Hacking Into Your Happy Chemicals: Dopamine, Serotonin, Endorphins, & Oxytocin
Dopamine motivates you to take action toward your goals and gives you a surge of reinforcing pleasure when achieving them. Procrastination, self-doubt, and lack of enthusiasm are linked with low levels of dopamine. Studies on rats showed those with low levels of dopamine always opted for an easier option, and less reward/food; those with higher levels of dopamine exerted the effort needed to receive double the amount of food.
Break big goals down into little pieces. Rather than only allowing your brain to celebrate when you’ve hit the big finish line, you can create a series of little finish-lines for frequent dopamine release. And it’s crucial to actually celebrate—buy a bottle of wine, or head to your favorite restaurant whenever you meet a small goal.
And avoid the dopamine hangover — when you slump after a massive high. Create new goals before achieving your current one. That ensures a consistent pattern for experiencing dopamine. As an employer and leader, recognize the accomplishments of your team. Sending your team an encouraging email or giving a small bonus is a “dopamine-hit” that will increase future motivation and productivity.
Serotonin flows when you feel significant or important. Loneliness and depression are present when serotonin is absent. It’s why people fall into gangs and criminal activity—the culture and ‘community’ facilitate serotonin release. Unhealthy attention-seeking behaviors are also a cry for what serotonin provides. Princeton neuroscientist Barry Jacobs explains that most antidepressants focus on the production of serotonin.
Reflecting on your past achievements allows your brain to re-live the experience. Your brain has trouble telling the difference between what is real and what is imagined, so it produces serotonin in both cases. Gratitude practices are popular for this reason, they are reminders and mental pictures of all the good things you’ve experienced. If you need a serotonin boost during a stressful day, take a few moments to reflect on your past achievements and victories.
Another way to boost your serotonin levels is to have lunch or coffee outside and expose yourself to the sun for twenty minutes; your skin absorbs UV rays which promotes Vitamin-D and serotonin production. Although too much ultraviolet light isn’t good, some daily exposure is healthy for boosting your serotonin levels.
The release of oxytocin creates intimacy, trust, and strengthens relationships. It’s released by men and women during orgasm, and by mothers during childbirth and breastfeeding. Animals will reject their offspring when the release of oxytocin is blocked. Oxytocin increases fidelity; men in monogamous relationships who were given a boost of oxytocin interacted with single women at a greater physical distance than men who weren’t given any oxytocin. Oxytocin is the glue that binds together healthy relationships.
Often referred to as “the cuddle hormone,” a simple way to keep oxytocin flowing is to give someone a hug. Dr. Paul Zak explains that inter-personal touch not only raises oxytocin, but reduces cardiovascular stress and improves the immune system. Rather than just a hand-shake, go in for the hug. Dr. Zak recommends eight hugs each day.
Giving someone a gift, will also cause their oxytocin levels rise. You can strengthen work and personal relationships through a simple birthday or anniversary gift.
Endorphins are released in response to pain and stress, and helps to alleviate anxiety. The surging “second wind” and euphoric “runners high” when running are a result of endorphins. Similar to morphine, it acts as an analgesic and sedative, diminishing your perception of pain.
Along with exercise, laughter is one of the easiest ways to induce endorphin release. Even the anticipation and expectation of laugher e.g. attending a comedy show, increases levels of endorphins. Taking your sense of humor to work, forwarding that funny email, and finding several things to laugh at during the day is a great way to keep your endorphins flowing.
Aromatherapies: the smell of vanilla and lavender has been linked with the production of endorphins. Studies have shown that dark chocolate and spicy foods will cause your brain to release endorphins. Keep some scented oils and dark chocolate at your desk for a quick endorphin boost.