Happiness is defined as the quality or state of being content, joyful, and/or glad. But what does being happy really mean? The answer will almost certainly be different for each person you ask. After all, isn’t it just a state of mind? Or is there more to it than that?
Many things affect people’s moods: stress, surroundings, environment, activities. But what’s actually at work behind all of this? There are four main factors to a person’s mood: dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin. Dopamine is released throughout your body in conjunction with success and causes motivation; procrastination, self-doubt, and lack of enthusiasm have been linked to low levels of dopamine. Scientists state that one good way to keep dopamine levels stable is to, instead of setting one large goal and having one large success when completing it, set lots of little goal marks and celebrate each one accordingly. Parallelly, serotonin is released upon feelings of importance and/or significance. Being praised for a job well done, or even just reflecting on past successes can improve serotonin levels; the brain has trouble differentiating reality from imagination, so remembering a previous accomplishment can potentially increase the flow of serotonin. Another good way to increase serotonin is to spend as little as twenty minutes a day in the sun, absorbing UV rays and vitamin D, thus the reason why some people fall into SAD, seasonal affective disorder.
Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that follows seasonal patterns, most commonly fall to winter. SAD is usually caused by the reduced sunlight in the fall and winter that causes a drop in serotonin levels. Symptoms of SAD are similar to those of traditional depression—irritation, tiredness or low energy, problems getting along with other people, hypersensitivity to rejection, heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs, oversleeping, appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates, and weight gain. Treatments vary from medication to phototherapy to simple lifestyle changes. Phototherapy—a first line treatment for SAD—allows your body to mimic natural chemical releases by sitting in front of a light therapy box that produces a bright light that imitates natural sunlight, and generally starts working from anywhere between two days to two weeks. Another option is antidepressants if symptoms are severe; your doctor may recommend you start on antidepressants a few weeks before your symptoms typically begin each year and continue a few weeks after they usually stop. More simple fixes include making your environment sunnier and brighter—open curtains, sit near windows, and trim branches that block light—getting outside more, and exercising regularly. Some factors may increase your risk of contracting seasonal affective disorder. Females are more likely to get SAD than males, though males have been recorded to have more severe symptoms. Your age may also play a part in your SAD; young people are more likely to get seasonal affective disorder, while more mature adults are far less likely to get SAD. Family history of SAD also increases the risk of getting seasonal affective disorder. SAD may make your symptoms worsen seasonally if you have a previous history of clinical depression and/or bipolar disorder. Living far from the equator also can cause SAD; this may be due to decreased sunlight during the winter and longer days during the summer months.
The other two chemicals in the brain, endorphins and oxytocin, affect the more social side of emotions. Oxytocin is a stimulant of intimacy, trust, and relationships. It improves social interaction and strengthens relationships, reducing cardiac stress and improving the immune system. In other words, those with more oxytocin and better relationships are less likely to have heart attacks and less likely to get sick with diseases like the flu. Oxytocin is often released through interpersonal touch such as hugging, shaking hands, high-fiving, caressing, and cuddling. Doctors recommends at least eight hugs a day to release the proper amount of oxytocin. Endorphins are similar to morphine in the fact that they create euphoria in response to pain or stress to help alleviate anxiety, acting as an analgesic and sedative. Some of the best ways to release endorphins are appropriate exercise, aromatherapy, and laughter. Scientists have discovered that smelling things such as vanilla, lavender, coffee, and dark chocolate stimulates endorphins and produces the chemical in your brain. Apparently doctors really weren’t kidding when they said laughter is the best medicine; scientists say that the power of laughter is so potent that even the anticipation of laughing releases enough endorphins throughout your body for the entire day, which brings me to my next topic.
Tears, more specifically what causes them and why we cry when emotionally overwhelmed, are often questioned. Tears, usually for wetting eyes or removing foreign contaminants, have been known to spring out of our eyes for many different reasons: your favorite character in a book just died; your significant other has just broken your heart; you’ve just been reunited with your son after he disappeared five years ago. Whatever the reason, crying when emotional is much different from other tears and scientists are still skeptical of why we cry. Psychic tears are tears produced in response to sadness, stress, anger, suffering, pain, or pleasure. The limbic system, specifically the hypothalamus, an area of the brain for dealing with emotion, is hardwired to the automatic nervous system. Via a neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, the hypothalamus controls the lacrimal system, triggering tears. But why? Scientists have a few theories about the production of psychic tears. Some believe that we cry to elicit sympathy and compassion from those around us, showing everyone how we feel. Others, however, believe it’s more complex than that; studies have shown that psychic tears contain high levels of stress hormones such as ACTH and painkillers such as leucine enkephalin; thus when you cry, you are literally releasing stress and pain.
In conclusion, happiness is definitely more than just a state of mind, though your state of mind can greatly affect your level of joy. There are simple fixes that can improve your everyday life and levels of contentment: focus on successes instead of failures, get plenty of sun, exercise more, hug often, smell things that you enjoy the scent of, laugh frequently, and remember it’s okay—actually, very good—to cry.
Knight, Nick. “Why Do We Cry? The Science of Tears.” Independent. Independent, 2014. Web. 7 July 2016.
Nguyen, Thai. “Hacking Into Your Happy Chemicals: Dopamine, Serotonin, Endorphins, and Oxytocin.” The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post, 2016. Web. 7 July 2016.
Staff, Mayo Clinic. “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 1998-2016. Web. 7 July 2016.