A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Does your brain hold the secret to happiness?

science of happiness illustration graphic

You can help boost your mood through exercise, meditation and getting enough sleep.

Many of us seek and sometimes struggle to find happiness.

Merriam-Webster defines happiness as “feeling pleasure and enjoyment because of your life, situation, etc.” It’s a simple definition, but for many the route to happiness is complex.

The ingredients of happiness

Marshfield Clinic psychiatrist Dr. Justin Schoen identified a number of processes in the brain that relate to feelings of happiness:

  • Endorphins: Chemicals released during exercise, though Schoen said they block pain more than they boost mood.
  • Dopamine: This neurotransmitter is active when people feel they are receiving a reward.
  • Endocannabinoids: Recent studies indicate these, and not endorphins, are responsible for the feeling of happiness known as “runner’s high.” This occurs when people get a feeling of joy from sustained exercise.
  • GABA: This chemical messenger helps control anxiety.
  • Oxytocin: Sometimes called the “cuddle hormone,” it is released when people feel they have made a connection or an attachment to another person.
  • Serotonin: This neurotransmitter can boost your sense of self confidence.

Money can’t buy happiness

Schoen said multiple studies have shown material wealth is less connected to happiness than actions people take every day.

“Some people have really tough life circumstances, and they’re happy as a lark,” Schoen said. “Others have wealth and all of their material needs met, and they aren’t happy.”

Feeling secure is another major factor in determining happiness, Schoen said. When people feel safe, it is easier for happiness to take root.

Schoen said while medications can be very helpful for people with depression, they aren’t designed to make people happy. Medications are intended to raise a person’s baseline mood, but becoming truly happy requires individual effort on top of medication.

What you can do to improve mood

“Exercise is important. I’m a believer in meditation and yoga” Schoen said. “There’s good data on meditation and yoga that they can help us control our emotions, and yoga can activate GABA and reduce anxiety.”

Learn yoga in these Shine365 stories.

Schoen added that getting enough sleep is crucial to staying in a positive mood. He encourages patients to turn off their phones an hour before bed and turn off their televisions before they go to sleep. He added that the bedroom should be used only for sleep and sex.

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