Joy Triggers: How to Find Happiness on Demand

In a world that often feels like it’s moving at breakneck speed, it’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of everyday stress and distractions, and forget about the simple pleasures that can brighten our days. But the key to happiness lies in the small, seemingly insignificant moments that make up our lives.

From the sound of your favorite feel-good playlist to the satisfying sip of your favorite tea, these little moments of joy have the power to instantly transform your mood. By understanding the chemistry of happiness in your brain and identifying your personal “joy triggers,” you can unlock a constant source of positivity that’s always within reach.

The brain chemicals of joy and happiness

There are four main neurochemicals that are fundamentally linked to pleasure and well-being. Together, they are responsible for creating the emotions and sensations we have come to associate with joy and happiness.

  • Dopamine. This neurotransmitter plays a major role in motivation and the anticipation of reward. When you achieve a goal, accomplish a task, or hit a target, you receive a pleasurable hit of dopamine. It’s basically your brain telling you that you’ve done a good job. Many types of pleasurable experiences—such as sex, eating, and playing video games—increase dopamine release and therefore make you want to repeat them.
  • Serotonin. While serotonin has a complex biological function, it’s popularly known as the molecule of happiness. A variety of antidepressants called Serotonin-Specific Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) work by interfering with the normal reabsorption of serotonin after it’s done with the transmission of the signal, therefore augmenting serotonin levels in the synapses. They don’t work for everyone but show the important role of serotonin when it comes to happiness.
  • Oxytocin. Often called the molecule of bonding, it’s associated with close relationships, skin-to-skin contact, affection, and loving touch. This is what makes you feel good when you receive a hug or play with a pet. Oxytocin is also produced in abundance during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
  • Endorphins. Short for “endogenous morphine”—which means self-produced morphine—they are produced by the central nervous system to help us deal with physical pain. Even though endorphin molecules seem to be too large to pass freely across the blood-brain barrier, some researchers think they are associated with the runner’s high—the feeling of euphoria people get when exercising.

Another molecule that was discovered relatively more recently are endocannabinoids, basically self-produced cannabis. Research found that both humans and dogs show significantly increased endocannabinoids following sustained running, so they’re also a potential candidate for the runner’s high phenomenon.

The great news is that there are many activities that can increase the levels of “happiness neurotransmitters” in your brain. While some activities have been extensively studied – such as sex and exercise – many can be personal to you, for example if they activate the reward system and release dopamine.

Define your joy triggers

In a talk she gave a few years ago, Arianna Huffington, the founder of The Huffington Post and Thrive Global, described what she called “joy triggers”—simple ways to feel instantly happier. The expression defines exactly what it is: a way to trigger a feeling of joy.

“It’s not enough to be productive. It’s not enough to be successful. I need my joy triggers. Joy triggers are not rational. Bring them into your daily life, because I really believe that it’s all a part of how we can bring balance into our life—getting joy from simple but beautiful things.”

Arianna Huffington, Founder & CEO, Thrive Global.

There are two ways to define your joy triggers: retroactively or in the moment. The first one consists in sitting down, remembering all the times you felt happy, comfortable, relaxed, joyful, or positively excited, and writing them down. It’s an interesting exercise but research suggests that we tend to not remember ordinary, mundane experiences very well – the small things get forgotten easily.

This is why the second approach can be more effective. It consists in being more aware and mindful of these joyful moments when they happen, and writing them down as you go. Here’s how to do this:

The Joy Triggers Cycle
  • Collect joy triggers. Create a dedicated note called “joy triggers” on your phone, and add to it every time you feel good. You will end up with a list of small sources of joy in your life.
  • Keep your list accessible. Ideally, your joy triggers should be simple activities that you could easily repeat any time you need to quickly improve your mood. For example, drinking a cup of nice tea, listening to a specific song, looking at a picture of your children when they were babies, going for a quick run, re-reading one of your favorite poems, petting your dog.
  • Use your joy triggers to boost your mood. Every time you feel down, stressed, or anxious, and need a shot of joy, open the list and pick something that you can do right now. Stop everything else you are doing and focus on that one simple activity. Be present and mindful. This will of course not get rid of all of your problems, but this small moment of joy may be just what you need to manage to get through the day.

Incorporating small moments of joy into your daily life can have a profound impact on your overall well-being. By taking the time to identify your joy triggers and making a conscious effort to experience them regularly, you can create a powerful tool for managing stress, boosting your mood, and finding happiness in the present moment.

The beauty of this approach lies in its simplicity and accessibility. No matter what challenges you face or how busy your schedule may be, there’s always an opportunity to pause and savor life’s little pleasures. Whether it’s the first sip of your morning coffee, the sound of your favorite song, or the feeling of the sun on your face, these tiny moments of joy serve as a reminder that happiness is not some far-off goal, but rather something that can be cultivated and experienced every day.

So, start building your own collection of joy triggers, and make a habit of turning to them whenever you need a quick pick-me-up. And consider sharing these little moments with others – by doing so, you’ll not only enhance your own well-being but also inspire those around you to find more joy in their daily lives.


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