Hacking Happiness

February 4th, 2016

Hacking Happiness

First, my apologies for the click-baity title of this month’s health tip, but I just can’t pass up on an alliteration opportunity.

We are fairly deep into the depths of winter, which means that a good deal of you probably have had the happy sucked out of you by now. Fear not though — for I have good news! There are some easy things that you can do to snatch some good vibes back from the claws of old man winter.

Our sense of happiness and well being can pretty much be boiled down to having the right balance of four different neurotransmitters — serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins. So let’s talk about what each one does, and how you can give it a little boost.

Serotonin – One of the easiest ways to know what something does (especially when it comes to psychology and neurobiology) is to see what happens when we don’t have enough of it. In the case of serotonin, people who lack proper levels of this neurotransmitter tend to suffer from depression, obsessive compulsive tendencies, and impulsivity. A few easy ways to increase serotonin availability to your nervous system are to (no joke) think happy thoughts, smile, expose yourself to bright light, and exercise! There is also some thought that eating foods rich in tryptophan –nuts, seeds, tofu, cheese, red meat, chicken, turkey, fish, oats, beans, lentils, and eggs — can boost serotonin levels.

Oxytocin – This chemical is what helps us bond with one another socially. Increased levels of this neurotransmitter are found in mothers who just delivered their babies, and couples during those first few months of dating (and maybe beyond, who knows?). Some easy ways to boost the love chemical are to well… make love, give gifts, volunteer, interact with people via social media, shoot guns (or do other SLIGHTLY, stress inducing activities), and give eight — yes there is a dosage — hugs per day (yes it counts if you hug your pet).

Dopamine – If you’ve ever gotten that rush after checking an item off your to-do list, sinking a putt, getting a PR at the gym, or buying nearly anything from Amazon, then you know what dopamine is about. This neurotransmitter drives the reward behavior system of the brain. One of the most stark examples of people who lack adequate dopamine is those who suffer from Parkinson’s disease. In addition to its role in cognitive and motor functions, dopamine is also important for a sense of motivation. Aside from taking drugs (drugs are bad), you can boost levels of this neurotransmitter through vigorous exercise, and setting and achieving goals (which can be small, but you HAVE to write them down, and you HAVE to reward yourself). Foods rich in L-Tyrosine — cheese, soybeans, beef, lamb, pork, fish, chicken, nuts, seeds, eggs, dairy, beans, and whole grains — may also help boost dopamine.

Endorphins – These chemicals are our body’s natural pain killers. They are very similar, and work almost identical to opioid drugs (obtained both legally and illegally) but can also be boosted naturally — which is the way that I would recommend you get them. Easy ways to boost endorphins are to exercise (think runner’s high), laugh, and eat dark chocolate and spicy foods.

The majority of the information given above is backed by science, but for the sake of brevity I spared you the details. If you are interested in how this stuff works, I would recommend starting by reading the book Spark by John Ratey, MD.

After reading through all that, I’m sure that you sensed a couple of recurring themes. Exercising frequently (particularly in groups it turns out), interacting with other people, and eating well are great ways too boost your mood. Go figure right?

It is interesting to think about though, because it’s during the winter months that we tend to shut ourselves in, exercise less, and eat worse (think sugar, simple carbs, and alcohol). It may be because of these habits that we end up feeling crappy, get sick, and end up down in the dumps during the snowy season.

Addition by subtraction or something like that … Food for thought.