The Pursuit of Happiness: It's a Hormonal Affair
Happiness is something we all strive for. But it is also something that is hard to put one’s finger on. The pursuit of happiness is different for everyone – it can stem from something spiritual or something material; involving euphoric highs or deep contentment. We each experience this phenomenon in different ways to different degrees.
Ahead of this Sunday’s International Day of Happiness, we look at whether the secret to happiness actually lies with science.
The Science of Happiness
From an evolutionary standpoint, our bodies are designed to release happy-making hormones and monoamines when all is well. Similarly, unhappiness may be experienced when neurological imbalances occur.
With the chemicals in our body so finely balanced, the rigors of day-to-day life can have a huge impact on our state of happiness, as lifestyles lead to the constant ebb and flow of hormones.
One way the human body has failed to adapt is recognising the difference between paper tigers (a piece of paperwork) and actual tigers (a predator). As a result, the human body tends to overreact to stressors by inducing a ‘fight or flight’ response. In other words, many people feel excessively agitated and unnerved by events that, although often serious, are not immediately life-threatening.
Stress causes the body to experience a huge surge in hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to prepare for a life or death situation – even when there is no genuine danger to life.
The rise and fall in levels of progesterone and oestrogen produce the changes in women’s bodies during the menstrual cycle. In turn this fluctuation in hormones can also cause low mood and changes in appetite, which can lead to side effects such as depression and weight gain.
Neurotransmitters help regulate our mood. Two of which, GABA and endorphins, are very important in this process. Fluctuating levels in both of these chemicals can result in anxiety, irritability and tension. GABA helps promote feelings of calmness while endorphins are vital in helping us experience pleasure and pain.
Self-esteem can have a very significant bearing on happiness. Body image, mood, confidence and a sense of self worth all play an important role in our general contentment in life, but it often doesn’t take much to send this off course.
Research from the University of Michigan has shown that the greatest indicator of human satisfaction is satisfaction in the self. As a result, unhappy people often have low self-esteem. Those with low self-esteem are more likely to turn to outside sources for happiness and therefore are more susceptible to substance abuse, anxiety and depression.
Just a few physical issues that can impact on self-esteem include weight issues and even concerns over unwanted facial hair.
Seek Hormones not Happiness
The monoamine neurotransmitter serotonin is known to contribute to feelings of happiness and wellbeing. Research has shown that those with depression have a deficit of serotonin.
Levels of serotonin can be boosted by taking part in activities that make you happy, such as reading a book or eating chocolate as a treat. If in doubt, strenuous exercise is also known to boost serotonin, so a gym session or sex with a trusted partner is also a sure way to promote wellbeing.
Endorphins are also hormones considered to be key to happiness. Most commonly known as the chemicals released during exercise, endorphins are released when the heart rate rises, particularly during sexual intercourse.
If you have heard of the phrase ‘runners high’, you will also know that heading out for a job can bring on a feeling of euphoria. The after-effect of exercise is a flood of endorphins that make us feel a hormonal hight that can be as intoxicating as many drugs. This is because endorphins resemble the chemical structure of opiates, which is why exercise is commonly prescribed to recovering drug addicts as a source of stimulation and a way to access a similar sense of euphoria.
Oxytocin is a hormone released when we cuddle. It is a bonding hormone considered to be crucial in maintaining feelings of contentment. It doesn't just work amongst humans either, research shows that cuddling a pet is just as effective in the production of oxytocin.
To ensure a happy and healthy self we must try to boost the production of those happy hormones; adrenaline, endorphins, GABA and oxytocin. Regular exercise, restful sleep, thinking positively and practicing self-care, are all ways to help us maintain a healthy hormone balance.