comparison

Looking at other people to evaluate and validate our worth is biased – we believe the most critical aspects of ourselves as truth and compare it to the most appealing attributes we imagine to be true in someone else. Sometimes comparing results in negative emotions that lead to low self-esteem instead of motivation to assess ourselves better.

Living in the negative past

It’s natural for our minds to wander. Be mindful where your mind roams. Bring your awareness back to the present moment or invite your imagination to reminisce on positive thoughts and pleasurable experiences.

DOSE OF HAPPINESS

Once you’ve let go of the habits that interfere with happiness, it’s time to create new ones that cultivate more moments of happiness in your life. The brain has a role to play. We can maximize our results by understanding what happens in our brains when we’re happy or unhappy.

The limbic system is the part of the brain that controls our motivation, behavior, and emotions. It’s a survival mechanism that produces chemicals: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins (DOSE).

While daily events and situations trigger these neurotransmitters automatically, there are ways to encourage the brain to produce them – allowing us to create (and repeat) feelings of happiness and a sense of wellbeing.

Dopamine is known as the “feel-good” hormone. It’s responsible for anticipating happiness that motivates us to take action, make decisions, and feel pleasure when reaching our goals. Feeling helpless, lack of motivation, or lethargic? Low dopamine levels due to chronic stress or trauma could be a contributing factor.

Ways to increase your dopamine levels:

 

  • Initiating acts of kindness towards others gives the brain a hit of dopamine.
  • Listening to music stimulates dopamine release. It increases activity in the brain’s reward and pleasure areas, which are full of dopamine receptors.
  • Meditation helps clear the mind of clutter and improves physical and mental wellbeing. Studies reveal this may be due to increase dopamine levels.
  • Pleasurable experiences release a rush of dopamine.

Oxytocin is affectionately referred to as the “love or cuddle” hormone. It is released through social interactions and bonding.

Ways to increase your oxytocin levels:

 

  • Make eye contact during your conversations, be attentive, and tune-in to them.
  • Receive a massage.
  • Give or receive a gift.
  • Hug your spouse or child. Share a more intimate moment with a loved one. Stroke or snuggle your pet.
  • Loving-kindness meditation focusing on silently offering words of kindness to others. May you be safe, be happy, be healthy, at peace.

Serotonin. In a good mood? You can thank your serotonin levels. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter and plays a part in regulating your moods. It’s the brain’s antidepressant drug of choice. It surges when you feel like your life and what you do matter. Do you ever feel “hangry” (hungry and angry)? Since 80% of our serotonin exists in the gut, skipping meals reduces serotonin, leading to crankiness.

Ways to increase your serotonin levels:

 

  • Increase your exposure to sunlight and help produce Vitamin D, which, in turn, triggers the brain to release serotonin.
  • Think positive thoughts. Serotonin doesn’t distinguish between reality and imagination, so when the image or happy memory is active, it produces serotonin as if the event is real.
  • Aerobic exercise and even low-key exercise stimulate serotonin, so gardening or dog walking counts.
  • Eat foods that contain tryptophan, an essential amino acid that converts to serotonin in the brain. Tryptophan is in high-protein foods such as poultry, milk, spinach, salmon, and nuts.

Endorphins. If you’ve ever stubbed your toe or experienced “runner’s high,” then you know what endorphins feel like in the body. They work like morphine to alleviate pain and stress while producing a feeling of euphoria.

Ways to increase your endorphin levels:

 

  • Eat dark chocolate. Chocolate contains phenethylamine, which boosts endorphins.
  • Exercise and dance releases endorphins – just 30 minutes can do the trick.
  • Laughter boosts endorphins and improves immune function.
  • Sexual intercourse not only produces endorphins but stimulates the production of oxytocin. Add a glass of wine and release even more endorphins.
  • Use aromatherapy. Certain aromas influence the production of endorphins, mostly smells linked to a comforting memory. Try diffusing vanilla, lavender, or peppermint into the air, your bath, or your next cup of tea.

When you design your daily experiences and habits around this knowledge, you can activate these chemicals and proactively increase your experiences of happiness.

“Happiness is not a luxury – it is the purpose of our existence.” – Dalai Lama

When it comes to happiness, there is no one-size-fits-all. Finding the secret to your version of happiness is not found going on an exotic destination vacation or winning the lottery – it lives within each of us.

 

Note: The information contained in this article is for educational purposes and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Consult with your doctor first before starting any new practices or health programs.

Copywriter Notice: No part of this article may be used without the written permission of Jan Kinder.

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About Jan Kinder

Jan Kinder, RN, BA, HN-BC, HWNC-BC, a leader in the wellness paradigm and the healing arts, is a board-certified holistic nurse and health and wellness nurse coach, music therapist, international speaker, and author. Her private practice specializes in holistic stress solutions and resiliency, meditation and spiritual mentoring, and vibrational sound and color therapies. She is a transformational leader and among the first certified Chopra Center instructors. Ms. Kinder has been featured in publications like Palm Beach Illustrated, Travel and Leisure, Organic Spa, The Wall Street Journal and LA Confidential.

Comments

    • Jan Kinder

      I agree, Nataliya. As a nurse coach, I see many dealing with incredible challenges with limited resources. I hope you and your loved ones have been well this past year.

  1. Debra

    Thank you for that article Jan. This past year has been one heck of a journey. I feel my moods and emotions have really been tested. It really is all about “self talk” and working on myself. Love you!

    • Jan Kinder

      You’re welcome, Deb. Yes, self-talk is an influencer. So glad for you that you continue to do the self-inquires necessary for change and growth. Love you too!

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