Mental Health

10 Healthy Ways to Flip on the Brain’s ‘Happiness’ Switch

BY Health 1+1 TIMEJune 28, 2022 PRINT

Guiyong Lin, a former vice president of Entie Commercial Bank in Taiwan, was on the verge of reaching the top of his career when he started to suffer from depression and hit the bottom of his life.

After being discharged from the hospital, he started hiking. He would go out with a simple meal every morning, and then after climbing the mountain, sweating, and taking a bath in a hot spring, he would come home to rest. Unexpectedly, this helped make a 180 degree change in his mood. In his book “When Depression Knocks on Your Door,” he described his mood after climbing: “I felt happy and relaxed for the entire day, and the uncomfortable symptoms of depression gradually disappeared.” During the period of more than a decade, he has been persisting on climbing, and miraculously, his depression never recurred.

A lot of stress and unhappiness are common among people nowadays. Currently, there are 300 million people suffering from depression worldwide, and the number of people who are troubled by negative emotions is uncountable.

However, our brain itself has some “happy substances,” including neurotransmitters and hormones. When their levels rise, it is like flipping on a “happiness” switch, making negative emotions fade and dissipate.

Modern medicine has discovered that in people with depression and anxiety, the concentrations of serotonin and dopamine are often relatively low. Prozac, a common drug for depression patients, is used to enhance the activity of serotonin in the brain.

At least four chemicals in the human body can make people happy, including serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin. They each play a miraculous role in improving one’s mood.

The ‘Calm Wake-Up Call’ Chemical

When you open the curtains in the morning, and the morning sunlight comes into the room, your sleepiness will disappear, and your heart will be filled with a refreshing and blissful feeling. This is your body’s response to serotonin secretion.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter. About 2 percent of serotonin exists in the brain and more than 90 percent in the gastrointestinal tract. Although the amount of serotonin in the brain is small, it plays a major role in regulating one’s mood and making them feel happy, joyful, and blissful. People with insufficient serotonin in the brain are also prone to depression, irritability, and anxiety.

Serotonin plays an important anti-stress role. According to Japanese physiology professor Hideho Arita, there are tens of thousands of serotonin nerves in the brain, and the serotonin they secrete is like a “calm wake-up call.” It can keep the brain calm and strengthen the anti-stress muscles.

Serotonin also helps people sleep well and feel energized. It can regulate their sleep-wake cycle. Dr. Edward Lin, a family physician, pointed out that sunlight can stimulate the brain to secrete serotonin. The more serotonin the brain secretes, the happier people will be all day. At night, serotonin will be converted into melatonin, which helps with sleep.

In addition, serotonin can also help with weight loss. A study by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center found that serotonin can curb cravings, increase the sense of satiety, and thus improve obesity.

Dopamine Makes People Excited and Motivated

When you feel hungry after a few miles of hiking, and finally see a steaming food stall serving your favorite comfort food, you shout from the bottom of your heart, “Finally!” That moment of excitement and satisfaction is what the dopamine secreted in your brain gives you.

Dopamine is produced in the brain when you succeed in something and are rewarded for your efforts. Dopamine manages one’s reward mechanism, by giving them a feeling of excitement and reward and making them feel motivated and energetic.

“Some people are kind of lazy and cannot get motivated to do things, it’s probably because they have less dopamine in their brains,” said Dr. Andrew Chen from Division of Psychiatry Research at Lenox Hill Hospital.

Richard Depue, professor emeritus at Cornell University, found that positive mood and personality are closely related to dopamine in the brain. People with higher levels of dopamine or whose brains are sensitive to dopamine are more enthusiastic when faced with the same reward.

Dopamine is also produced when cravings are satisfied, such as eating sweets or playing games. However, this is the dark side of dopamine and can easily lead to addiction.

In addition, dopamine is also responsible for enhancing memory and concentration, and it plays an important role in regulating our bodily functions. If the body has too little dopamine, it may cause Parkinson’s disease, with symptoms of hand tremors and dysfunctional body movements.

Our Natural Painkillers

You may have heard of “runner’s high.” That is, when your body is extremely tired after a long run, it will secrete a chemical called endorphin to make you feel relaxed and very happy.

Endorphins are mainly produced in the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. They can give people a sense of calmness and pleasure, and also have excellent pain relief and anti-stress effects.

When suffering from stress and pain, the body will produce endorphins. Subsequently, the stress will be reduced, the pain will be relieved, and people will not feel so much pain.

Endorphins are “natural painkillers.” They work in a similar way to the opiate morphine, by acting on opiate receptors in the brain to relieve pain. However, unlike opiates, endorphins produced by the body do not cause addiction.

When lacking endorphins, people will feel like they are sitting on pins and needles and are more sensitive to pain.

Oxytocin Increases the Sense of Intimacy and Security

When a woman gives birth, her body secretes a hormone called oxytocin that promotes the contraction of the uterus to help with labor. However, oxytocin does much more than that. It is often called the “love hormone.”

Much unhappiness stems from frustration and indifference in interpersonal relationships. Paul J. Zak, an American neuroscientist who has studied oxytocin, points out that the higher the level of oxytocin in the body, the closer one feels to others, and the more trusting and empathetic one is.

Oxytocin is produced when one is in love, and may be produced when one is in a positive relationship with another person. With a fear of heights, Zak executed a particularly dramatic experiment in which he tied himself to another person in a plane, and then jumped from 12,000 feet. Afterwards, he tested his blood and found that the concentration of oxytocin in his blood also increased dramatically.

Oxytocin may also bring friends, partners, and family members closer together. “Studies have found that those with high oxytocin levels are less likely to have an affair,” Dr. Chen added with a smile.

These four happiness chemicals play independent roles in the brain, while also being interlinked. For example, endorphins act together with dopamine and serotonin.

If too much of one substance is secreted, it will go to the other extreme.

“For instance, too much dopamine in the brain can lead to schizophrenia, fantasies, and hallucinations,” said Dr. Jingduan Yang, a psychiatrist and director of Yang Institute of Integrative Medicine.

There are ways to instantly boost happiness substances in large quantities, most commonly by using cocaine, which can rapidly increase dopamine in the body and makes the brain excited. However, when its effects recede, the person will become more dispirited and depressed, and this can even ruin their physical and mental health. Pharmaceutical drugs can also be used to treat mood problems by regulating these substances, but it’s not a long-term, curative solution.

To achieve physical and mental blissfulness and balance without negative side effects, you need to make changes in yourself. There are simple and natural ways to increase the amount of “happiness substances” in your body.

10 Natural Ways to Replenish Your Body’s Happiness Chemicals

  1. Wake up early and go outside to bask in the sun

Nearly two decades ago, Italian neuropsychiatrists noticed that among the bipolar patients admitted to the hospital, those who lived in the east ward were discharged earlier than those who lived in the west ward. Richard A. Friedman, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, wrote in an article that this was very likely due to the antidepressant effect of early morning sunlight.

Soaking up sunlight is indeed an important way to boost serotonin and dopamine.

According to Japanese physiology professor Hideho Arita, basking for 30 minutes or even less every morning can help activate serotonin.

When you wake up in the morning, you should pull back the curtains and let the sunshine in. You can also go outdoors to exercise and directly bask in the sun. Or, on your commute, you can choose to walk in sunny places. All of these can make you feel happy.

Research has proven that continuous, moderate sun exposure can also strengthen the immune system and promote vitamin D synthesis, thus making your bones stronger.

However, the duration of sun exposure should not be excessive. Otherwise, it will damage the skin, and the self-inhibiting function of the serotonin nervous system will also begin to activate, producing the opposite effect.

2. Do the right exercise

Exercise is a good remedy for emotional healing. It makes the brain secrete endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and other happiness chemicals to help people forget their worries and relieve their stress.

“Crazy Suzan,” an artist who has gone through a decade-long depression, once wrote that when she was practicing rock climbing in Melbourne, although she was tired and felt sore all over her body, she felt a natural joy every day, and even her sleep quality improved. She believes that although there are many different types of sports, what’s important is to experience them first-hand and choose the right ones for oneself.

Research conducted by the Clinical Psychology Department at the University of Liverpool found that when people do aerobic exercise in a way they are familiar and accustomed to, and stick to a routine, it has the most stable effect on maintaining a good mood.

3. Sleep well

“Sleep is very, very important for your mood,” said Dr. Andrew Chen from the Division of Psychiatry Research at Lenox Hill Hospital.

A good night’s sleep with regular sleeping times helps maintain the stability of dopamine, serotonin, and other substances in the body. The traditional and natural way of starting to work at sunrise and resting at sunset is the best way to restore the body and mind. Although people no longer rest at sunset nowadays, traditional Chinese medicine also recommends going to bed around 11:00 pm.

At night, the dopamine level in the body will naturally begin to drop, and serotonin will be converted to melatonin, which helps us fall asleep. Many people play with their phones or are on their computers at night, not giving their brain a chance to rest. Combined with the stimulation of the screens’ blue light, the dopamine secretion will continue, which will lead to brain cell fatigue.

Therefore, during the one hour before bedtime, we should let our body relax. We can take a hot bath, turn on an orange desk lamp, and read a bedtime book. We should avoid thinking about stressful things, watching exciting content, and doing strenuous exercise, and we should also keep electronic devices away from the bedroom.

4. Do good deeds

When you help someone in trouble and see their eyes brighten up, a warm and blissful feeling will rise up from the bottom of your heart. However, this feeling is not fleeting. Research has found that doing good deeds promotes brain and body health, and can even extend our life.

A study published in the journal Science shows that when people donate money, or see their money go to a worthy cause, their brain scans show that their “happy centers” deep in the brain are activated. Whether it’s giving someone time, money or other help, it can help reduce your depression and daily stress.

According to US News & World Report, Stephen G. Post, director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University, said that giving and doing good deeds can cause the brain to secrete happiness chemicals such as dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin, thus giving people inner peace and joy.

5. Listen to classical music

“I play music in my clinic,” said Dr. Naiwen Hu, a traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner at Shanghai Tongdetang Clinic in Taipei. “It’s slow classical Chinese music, with the sound of a wooden knocker. Some patients said to me that they hadn’t had a good sleep in a long time, but when sitting here while listening to the music, they fell asleep.”

Music can have a great impact on people’s mood. Good music allows the body to release substances such as endorphins and dopamine, which soothe the nerves and increase blissfulness.

In recent years, “music therapy” has become an important treatment for depression and other mental illnesses.

“Music can heal people who are sad and anxious,” said Joanne V. Loewy, director of the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at Mount Sinai Health System.

However, not every type of music is beneficial to the body, and some music can even aggravate depression. Therefore, music therapists are very careful in choosing the music they use, and they find relaxing, anxiety-relieving music for their patients.

Wen-wen Chou, music consultant at Northern Academy of the Arts, recommends listening to classical music such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, because classical music is mostly calming, and without too many noisy and emotionally stimulating sounds, it is more beneficial to our physical and mental health.

6. Sit in meditation

People who lead a stressful life and are often irritable can set aside a period of free time every day to sit in meditation. This process not only relaxes the muscles and removes distracting thoughts, but also makes the emotions calm and joyful.

Sitting in meditation and practicing spiritual cultivation are wonderful ways to promote the production of endorphins, so some people call spiritual cultivators “endorphin experiencers.” Psychologist Elaine Slater said in an interview with Get The Gloss that meditation stimulates the production of endorphins, turns off stress hormones, and lowers the cortisol level associated with stress.

The 12 teenagers from the Wild Boars soccer team in Thailand survived for two weeks in a cramped cave with little food, clean water, and air, and they still maintained a relatively good emotional and mental state until they were rescued. The coach later explained in an interview that they were able to do this by sitting in meditation.

According to Dr. Leah Weiss, a meditation researcher at Stanford University, meditation can also relieve pain and reduce the body’s inflammatory response. Forming a regular habit of meditation can increase the effectiveness of meditation in improving and preventing diseases.

7. Go into nature

Take a walk in nature, whether it’s in a forest, a mountain, or near a lake, to clear your mind, open your heart, and give you spiritual pleasure.

In nature, you can breathe in fresh air, touch the soil, and bask in the sun, all of which help with the secretion of serotonin. According to Dorothy Matthews, a biology professor at the Sage Colleges, people in nature may inhale soil bacteria, such as Mycobacterium vaccae, which can increase the serotonin level and reduce anxiety.

Ecologist MaryCarol Hunter has discovered that walking in nature or sitting quietly for 20 to 30 minutes can effectively reduce stress hormones.

Some people who enjoy staying at home should at least go for a walk outside. “If you go out and buy something at the supermarket every day, you will feel much better.” Dr. Chen suggested, “You can use grocery shopping to force yourself to go out more often.”

8. Smile

When you were depressed in the past, there might  have been a friend who told you to “smile,” and likely you felt that this person was completely unable to understand your suffering.

But there is good reason to smile, even if only for yourself. Smiling can indeed make your heart feel happy. Smiling allows the brain to secrete dopamine, serotonin and other chemicals, thus boosting emotions, and reducing stress.

There are two types of smiles. One is the standard smile, with the corners of the mouth turning up; and the other is from the bottom of the heart, also known as the “Duchenne smile”, which pulls the corners of the mouth and the muscles around the eyes.

A study by the University of Kansas found that when under stress, both smiles soothe the tension and slow down the heartbeat, as opposed to being expressionless. And the effect produced by the Duchene smile is more obvious than the standard smile.

Regular laughter also helps strengthen the immune system and prolong life.

9. Using aromatic herbs

The aroma of some natural herbs can make the brain secrete serotonin, endorphins, and other chemicals to improve the mood.

Lavender, vanilla, rose, and chamomile are all antidepressant aromatic herbs. You can absorb the essential oils made from these plants into your body through massage, baths, or smelling them. You can also have one or more of these plants in a pot in your bedroom to decorate your room and help with your sleep. You can also make tea out of them, and drink it when you are tired to brighten up your mood.

Rose tea can relieve anxiety, enhance beauty, and regulate female hormones. Chamomile tea can improve insomnia, stop coughing, and brighten the eyes. Lavender tea can soothe the nerves and improve dizziness and headaches.

10. Using positive thoughts to defeat negative thoughts

Negative thinking is the main cause of unhappiness. Everyone has negative thoughts in their head, but “positive thinking” can be trained.

“Every time a negative thought comes up, immediately replace it with ten good thoughts,” said Dr. Chen.

For example, many people feel frustrated and depressed when they fail to catch a bus, but one can then immediately think, “The next bus may not be so crowded”, “Since I missed this bus, maybe I’ll encounter something good on the next one”, “Even if I’m late this time, my colleagues won’t care too much.”

People with sensitive personalities are often worried that others are judging them and saying bad things about them, so they can tell themselves, “They are not talking about me at all” or “they are appreciating me, not pointing out my shortcomings.”

While actively mobilizing positive emotions, more serotonin will be synthesized in the brain. If you persist in this training, over time, your way of thinking will change, with positive thinking prevailing, and you will be able to stay in a positive mindset naturally.

Health 1+1
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