The Chemistry of Happy: A look at the brain chemicals that control our emotions

Are you feeling happy?

If the answer to that question isn’t a resounding “yes,” then it might be more than just a bad mood or being in a funk; you very well could be suffering from low levels of essential “happiness chemicals” in the brain.

You’re also not alone. In fact, one in six Americans now takes some sort of psychiatric drugs, many of which are antidepressants used to boost their mood.

That’s 16.7% of 242 million U.S. adults that report filling one or more prescriptions for psychiatric drugs each year, including 12% of all U.S. adults that take antidepressants, 8.3% that take anxiety drugs or sedatives.

But is taking a synthetic pill really the best way to make most people feel more optimistic, positive, and connected?

Probably not, if we take into account the causes of origins of our happiness – including the brain’s chemical neurotransmitters.

For instance, did you know that 40% of your happiness is dictated by your thoughts, behaviors, and actions?

About 50% of your level of happiness is determined by genetics, so you have little or no control,

And only10% of your happiness is determined by your environment or circumstances.

But no matter what factors impact our feelings of happiness, the actual emotion is caused by certain chemicals in our brain. In fact, the neurocenter for our happiness sits in the left orbitofrontal cortize, the anterior cingulate gyrus, and the hippocampus in your brain.

If you can't even pronounce them – yet alone understand what they do – don't worry, because we'll break down the most important neurotransmitters in your brain that help facilitate feelings of positive mood.

Together, we’ll call them your “Happiness Chemicals.”

These include: 

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter synthesized from amino acids that help maintain your moods.

It helps regulate:

Learning

Positive mood

Memory

Sleep

Appetite

Serenity

Hope

And even Sexuality

Your serotonin levels are highest when you are feeling significant or important. In fact, loneliness and depression are a symptom of absent serotonin.

Getting a little sunlight every day helps naturally boost serotonin levels.

Glutamate is responsible for feelings of tranquility, as well as learning and memory. But too much glutamate can cause feelings of agitation, impulsivity, and anger.

Dopamine is a chemical that transmits arousing and stimulating signals between nerve cells. It’s what drives you to take action to fulfill your needs, desires, and goals, including the sense of pleasing satisfaction when you achieve something.

It helps regulate:

The brain’s reward and pleasure centers

Movement

Motivation

Emotional responses

Relaxation

Euphoria

Low levels of dopamine lead to procrastination, self-doubt, and a lack of enthusiasm in life.

Eating healthy (dark) chocolate actually enhances secretion of dopamine.

Gamma-AminoButyric Acid is an amino acid that acts as a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. It creates a sense of calmness, improves the quality of sleep, and reduces stress, nervousness, and anxiety.

Endorphins are chemicals that interact with your body’s opiate receptors, helping you minimize feelings of pain and stress. In fact, endorphins are released in reaction to acute pain and stress, such as with the Fight or Flight Response.

Endorphins are also responsible for “Runners’ High” or other exercise-triggered euphoria. Laughter will also induce the release of endorphins.

But too little, and you’ll feel tired and lethargic.

Oxytocin is a hormone that is produced and secreted by the pituitary gland. Your body's oxytocin naturally stimulates a sense of attachment and connection, as well as feelings of intimacy and trust.

Oxytocin is largely what we feel when we're in love, feel affection, or even the bond between a mother and her child during birth and breastfeeding.

The good news is that you can also build new neural circuits or pathways to help you trigger the secretion of these chemicals, improving your level of happiness. These are natural, healthy, safe, and easy things you can do to make a significant impact on your positive moods and emotions every day.

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In part two of this blog, we’ll cover how to naturally boost your happiness chemicals!

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