by Miwa Hiroe
If a person were to approach Happiness with surgical gloves and a white lab coat, then boil down the abstraction, they would be left with four primary chemicals: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. These biological chemicals make up the “feel good” hormones, to which each of us are benefited by an individual cocktail of ideal ratios.
Endorphins serve the purpose of masking physical pain. If this sounds like a long jump from happiness, consider the runner’s high. Endurance was a survival factor for early people, and endorphin hits offered positive reinforcement for their agonizing labours. The convulsions of our internal organs, when we laugh, also release endorphins.
Dopamine is the Hansel and Gretel crumb trail toward accomplishments. It assists survival by impelling us to get things done. Dopamine is triggered by reward-motivated behaviors and I refer to it as a ‘crumb trail’ because it includes observations, actions, and substances. For example, while a person will get a chemical pat on the back for eating food, they will also get that same pat for watching a cooking show. This can make dopamine a distracting and highly addictive chemical. While drugs and gambling are classic examples of obsessive dopamine triggers, cell phones and Facebook are equally addictive instigators.
Serotonin is transmitted in response to pride and recognition. It boosts confidence and reinforces relationships. Surges of serotonin are experienced when we receive a compliment or share an accomplishment. Serotonin is a socially induced chemical. It is also provoked by status and can therefore be “tricked” by materialism.
Oxytocin generates feelings of love, trust, and safety. It is triggered by physical contact, meaningful bonds, and human generosity. One of the wonderful things about oxytocin is that, just like a genuine smile, it is contagious. For example, a small act of kindness will increase this hormone in both the receiver and the benefactor, and even in bystanding witnesses. Oxytocin not only affects the way we feel, but also plays a practical role in our health. Oxytocin aids in better sleep, lowers cortisol (which inhibits our immune systems) and curbs dopamine’s addictive tendencies.
I realize that boiling Happiness down to a few chemicals is a limited avenue to a complex state of being. However, it may serve as a cognizable way to look at the neural effects of one’s personal conduct. For instance, it might encourage exercise as a solution to a blasé mood; reaching for a hand rather than the habitual grab for a cell phone; reconsidering the desire for expensive and unnecessary purchases. Recognizing the synergistic relationship between positive interactions and biological well-being might help to prioritize kindness. Perhaps examining chemical balance could instill a rational undertaking of alternative approaches to addictions and attention deficits (one of the symptoms of imbalanced dopamine). If nothing else, may it serve as today’s reminder that the next organic smile you share will ripple on indefinitely.