Why Your Brain Chemistry Might Be the Key to Happiness
By Michelle Robinson

Everyone wants to be happy.  But what is happiness?  That is the million-dollar question.  Happiness is subjective and hard to define.  Your idea of happiness might be very different from someone else’s.  But one thing’s for sure; there’s plenty about modern life that makes it difficult to be happy. So what is the key to happiness?

Key to Happiness: Are we looking in the wrong places?

The consumer driven society has led us to believe that we can gain happiness by having money, and by having all the material goods that we desire.  Clever marketing has told us that having the latest items will somehow make our lives better.  Then there’s the impact of social media.

While social media can undoubtedly be used to positive effect, who hasn’t seen the apparently perfect (albeit highly edited) lives of others, or the photos of impossibly perfect bodies on Instagram and felt inadequate?

Technology has evolved so quickly and it seems that our brains have struggled to keep pace.  We are exposed to a constant stream of information and stimuli, which our brains actually become addicted to, and our reliance on connecting with others online has led to many people becoming lonely and isolated.

It’s the simple things

Maybe instead of looking to external factors to make us happy, like material things, or even other people, we should look inside ourselves, and look at the basic, everyday things that we sometimes take for granted.  No matter how tough life gets, there is always something to be grateful for.

Does the key to happiness lie in our grey matter?

Sometimes, no matter how well you treat yourself, or how positively you try to think and act, it feels like your mind doesn’t want to play along.  Neuroscience researchers have studied what makes people happy, and it turns out that sometimes we really are just at the mercy of our brain chemistry.

What the science says we can do to feel happier

At times, it can feel as though your brain doesn’t want you to be happy; you might experience feelings like guilt, worry or shame, which can feel overpowering.  Ever wondered why we find it so easy to allow emotions like these to overwhelm us?

Well, believe it or not, these emotions activate the brain’s reward centre, which temporarily makes our brain feel better.  Just like worrying when we’re anxious, our brain interprets worrying about something as being preferable to doing nothing about it.  But feeling guilty, worried, and ashamed is not an ideal lifelong solution to your problems.

Ask yourself this question: What am I grateful for?

Gratitude is a far better solution.  Feeling grateful for something or towards others boosts the brain’s levels of the chemicals serotonin and dopamine, which can make you feel happier.  It also gets you focusing on the positive aspects of your life, no matter how small.  Even if you feel like there’s not much to be grateful for, just the act of thinking about what you feel grateful for has a positive effect.

Give your feelings a name

On the days when you feel particularly bad, whether it’s because you’re sad, angry, or stressed, give your feelings a name.  Scientists say that recognising the emotions you’re experiencing reduces their impact by reducing the brain’s reaction towards them.

To reduce the impact of emotions, use a few words to describe them and it will simplify how you’re feeling and help you to make sense of it.  Mindfulness uses this technique.  When you’re practising mindfulness or meditating, you may notice thoughts creeping in, or suddenly become aware of a particular emotion, and that’s fine.  Just acknowledge it, give it a name, and let it go.

Suppressing emotions doesn’t work, as you probably already know.  Researchers found that people who tried to suppress their emotions tended to look outwardly okay, but the limbic system of their brain (the bit that processes emotion and mood) was just as stimulated.

Just decide

Have you ever noticed how once you make a decision, you feel that familiar sense of relief? Neuroscientists have found that making decisions lowers anxiety and helps us to stop worrying.  And being able to solve problems makes our brains feel a whole lot happier.

Making decisions can include things like setting goals, and having positive intentions, which reduces worry and anxiety by acting on the same parts of the brain in a positive way, and inhibiting the action of the area of the brain which can lead us towards negative behaviours.

Making decisions can also make you feel more in control and less at the mercy of your emotions, as it can quieten the limbic system which is responsible for emotion and mood.  When you’re depressed or anxious, making decisions can be really tough.  So don’t stress about it.  Make a decision that is simply good enough rather than perfect.  Constantly striving for perfection stresses your brain, and this is backed up by science.

Making a decision boosts pleasure

And making a decision boosts pleasure; who knew?  Making a conscious choice was found to affect the brain’s reward centre and increased levels of dopamine.  In a study carried out on rats, 2 rats received injections of cocaine after they had either pulled a lever (rat A) or after they had done nothing (rat B).  Rat A released more dopamine.

And the pleasure theory also explains why doing the things you think you have to do or that you should do can be so difficult.  Telling yourself that you have to do something does not give your brain any feelings of pleasure, it just causes stress.  Lack of perceived choice is what is stressful to the brain.  So, tell yourself ‘I’d like to go the gym’, instead of ‘I have to go to the gym.’  While I hear you thinking ‘yeah, right!’, your brain and body will feel the difference!

Connect with others

As humans, we have a basic need for love and acceptance from others.  When we don’t receive it, science has proven that it actually causes us to feel pain.

Neuroscientists carried out a study where people played a ball-tossing video game.  The other ‘players’ threw the ball to you and you had to throw it back to them.  The participants were told that real people were controlling the video game characters.  When the other players didn’t share the ball, the participants’ brains reacted in the same way they would if they had experienced physical pain.  Social exclusion affects the brain the same way that a broken leg would.

Relationships are the key to your brain being happy

And there’s a way that you can boost this even more; by using physical contact.  Physical contact releases the hormone oxytocin which creates a feeling of bonding.  It won’t always be appropriate to have physical contact with people, but even a handshake will have the same effect.  Hugging or being close to someone you love has been shown to reduce pain.  In studies carried out on couples, the stronger the marriage, the more powerful the pain killing effect was.


One study found that holding hands with someone can help you get through painful situations.  One study scanned married women as they heard that they were about to get a small electric shock.  The anticipation of the shock caused predictable activity in the pain and worry areas of the brain.  In a separate study, the women either held their husband’s hand or the hand of the person conducting the experiment.

Getting a hug can make you feel happier and can reduce pain

When a woman held her husband’s hand, the anticipation of the shock appeared to have less of an effect on the brain.  The researchers also found that the stronger the marriage, the less activity there was in the areas of the brain that react to discomfort.  So, the research shows that getting a hug can make you feel happier and can reduce pain.  But if the hugs aren’t forthcoming, treat yourself to a massage.

Research has shown that massage can boost serotonin levels by as much as 30%.  It can also reduce the level of stress hormones in the body, it boosts dopamine, combats pain by releasing endorphins, and it helps you sleep better.  So, if you go for a massage, tell people you aren’t just being indulgent, you’re being nice to your brain!

A text is no substitute for contact

In the technological age, we might text people to see how they are.  While you may think that this is better than nothing, your brain and body don’t agree.  When people were put in a stressful situation, and either received a text message or no support from anyone at all, the people who received the text message had similar oxytocin and stress hormone levels to the group who had no support.  It seems that a text is no substitute for contact, no matter how well-meaning it might be.

Everything is connected

It seems the key to being happier is a case of neuroscientific cause and effect.  If you feel gratitude, you’ll sleep more soundly, better sleep can reduce pain, and if you have less pain, you’ll be in a better mood.  If you’re in a better mood, you’ll be less anxious, which will improve your ability to focus.  And if you focus, you make better decisions.  When you make decisions, you’ll be less anxious and more able to enjoy life.  And enjoying life means that there’s more chance that you’ll do the positive things that will make you feel happy.

Happiness might be subjective, but arming yourself with the knowledge about what happiness really means, and where it comes from, can really make a difference to you and how you look at your life.

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