Essentially, these feel-good hormones act as neurotransmitters, sending happiness-supportive signals to the brain—and it's possible for you to increase your levels of them naturally. Parsing out their unique benefits and what, exactly, triggers their release is what led Agrawal to her latest venture, Daybreaker+ (an online version of Daybreaker for the pandemic era) and the science behind it, which she calls the D.O.S.E. method.
As you might guess, the method's acronym stands for the joyful neurotransmitters themselves. And the various activities and classes featured on the platform—which include things like meditation, yoga, qigong, and, of course, dance—are grouped based on the neurotransmitter they’re most likely to support. “So much of the world of joy gets stuck above the neck and intellectualized,” says Agrawal. “But we’ve actually found that a lot of real joy can come from activating the body-brain connection through movement.”
To develop the joy practices on the Daybreaker+ network, Agrawal consulted with psychologist Dacher Keltner, PhD, founder of the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and host of The Science of Happiness podcast. “This concept [of D.O.S.E.] is based on extensive literature mapping distinct positive emotions to each of the different neurotransmitters—for example, enthusiasm to dopamine, or love and compassion to oxytocin,” says Dr. Keltner.
He also collaborated with Agrawal to develop a happiness blueprint quiz that helps determine which of the four feel-good hormones you may be lacking (and prescribes classes and activities to replenish it) using a few questions about your mental state and goals. But as we continue to inch toward the shorter, dimmer days of winter, it surely wouldn’t hurt to up your levels of all four.
To that end, Agrawal and Dr. Stacie J. Stephenson, known as the “The VibrantDoc,” a functional medicine expert and author of Vibrant: A Groundbreaking Program to Get Energized, Reverse Aging, and Glow, share tried-and-true joy practices that can naturally boost your feel-good hormones, below.
What are feel-good hormones (AKA happy hormones)?
“The endocrine system, which is the system of organs that produce hormones [including feel-good ones], is constantly regulating the production of all the hormones in your body,” says Dr. Stephenson. “Your hormones are always ebbing and flowing according to your needs in the moment, as interpreted by your brain.”
She adds that it’s difficult to pinpoint which hormones produce particular feel-good effects because there are many that contribute to mood regulation, and the endocrine system is interdependent, working in concert with other bodily systems like the nervous system, immune system, and digestive system. However, the four hormones that are typically instrumental in making you feel happy (or relieving negative feelings) are serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins.
12 Joy Practices Designed To Boost Each of the Feel-Good Hormones
1. Singing in the shower: Dopamine
Known for its major energizing effect, dopamine functions like an upper: It’s that rush-of-happiness feeling you might get from recalling, living, or anticipating something super-satisfying.
To re-juice your levels, Agrawal suggests belting out the lyrics to your favorite song in the shower—mostly because the acoustics make you less likely to start self-analyzing your own singing ability. “Research on vocal toning suggests that hearing and experiencing the vibrations of your own voice can boost feelings of joy, but also, singing in the shower is a practice of courage and communication,” she says.
2. Self-massage: Oxytocin
You might know oxytocin as the cuddle hormone because it often stems from human connection or touch, and it tends to trigger feelings of being loved, secure, and comfortable. But you don’t necessarily need another person to boost your levels, says Agrawal, who recommends gentle self-massage, focusing on the face.
“Take your index fingers, and start at the center point of your eyebrows, and then trace your brows, moving toward your temples, which you can massage in small circles,” she says. Another option? Simply cup your cheeks in the palms of your hands for 15 seconds, or give yourself a hug by crossing your arms and squeezing your shoulders, then move down your arms for about seven to 15 seconds, Agrawal suggests.
3. Fake-smiling: Serotonin
Perhaps the most famous of the feel-good hormones for generating a sense of all-around ease and contentment is serotonin, which is linked to a whole host of bodily functions beyond boosting happiness, like aiding the digestive process and mediating blood pressure. As for how its effect can manifest in your mood, however, it’s typically present when you feel like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself—and when you’re grateful for your role in life, says Agrawal.
While spending time in bright sunshine has been shown to boost serotonin levels, come winter, it’s tougher to do a whole lot of that. So, Agrawal recommends another foolproof strategy: Trick yourself into a happier perception of the world with a fake smile. “Just put on a cheesy ear-to-ear grin for about five to seven seconds, and typically, that’ll turn into a real smile or a laugh, which can start releasing serotonin all the same,” she says.
4. Dancing: Endorphins
You might associate endorphins with a runner’s high, and while you can certainly go on a run to help release more of them, any type of heart-pumping physical activity you like can do the trick. The key is for it to be something during which your brain can fully tune out—such as dancing with reckless abandon, like you might at a wild concert or just whenever no one else is watching.
“Find a mirror, choose one song that you love, and have a dance party while you watch yourself,” Agrawal suggests. And whenever there’s an instrumental break, take a few seconds to say a positive affirmation, like “I am beautiful,” “I am worthy,” or “I am enough,” she adds.
5. Sunlight: Serotonin and endorphins
As noted above, spending time in the sun can boost serotonin, which Dr. Stephenson says contributes to feeling positive, calm, and focused during the day. Serotonin, she adds, is a precursor to melatonin. That means that sun exposure during the day can also support a more restorative night sleep. What’s more, sunlight can also increase the body's production of endorphins. Dr. Stephenson describes endorphins as “the body’s natural opiates.” For these reasons, she encourages spending 15 to 30 minutes a day getting sun exposure (particularly first thing in the morning) to give yourself a natural mood boost.
6. Intimacy and sex: Oxytocin and dopamine
If you need another reason to spice things up between the sheets (beyond, well, an orgasm), know that intimacy and sex also releases two key happy neurotransmitters. “One is oxytocin, which is directly related to feelings of pleasure, bonding, and closeness during intimate contact, especially during orgasm,” Dr. Stephenson says. “The other is dopamine, which leads to that pleasurable relaxed feeling following a satisfying intimate encounter.”
7. Eating good food: Endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin
“Aside from producing the satiety hormones ghrelin and leptin, eating foods that taste good to you also causes the body to release endorphins, which is why certain foods make us feel happy after eating them,” says Dr. Stephenson. “In fact, endorphins are released twice in this context: once as the food goes into your mouth, and again when it hits your stomach.”
Eating tasty food also releases dopamine and serotonin, though some foods are more mood-boosting than others. In particular, Dr. Stephenson says chocolate is notorious for making people feel happy. “That’s because it not only triggers the release of endorphins, but the tyramine in chocolate also triggers the release of dopamine, and the tryptophan in chocolate helps to produce serotonin,” she says.
8. Meditation: Serotonin
Meditation is another mood-boosting ritual to add to your happiness toolkit. “Many studies have shown that meditation can improve and regulate the appropriate release of mood-impacting hormones, including serotonin, melatonin, cortisol, and epinephrine,” says Dr. Stephenson. “In one study investigating non-pharmacological interventions for depression, meditation came out as number one on the list of ways to increase serotonin in the brain, which was, in this study, positively correlated with reported levels of happiness.”
9. Laughing: Dopamine and serotonin
Whether you’re watching a funny movie or hanging out with friends, it’s difficult not to feel happy when you’re laughing thanks to its mood-boosting effects. In particular, Dr. Stephenson says laughing enhances dopamine and serotonin and decreases excess cortisol, further relieving stress. And fun fact: There’s also such a thing as laughter therapy for the management of chronic stress.
10. Petting animals: Oxytocin
Pet parents will likely already know this, but spending time snuggling up with a furry friend can also trigger the release of happy hormones.
“Just petting an animal releases the feel-good, bonding, so-called ‘love’ hormone, oxytocin, which, according to several studies, can lead to more social interaction, less stress, less pain, less anxiety, better digestion, and anti-inflammatory effects,” says Dr. Stephenson. And you don’t need to take on the responsibilities of pet ownership to reap the rewards. Petting friends or family members' pets will also do the trick.
11. Spending time in nature: Serotonin
Whether you’re exploring the great outdoors or just visiting your local park for some fresh air, spending time in nature is a science-backed happiness-booster, as well.
"Not only has it been proven that time in nature reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol," says Dr. Stephenson, "but a 2020 study showed that women in middle age had significantly better serotonin and vitamin D levels when they spent three days in a forest setting than after three days in an urban setting." So, the next time you’re feeling blue, get out in nature, stat.
12. Exercise: Dopamine and serotonin
It may come as no surprise that exercise is a big mood-booster, particularly thanks to dopamine and serotonin. “Research shows that regular exercise over time can increase dopamine receptors and lead to a higher level of circulating dopamine in the system,” says Dr. Stephenson. “Recent studies have also shown that exercise increases serotonin levels in the brain.” Translation: Over time, regular exercise will help you feel more naturally happy and content.
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