You can’t be happy all the time – and that’s not pessimism, but science. ‘Unhappy brain chemicals helped our ancestors survive by alerting them to danger,’ says Dr Loretta Graziano Breuning, author of Meet Your Happy Chemicals. ‘Once something causes you pain, your brain keeps trying to avoid it to protect you.’ Plus, of course, you need a contrast between good times and bad times – otherwise, how would you really be able to quantify what a good time was? But that’s not to say you can’t be happier. If you’re anything like the rest of Western society, the chances are that your brain chemicals have been knocked unpleasantly out of line by modern living. Your brain ‘learns’ to chase things that feel good – which is fine, unless they’re terrible for you. Get your chemicals functioning properly, though, and you’ll be able to forge good habits while kicking unpleasant or harmful ones to the kerb. Here’s how it’s done.
Often mistakenly called the ‘pleasure chemical’, dopamine actually regulates everything from movement to attention span – as well as promoting surges of happiness when you ingest cupcakes (or cocaine). It kicks in when you score points in videogames and when you move towards goals. Handle with care.
Do work towards your goals with positive expectations. ‘You can’t get promoted every day, but working towards that goal – or even learning to play a musical instrument – will promote dopamine release,’ says Breuning.
Do set a routine. Under or over-sleeping can disrupt your body’s supply of neurotransmitters, according to a 2002 study in Neuropsychopharmacology. Aim for a regular seven or eight hours at the same time every day.
Don't keep refreshing Twitter. ‘Social media promotes “seeking” behaviour, and dopamine can keep you addicted to seeking information in an endless loop,’ says behavioural psychologist Dr Susan Weinschenk. Install an app such as Chrome’s Nanny to help you keep your retweeting to an acceptable level.
Don't be too result-oriented. ‘They’re never guaranteed,’ says author and entrepreneur James Clear. ‘Instead, focus on your working processes – they’re within your control.’
The mood booster. To oversimplify a bit, serotonin flows when you feel important. Your primitive brain equates that feeling with survival.
Do train your brain to feel confident in your own importance. Easier said than done, but ‘power posing’ is a good start – instead of sitting hunched, spread out or stand like Superman. Studies suggest it boosts confidence in everything from romantic situations to job interviews.
Do eat cherries. ‘Drinking a glass of sour cherry juice, or eating about 20 red tart cherries, before retiring at night may help induce a deeper state of sleep and support healthy kidney function,’ says Mark Konlee, author of the Immune Restoration Handbook. Have a scoop of cottage cheese with your cherries for glutamine and calcium lactate, which also encourage serotonin regeneration (and sleep).
Don't hit the sugar. ‘I’ve heard people recommend a sweet treat to boost mood,’ says nutritionist Mark Sissons. ‘Carbs are a quick fix but do nothing to stimulate long-term serotonin production.’
Don't focus on others for your sense of importance. ‘Imagine that people respect you instead of assuming the worst,’ says Breuning. ‘It’s probably closer to the truth.’
This has been called the ‘hug hormone’, but it’s more complicated than that. High levels are associated with physical contact, trust and co-operation – but some researchers have suggested that it can also cause people to cling to any form of social contact.
Do focus on the trust you have with existing friends. ‘You can build trust with anyone by making the steps small enough,’ says Breuning. ‘Create expectations that both parties can meet, and repeat, again and again.’
Do go dancing. In one study, it raised subjects’ oxytocin levels by 11%. Karaoke had a similar effect – but only when done with friends.
Do something ‘moderately stressful’. Physical activity and watching a horror movie both qualify. Studies suggest that when done with friend this has a bonding effect.
Don't throw yourself into relationships. One going wrong is not worth it for the quick hit. And although bonding with pets can trigger oxytocin, there are probably better reasons to get a dog.
The pain blocker. Endorphins let our ancestors cope with the anaerobic demands of running from sabretooth tigers – and they give you an exercise high. The catch? It only happens when you exceed your limits – so work hard.
Do keep workouts short and intense. ‘Try 30/30 rows,’ says trainer Pieter Vodden. ‘Do 30 seconds’ rowing, then rest for 30 seconds, for eight minutes in total. Aim for 160m in each interval.’
Do train with friends. A 2009 study found that college rowers who worked in synchronisation experienced a greater hormone boost than those who trained alone.
Do eat a curry. Capsaicin – the compound that makes chilli peppers hot – binds to pain receptors in the mouth, triggering your endorphins.
Don't just push, push, push. ‘Creating pain to enjoy endorphins is a bad strategy,’ says Breuning. ‘Varying your routine can create endorphins without unnecessary stress.’
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