Everybody wants to be happy, especially with the new year well underway. The year ahead lends itself to making big plans and changes, so you can be the happiest and healthiest version of you yet.
The troubles that these kinds of superficial, sizable notions of happiness aren’t always achievable or simply leave us wanting more. The idea that the answer to our happiness resides outside of us keeps us even further from our desired outcomes, leaving us feeling disappointed and anxious. The term ‘happiness’, by definition, is ephemeral and elusive and subjective… but don’t be disheartened, it is within your reach.
Happiness is largely a chemical experience. There are four main neurochemicals: serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins that are generated in the brain which are fundamentally responsible for creating the sensations and emotions we've come to associate with ‘happiness’.
Our brains and bodies are constantly undergoing complex chemical processes that affect our daily actions. The good news is, our daily actions can also affect our production of ‘happy’ neurotransmitters, meaning we can trigger ourselves into being ‘happy’ with healthy habits!
This is great news. It means that even when circumstances, possessions, or people in our lives aren't exactly as we'd like them to be, there are simple ways we can increase our happy brain chemicals and alter our moods.
So here are 5 scientifically proven ways to achieve a more sustainable kind of ‘happiness’.
Foods are powerful tools for increasing and balancing ‘happy’ neurotransmitters in the brain naturally.
Dopamine is the ‘feel-good’ and ‘reward’ neurotransmitter and is associated with feelings of euphoria, bliss, motivation and reward. To produce more dopamine in the body we need to eat more foods that are high in tyrosine, an essential amino acid that is the pre-cursor to phenylalanine which produces the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain.
Eat more tyrosine-rich foods such as:
Serotonin is known as the ‘happy’ neurotransmitter, as it assists with regulating mood and sleep, alleviates depression and prompts sexual desire.
Research has found that a diet high in tryptophan, an essential amino acid needed to make serotonin, relative to other foods in the diet, may increase levels of this ‘happy’ chemical in our bodies.
Tryptophan is commonly found in foods that contain protein, as well as:
- Cottage cheese
- Sesame seeds
It is also important to have healthy microbiome (good bacteria), as serotonin is made in the in the gut. You can do this by fuelling up with a high fibre diet, and pre- and probiotics:
- Dandelion greens
- Slippery elm
- Green banana flour
Hugs increase oxytocin, the love hormone, by stimulating dopamine and serotonin, while reducing the stress hormone cortisol. In fact, oxytocin plays a huge role in all pair bonding and is greatly stimulated during sex, birth, and breastfeeding. Oxytocin is the hormone that underlies individual and social trust. It is also an antidote to depressive feelings.
The recommended dose for hugs is a minimum of 20 seconds per hug, 8 times a day. To get your hit of oxytocin, give someone you love a cuddle, even a pet will do!
Be of service to others
Looking for more meaning in your day to day existence?
“If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.”- Chinese proverb.
Volunteering and simple acts of kindness towards others have been shown to naturally increase dopamine levels in the brain It’s also a great way to keep active.
A team of sociologists monitored 2000 people over a five-year period and found that people who described themselves as “very happy” volunteered their time for at least 5.8 hours a month. Studies indicate that the very act of giving back to the community boosts happiness, health and dopamine as it gives a sense of purpose and satisfaction.
Instinctively, we already know it to be true and Hippocrates was prescribing it over 2000 years ago, but science has now caught up and has evidence to suggest, being in nature can increase feelings of happiness, relieve stress and depression as well as heal and fight chronic disease.
Another cool fact is that research has shown that exposure to the microbes in healthy soil can improve a person’s wellbeing as well as improve happiness and vitality! Wow!
Gardening would have to be my favourite prescription as it improves access to organic food, exposes you to sunlight (which increases serotonin levels in the bod), microbes in the soil (for a healthy microbiome), and is a great way to stay active. And if it’s community gardening or a gardening program… these have been shown to increase the quality of life for people with anxiety and depression as well as providing people with a sense of purpose and social engagement.
The Queensland government is currently running a campaign Healthier. Happier. for which it recognises the link between health and our happiness and vice versa. They are promoting the idea that if we do things that make us happy in a healthy way, we can attain wellness in a sustainable manner. I love this idea! Follow the link https://www.healthier.qld.gov.au/gardenpack/?fbclid=IwAR2t5l-1oEba5oL-aK0XVfdiR7XmXhYOzC1ldjzgLMXEeszVcJyh-8UutNg where you can order a free kitchen garden starter kit and get started on yours today. They are also offering delicious healthy recipe ideas and guided exercises. Check it out!
Are you time poor or don’t have a garden? Buy a plant! Indoor plants clarify the air by removing toxic compounds, reducing your risk for allergic, lung and cardiovascular illnesses They can also increase mood, empathy and enhance memory and concentration while reducing stress.
The lung institute recommends:
- Money plant
- Chinese evergreens
- Snake plant
- Gerbera daisies
Go get your hands dirty!
Exercise produces three out of four of our ‘happy’ neurotransmitters, especially endorphins, the body’s natural production of opioid neuropeptides, which are produced by the central nervous system to help alleviate physical pain. They also leave us feeling ‘light-hearted’ and even ‘giddy’.
A study showed that as little as 30 minutes of walking on a treadmill for 10 days in a row was enough to produce a significant reduction in depression among clinically depressed subjects.
Movement isn’t just about going hard at the gym either. It is important to make exercise enjoyable, and even fun! Think of things like:
Finally, get outside! Sunlight has been showing to increase serotonin levels in your body, making you feel happy. It also promotes a healthier and better quality sleep which provides relief from depression and anxiety and increases emotional well-being. We are all happier after a good night’s sleep!
For more information and guidelines on how to be Healthier. Happier. Go to https://www.healthier.qld.gov.au
Samantha Bennett is holistic health mentor and speaker, blogger at Love Today Holistic Living, permaculture designer and advocate for the healing power of nature, community and connection, Samantha is an ambassador for Gross National Happiness and completing her final semesters of BHSc Naturopathy. Samantha is passionate about creating change in the way we experience our health, physically, socially and environmentally.
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