Whether you're suffering from COVID fatigue or feeling blue due to dreary weather, there are plenty of ways to cultivate more happiness in your daily life. The key is figuring out which activities boost your body's natural feel-good hormones and doing more of them.
"A lot of different hormones and neurotransmitters can help us feel better," says Farvah Fatima, M.D., a family medicine specialist at Henry Ford Health. "And there are plenty of ways to trigger the release of these hormones." In fact, simple activities like exercise, spending time outside, even cuddling with a puppy (or a person) can do the trick.
What Are Feel-Good Hormones?
Hormones act as messengers for our bodies, regulating everything from our physical functioning to our emotional well-being. The cool thing about many of these hormones? They're highly influenced by our thoughts, activities and even the foods we eat.
Understanding these chemicals and how they work can help you devise specific strategies to feel better. The four, key happiness-boosting hormones include:
- Dopamine: Often called the "happy hormone," dopamine results in feelings of well-being. A primary driver of the brain's reward system, it spikes when we experience something pleasurable. Praised on the job? You'll get a dopamine hit. Falling in love? Your dopamine levels will skyrocket. "Dopamine produces that high we get from food, sex, shopping, pretty much any activity that we find enjoyable," Dr. Fatima says.
- Serotonin: Dubbed the "feel-good hormone," serotonin plays a key role in staving off anxiety and depression. In fact, the main class of drugs used to treat these conditions — SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) — increase serotonin levels in the brain. Exercise, spending time outdoors and getting a good night's sleep can help boost serotonin.
- Endorphins: Most commonly linked with exercise, endorphins are associated with "runner's high." "Cardiovascular exercise is one of the best ways to increase endorphins," Dr. Fatima says. These powerful hormones act as natural pain killers, minimizing discomfort and maximizing pleasure. They're a key reason why athletes can push past pain during a tough race or big game.
- Oxytocin: Best known for its role in bonding and attachment, oxytocin floods a woman's system during childbirth and while nursing. But delivering a baby isn't the only way to get a rush of oxytocin. This "love hormone" also spikes with any sort of intimate touch, including holding hands, cuddling, kissing, massage and sex.
Activities That Boost Feel-Good Hormones
While there's no surefire way to get your feel-good hormones circulating, there are activities you can add to your day to naturally boost all four happiness hormones. Favorites include:
- Cuddling with a loved one
- Experimenting with aromatherapy
- Getting a massage
- Having sex
- Listening to feel-good music
- Spending time outdoors
- Taking a nap
- Watching a comedy
It doesn't matter which activities you choose as long as the pursuit brings you joy. "There's no right way to boost any of these feel-good hormones," Dr. Fatima says. Instead, the key is to tune into your body and notice how different activities make you feel, both in the moment and in the hours afterward.
Still feeling down? Talk to a healthcare professional. Maybe you're deficient in certain nutrients, like vitamins B12 or D. Or maybe you are struggling with anxiety as the world begins opening up. No matter what's going on in your psyche, getting the right treatment is key.
"These are challenging times for all of us," Dr. Fatima says. "But in some cases, there are chemical imbalances at play that need to be addressed."
Dr. Farvah Fatima is a family medicine doctor who sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center – Farmington Road.