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The importance of happiness chemicals in the body

Dr Michela Sorensen

Happiness chemicals have a huge impact on how we feel

Two bearded men laughing outdoors
Two bearded men laughing outdoors

There are few things we value in life as highly as happiness – it’s a force that drives many of our behaviours. According to the United Nations World Happiness Report 2022, Australia was the twelfth happiest nation in the world.

We often think positive events will make us happy – a new romantic relationship or getting a promotion, for example – but the happiness effect doesn’t last. Instead, science shows it’s the little things we do every day that build happiness over time.

One way to build happiness day-to-day is to focus on brain chemistry. Research shows that increasing happiness chemicals in the brain can improve your mood, so we asked GP Dr Michela Sorensen to help us better understand these mood-enhancing neurotransmitters.

Happiness chemicals – what are they and how do they work?

The four main happiness chemicals are serotonin, dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin. Each one has an impact on happiness, with effects ranging from boosting pleasure and satisfaction to controlling stress and anxiety.

1. Serotonin

Serotonin is one of the key hormones linked to our emotions and mood, says Michela. It’s associated with satisfaction and optimism, and also has a role in our physical health.

“It works across many different parts of the brain as a modulator to tweak a wide range of physical, emotional, cognitive and metabolic functions.”

The presence of serotonin in the body influences everything from the quality of our sleep to our appetite, says Michela. “Low serotonin has been linked to reduced immune system function as well as a wide range of mental illness such as depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).”

A family of all ages smile as they hug one another

2. Dopamine

Dopamine was once described as “the Kim Kardashian of molecules” because it’s the neurotransmitter we’re most likely to have heard of.

“Dopamine is often known as the reward or pleasure chemical,” says Michela, revealing that the brain releases this chemical during activities that are considered pleasurable, such as exercise or eating, rewarding us with a hit of happiness.

“It acts across several areas of the brain and therefore, can affect many different functions such as memory, learning, behaviour and movement.”

3. Endorphins

Endorphins are considered natural pain relievers and mood boosters, says Michela. They’re released during laughter, continuous exercise, listening to music, having sex and eating chocolate.

“They act directly on the brain’s opioid receptors and thereby reduce the feeling of pain,” she explains. “When released, endorphins result in an energised, euphoric feeling.”

Endorphins act directly on the brain’s opioid receptors and thereby reduce the feeling of pain

4. Oxytocin

The happiness chemical that helps us feel loved and connected to others is oxytocin.

“Oxytocin is known as the love chemical as it’s released during human-to-human contact such as hugging and kissing,” explains Michela.

Oxytocin also plays an essential role in reproduction. Studies have found it can trigger labour contractions and the flow of breast milk in women, and the movement of sperm in men.

How to boost our levels of happiness chemicals

Luckily for us, there are a number of ways we can encourage the release of these happiness chemicals in the brain.

“Exercise will help produce a release of endorphins,” advises Michela. “Relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation also have the same effect. Eating a well-balanced, healthy and nutritious diet will also boost dopamine and serotonin.”

And, says Michela, if you want high levels of oxytocin, focus on maintaining connections with your loved ones, friends and family.

It’s normal for your levels of these chemicals to ebb and flow from day to day, points out Michela.

“The most important thing is to ensure we try to incorporate those natural mood-boosting activities into our day-to-day lives – exercising regularly, eating a well-balanced diet, maintaining social connections and also having a good sleep routine,” she advises. “We know these things are not only imperative for our physical health, but they are crucial in supporting good mental health and overall happiness.”

Looking for ways to boost your overall mental wellbeing? Experts say building resilience can enhance our relationships, help us navigate life changes, approach new situations with confidence and improve our mental health. Check out our article 1 month to mental strength: What is resilience and how do I build it? for more.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

Dr Michela Sorensen

Dr Michela Sorensen is a GP who is passionate about women’s, mental and rural health. She believes access is the biggest barrier we have when it comes to our health, and is a strong advocate for change in this area. In her spare time, Michela enjoys baking... and eating most of the mixture before it actually makes it into the oven.