Happy chemicals and how to make them

Hannah Sims · 24 Mar

It’s hard being happy nowadays. In fact, it’s even hard to declare the unremarkable words ‘I’m fine’.

Major depression is the most prevalent psychological disorder in western society; it infiltrates every age group and almost every community and its symptoms are no picnic either: hopelessness, self-loathing and lethargy – to name but a few. By 2020, depression will be the 2nd most disabling condition in the world, right behind heart disease. We hate to be the bearers of bad news, but the evidence is pretty conclusive; we are in the midst of a depression epidemic.

While depression is no mean feat to overcome and can require lengthy medicinal and psychological treatments, many of us can improve on our general happiness when experiencing a sour case of midweek blues. So in the spirit of fostering positive wellbeing and growing our happiness, the team at Perkbox have looked to science for help. We’ve explored four chemicals responsible for our happiness, and how to hack them into being. International Happiness Day was just last week, after all (on 20th March – who knew?).

1. Sweat = Seratonin
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Yes, yes, we all know that exercising is good for you – it’s a childhood truism right up there with ‘an apple a day’. But actually, exercising is really, really good for your happiness levels, as well as your physical health. Those who sweat the small stuff by sweating it out for 20-30 minutes a day release neurotransmitters, like serotonin – the chemical associated with depression. In fact, anti-depressants like SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) work by increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain, as does the illegal psychostimulant MDMA (ecstasy). But we’re not into that. We’re into running and jumping around.

IDEA: Simple, get sweating! After a bit of exercise and secretion of all that serotonin and noradrenaline, your body will create a state of post-workout bliss. It is this that is responsible for endorphin junkies chasing that ‘high’ throughout the lands.

2. Goal-set = dopamine
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Dopamine. You’ve probably heard of it from its scandalous reputation with addictive drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine, which act by accumulating dopamine to create a feeling of euphoria. But dopamine gets a bad press. It’s released naturally after accomplishment of our desires, goals and needs and that feeling of euphoria is simply a chemical ‘congratulations’. Increase your levels naturally by breaking down large projects into a series of easily achievable goals – and achieve them.

IDEA: Start your day by writing down what you want to (realistically) accomplish. Every strike-through of the completed task is accompanied by a fresh hit of dopamine. How legally satisfying.

3. Socialise = oxytocin
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It’s known as the ‘cuddle hormone’ in popular science – the hormone involved with bond-making and the formation of trusting, intimate relationships. Cute. But oxytocin is much more than your body’s love potion. Your happiness also hinges on it. According to researchers at Claremont University, the higher your oxytocin levels, the higher your happiness and wellbeing.

IDEA: To get some oxytocin flowing, we suggest giving out hugs (or handshakes to shy or easily-offended colleagues), stroking a pet (anyone’s will do) or getting a massage (which also releases serotonin and dopamine – a positive cocktail of happiness). The benefits of oxytocin can be felt by individuals in non-touchy-feely relationships, too, by simply being around and in close proximity with other people.

4. Meditate = GABA
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GABA is an amino acid, Gamma-Amino Butryic acid to be precise (if that means something to you, then pat on the back, you big boffin). It acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain and creates a generalised calming effect, working as nature’s tranquilizer – perfect for calming anxiety and willing away the woes. Anti-anxiety benzodiazepines, such as Valium or Xanax, are sedatives that function by increasing GABA, but you can increase GABA naturally by getting your zen on. A study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found a 27% increase in GABA levels among those who practice yoga following a 60 minute session.

IDEA: Partake in calming activities like yoga or meditation to increase your GABA levels naturally. It’s no wonder that Andy Puddicome swears by ten minutes of meditation a day in his Ted talk to ‘familiarise yourself with the present moments of focus, so that you get to experience a greater sense of calm and clarity in your life’. Om.

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