We all daydream from time to time. But a recent Harvard study suggests that mind-wandering plays a major role in our unhappiness. Happiness is closer at hand when our minds focus on what we’re doing in the present moment.

By letting go of the habits that prevent our happiness, we simplify our lives. This makes room for new happiness habits to take hold.

How clear is your slate of these obstacles to happiness?

Cultivating Happiness in Your Brain

Once you’ve let go of the habits that interfere with happiness, it’s time to form the new ones that cultivate happiness in your life.

We can maximize our results by understanding what happens in our brains when we’re happy or unhappy. What brings us the chemical high of being happy?

The limbic system is the part of the brain that controls our motivation, behavior, and emotions. It’s a survival mechanism that produces chemicals that let our bodies know what’s good (and bad) for us.

How do you boost your ‘feel good’ brain chemicals? By tapping into these four main chemicals: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins (DOSE).

While daily events and situations trigger these neurotransmitters automatically, there are ways to encourage the brain to produce them – allowing us to create (and repeat) feelings of happiness. When those chemicals are released we become more motivated, productive, and experience greater wellbeing.

Dopamine is often referred to as the ‘happiness drug’. It’s responsible for motivating us to take action, make decisions, and feel pleasure when we reach our goals. Dopamine is the brain’s way of patting us on the back for a job well done when we score a goal, get an ‘A’, or cross the finish line, for example. Experiencing procrastination, self-doubt, or lethargy? Low dopamine levels could be to blame. Time to manufacture a few wins for ‘team you’.

Ways to increase your dopamine levels:

  • Creating mini finish lines to cross instead of just a final, big one when a goal is achieved helps us feel good over a longer period of time.
  • Initiating acts of kindness towards others gives the brain a hit of dopamine.
  • Quit smoking. A recent study showed smokers had 15-20% lower capacity for producing dopamine than non-smokers – but it’s reversible, if you stop smoking.

Oxytocin. Oxytocin is affectionately referred to as the ‘cuddle hormone’. It’s released through social interactions like: giving (or receiving) a gift, making eye contact, giving or receiving affection (like a handshake, hug, or pat on the shoulder), giving birth or having intercourse.

Ways to increase your oxytocin levels:

  • Make eye contact during your conversations.
  • Get a massage.
  • Hug a friend, pet your pet, or share a more intimate moment with a loved one.
  • Meditation and prayer. 

Serotonin. Are you in a good mood? You can thank serotonin. Serotonin is the brain’s antidepressant drug of choice. It surges when you feel like your life and your efforts matter. Feeling ‘hangry’ (hungry and angry)? Since 80% of serotonin exists in the stomach skipping meals reduces serotonin, which can lead to grumpiness.

Ways to increase your serotonin levels:

  • Express gratitude.
  • Increase your exposure to sunlight. This produces Vitamin D, which, in turn, triggers serotonin.
  • Think happy thoughts. Serotonin doesn’t distinguish between reality and imagination so when the imagination or memory is active, it produces serotonin as if the event is real.
  • Exercise. Even low-key exercise stimulates serotonin so gardening, dog walking, or playing with your children counts.

Endorphins. If you’ve ever hit your thumb with a hammer, stubbed your toe, or experienced ‘runner’s high’ then you know what endorphins feel like. They work like morphine to alleviate pain and stress.

Ways to increase your endorphin levels:

  • Eat chocolate. Chocolate contains phenethylamine which boosts endorphins.
  • Exercise releases endorphins. As little as 30 minutes can do the trick.
  • Find opportunities to laugh. Laughter has been shown to release endorphins.
  • Use aromatherapy. Certain aromas influence the production of endorphins – try diffusing vanilla, lavender, or peppermint into the air, your bath, or your next cup of tea or coffee.

When you design your daily experiences and habits around this knowledge, you can activate these chemicals, increase your productivity and, most importantly, proactively increase your happiness.

Happiness is not a luxury it is the purpose of our existence.” ~ Dalai Lama

When it comes to happiness there is no one-size-fits-all. Our needs, desires and enjoyments in life are based on our DNA, personal preferences, upbringing, and life experiences. By understanding the science of what makes us happy and letting go of attitudes and habits that foster unhappiness we can replace them with happiness-promoting habits.

Finding the secret to your personal version of happiness doesn’t require a trip to the moon, a submarine ride to the bottom of the ocean or digging it up on the lonely prairie – it lives within each of us. It’s been right there, all along.

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