Love, money, family, work. So many big goals, which can at times feel overwhelming. And yet we keep saying: “It’s the small things that matter.” A nice cup of tea, getting hugged by a friend, petting a dog. When it comes to happiness, it may just be the case that enjoying the little things and knowing your joy triggers can increase your well-being. Once you understand how the chemistry of happiness works in your brain, it becomes easier to use small sources of joy to uplift your mood on demand.
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 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. 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 thinks they are associated with the runner’s high—the feeling of euphoria people get when exercising.
Another molecule that was recently discovered 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 releasing 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. If first heard of the expression yesterday, when chatting with Riya Pabari, the co-founder and CEO of Founders Academy. I love how 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 shows that we tend to not remember ordinary, mundane experiences very well—the “small things” we mentioned earlier 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. You could for example have a dedicated note called “joy triggers” on your phone, and add to it every time you feel good. Ideally, your joy triggers should be simple activities that you could easily repeat any time you need to quickly improve your mood.
You will end up with a list of small sources of joy in your life. For example, drinking a cup of your favourite 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 favourite poems, petting your dog.
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.
Anne-Laure Le Cunff
I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about productivity, creativity, learning, and designing engaging products.
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