After experiencing depression while training to become a physician, I developed an interest in happiness and have studied, and taught, ways to create positivity and joy.
A study published in Psychological Science in 2008 found that certain inherited genes seem to account for 50 percent of our happiness. But even if your natural tendency is to be more down than up, you can make choices that will help you experience a brighter, happier life.
Hormones and neurotransmitters moderate our feelings of well-being, and lifestyle factors affect them. Here are five of the main hormones and neurotransmitters, plus ways to boost them. However, if you feel consistently unhappy, see your doctor.
This neurotransmitter drives your brain’s reward system. If you are praised at work for doing a good job, you’ll get a delicious dopamine hit–resulting in feelings of well-being. It also drives pleasure-seeking behavior.
Boost it: Set realistic goals (e.g., tidying your desk or sticking to your workout schedule) and achieve them. And seek out pleasurable healthy activities that have a positive impact on your life. Also, listening to music is a fabulous way to get a hit of dopamine: In a 2011 study published in Nature Neuroscience, McGill University researchers reported that listening to music you love (especially if it gives you “chills”) creates a boost in feel-good dopamine.
This mood-boosting neurotransmitter was made famous by SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) antidepressants, which increase the brain’s serotonin levels.
Boost it: The most effective and natural way to raise serotonin is by exercising daily; that’s one reason a brisk walk does wonders for your mood. Carbohydrates increase serotonin levels, which partly explains why we crave sweet, starchy foods when we are feeling down. For the best mood boost with the least negative impact, choose healthy, high-fiber sources of carbs such as dense whole-grain bread or quinoa.
Both a neurotransmitter and a hormone, oxytocin is often called “the love hormone.” Researchers from Claremont University in California have done extensive research on its impact on women, linking oxytocin release to life satisfaction levels. It may play a greater role in women’s physiology and happiness compared to men’s.
Boost it: Spending time with loved ones and being kind to others stimulates oxytocin. Don’t you feel good just reading that? Stress blocks the release of oxytocin, so manage your stress, too.
It helps form serotonin and protects you from irritability and anxiety, keeping your mood steady. Estrogen decreases with menopause, and lifestyle factors such as smoking and extreme exercise can also lower it. The estrogen/progesterone imbalance in perimenopause can also negatively affect mood.
Boost it: Stress management can balance them, since stress hormones, such as cortisol, interfere with the secretion, action and function of the two hormones. Increase estrogen with stress-relieving activities such as yoga, meditation, taking a hot bath–or whatever works for you.
This helps you to sleep well and prevents anxiety, irritability and mood swings. Levels drop as women enter perimenopause after age 35 or 40, and this can be accelerated by excess stress and unhealthy foods.
Boost it: Keep progesterone levels at optimum levels by eating well and avoiding saturated fat and sugar, getting regular physicals and avoiding stress. Experts such as Dr. Sara Gottfried, author of The Hormone Cure, say taking care of yourself and eating right is your first defense for balancing hormones before trying hormone replacement therapy, including bioidentical progesterone and estrogen. Talk to your doctor to learn more.
October 2014 issue of Best Health magazine