How to Get your Daily D.O.S.E. of Happiness
This article has been long overdue. I’ll be honest and admit that the pandemic and its consequences have influenced my levels of energy and motivation in the last months.
However, right after the much-needed summer holiday, freshly energized and relaxed, with the sun still shining and some parts of our lives coming back to somewhat more normal circumstances, the willingness to edit another blog post has fortunately also returned. And this one is important, one that I wish I could have written when it was even more relevant than now. But better late than never!
In this article we will discuss how to get your daily D.O.S.E. and boost your happiness levels. Even in the most dire and gloomy situations, like the one we were (are?) currently living in.
But what is D.O.S.E., you may wonder… No, I am not referring to any strange drugs here.
D.O.S.E. is a great acronym to remember your brain’s very own happy chemicals:
Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin, and Endorphins
Our focus today is how to hack your brain’s chemistry and maintain adequate levels of happiness, well-being and mental health.
Why is D.O.S.E. relevant now?
In the last year, we have been navigating a completely new global situation, that of the pandemic.
In my view, a huge impact of this situation is exactly on the mental health and well-being of people worldwide, as indicated by the increased demand in mental health services.
In previous articles I have discussed pandemic fatigue and the fact that for a long time now, our nervous systems have been operating in survival mode, since this new situation has brought about a lot of unpleasant changes that in turn resulted to high levels of stress. The measures and restrictions of the pandemic have deprived people from many of the necessary resources to combat stress and recharge.
Without the options to socialize or engage in pleasurable and rewarding activities, such as eating out, getting drinks, travelling, visiting museums, going to concerts, exercising like we were used to, and generally all of those recreational and destressing activities we used to enjoy, many people have been forced to run on empty. The social distancing and the risk of infection have created a lot of physical and emotional distance between people, when we know that humans are social beings, and need contact, connection, touch, and intimacy in order to thrive.
Moreover, the blurry lines between personal and work life, that working from home has imposed to most people, have created an imbalance and left many people with only their work to serve as a rewarding experience to provide a strong sense of accomplishment. This has often resulted in overworking, as indicated by the high occurrences of burnout.
Many others have lost their job as a result, or suffered severe financial restrictions in the face of the crisis. Anxiety and depression levels are on a rise, and people have been shown to use much more psychoactive substances (both prescribed and unprescribed) in order to cope. Fear and anxiety have been in the background constantly, either because of the pandemic itself, or because of the restrictions.
A reason why I consider this highly relevant right NOW, in autumn, is because right after the summer holidays, when lots of people have taken a deep breathe and relaxed a bit, I observe the collective trauma of the pandemic and the lockdowns amongst more and more of us. Many people are anxiously wondering, “How will I survive another year of this? How will I cope with another possible lockdown?”
The fact that most of us seem to be quite terrified of another year of isolation, restrictions and fear, in my understanding elucidates exactly the very nature of collective trauma:
We have all been scarred by the last 1,5 years, albeit to different extents.
Humans can adjust to novel situations and are overall flexible. That’s the good news, and that’s also what the last year proved to you too : YOU MADE IT TO NOW.
The question is, what are the next steps?
How can we continue to be resilient and keep moving, while taking care of our mental health?
Languishing – the most dominant emotional state of our times
A consistent experience among all sorts of different people, is a decrease in their motivation and energy levels, and quite low mood. Maybe you recognize what I am talking about- it’s this very meh feeling that leaves you uninterested, unmotivated, bored, feeling exhausted without doing much, and needing much more stimulation than before in order to achieve previously adequate levels of contentment. If you are feeling somewhat joyless, disoriented, aimless, with difficulties concentrating, and with a diminished interest in life as a whole, then it’s probably languishing.
Languishing is the term that describes of this strange emotional experience. I read this wonderful and enlightening article on languishing a while ago, and I recommend you do too. It made me go “Oh yes!” throughout the whole read.
Languishing is a state that resembles depression, but not quite, since unlike depression, it is not characterized by hopelessness and despair. It is an in-between state of depression and anxiety, it’s almost a state of freeze and nothingness. As the author of that article describes:
“Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you are muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield”.
Languishing is the state between depression and flourishing, thriving. It is what so many people have been struggling with, and it has come to conquer our lives as a result of operating in survival mode for too long.
Remember the Window of Tolerance, described in the pandemic fatigue blog post? Well, languishing is a state of hypoarousal, a sense of disconnection between yourself and your life.
Like depression, languishing too feels a bit like having lost the will to live or enjoy life. It may also feel like you need much more stimulation and intensity than before, in order to tick your boxes of happiness.
I understand that this negative emotional state may be a result of very low D.O.S.E. in your system- which is why we need to talk about boosting those substances up, in order to get ourselves up and running again.
Dopamine: The Reward Neurotransmitter
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of reward, motivation, and novelty. It is released in your brain’s reward center when you complete goal-oriented behaviours and therefore feel rewarded and accomplished. It is the neurotransmitter associated with feelings of bliss, exhilaration, excitement, motivation and concentration. It plays a prominent role in our cognitive functions, such as attention, learning, and memory.
So increasing your dopamine levels means working on feeling good about yourself, by setting goals, designing a plan of action, crushing them and then rewarding yourself for your win.
Goals come with structure, so if you would like to increase your sense of accomplishment and motivation, it is vital to be structured and organized in that direction. Instead of leaving things to randomness and chance, make a start by structuring and organizing what you want to do.
Bringing structure through behavioural activation is one of the methods employed in the treatment of depression, because your brain then knows what to expect, you focus on implementing what you have planned for, and then the feeling of reward is greater.
Some tips to boost your dopamine:
Start a to-do list
The key here is to start small. It is better to have a smaller list and increase the items on it as you complete it, rather than having a longer list that feels overwhelming and discouraging. You can start with 3 tasks per day, then you feel more motivated and capable to complete them, and after you are satisfied with the rush of the accomplishment, you can add more, fueled by the gifts of dopamine to aspire you to go further. Start small and grow bigger, as every little step is significant!
Novelty directly activates the dopamine system in your brain. Brain research shows that a rush of dopamine accompanies fresh and new experiences of any kind. It is also scientifically proved that we learn and remember better when we introduce novelty. The evolutionary reason for that is because we are attracted by what is new so as we determine whether it constitutes a threat.
It is therefore essential that you add new elements in each and every day, if you would like to feed your dopamine system. That is why the first wave of the pandemic now probably seems pleasant- because everyone was trying out tons of new activities (which we probably don't want to try again now anymore, because they have lost their spark and become connected with a really stressful period).
Novelty can take many forms: meeting new people, trying out new activities and hobbies, changing the interior of your living room, online work from a different location, trying out new styles and outfits, running in new neighborhoods, visiting a new place, changing your day routine etc.
Even if you think that your life may be boring and blunt, there are always countless possibilities to make it more colourful, variable and novel. Even if you have to force it at first, you will definitely be rewarded later. In other words, novelty makes us happy!
Structure your day
Teach your brain to expect similar activities on similar times of the day. Do not overcrowd your daily schedule with tasks and responsibilities as that can feel dauting and can bring anxiety.
Set goals for every task that you engage in
They can be time-bound goals (e.g. reading your book for 20 minutes, working focused on a project for 2 hours, exercising for 1 hour) or result-bound goals (e.g. spending quality time in nature until you feel completely relaxed, content and connected to the experience).
Plan ahead for self-care and social activities
...so that you have something to look forward to during each and every day. Self-care is rewarding, so it is important to cherish it and plan it ahead as much as possible, while at the same time allowing for spontaneity too.
Celebrate each little win
Regardless if it was a scheduled exercise session or a major accomplishment at work, grant yourself permission to feel proud of yourself, and designate extra time to that purpose. Gift yourself with a little reward after you successfully complete any task.
Structure your sleeping and waking-up routine
Dopamine plays a key role in sleep and waking up, so you can help your brain release more of it by taking care of sleep hygiene.
Some sleep hygiene tips:
*Go to bed only when you are ready to sleep
*Avoid screen time at least one hour before you go to sleep
*Engage in soothing and relaxing activities prior to going to sleep (e.g. warm shower, hot tea, lavender essential oil on your pillow, reading your favorite book or listening to an audiobook/meditation podcast).
*Another great idea to avoid bedtime worrying is to take a few minutes before going to bed, and scribbling down all your worries and concerns or next-day tasks on a piece of paper. That way you literally give them a place so that they won’t come troubling your mind just when you fall asleep.
Similarly, it can be helpful to establish a structured and stable waking-up routine. Examples include:
*Waking up on the same time every day
*Limiting the amount of snoozes you allow yourself in advance
*Designating time for your breakfast and exercise sessions in the morning
*Starting your day with setting your to-do list
Enjoy and respect your food
Food is a huge reward and vital for our survival. Respect your feeding times and be mindful and slow while eating, in order to enjoy every bite and also help your gastrointestinal system. That means, avoid eating on the go or when you are stressed or in a rush!
Be mindful and present
Dopamine has a lot to do with attention and concentration, so aim to be fully there during rewarding activities in your day.
Oxytocin: The Love Hormone
Oxytocin is the hormone of love, trust, attachment and intimacy.
has a prominent role in childbirth and breastfeeding
triggers the bond between a mother and an infant
underlines the development of close relationships
increases trust in the other
is also released during sexual arousal, intercourse and orgasm
increases emotional empathy and compassion
encourages positive communication
Most of us suffered during the lockdowns because of the lack of physical contact. No wonder, we really do need it for survival.
So when you hear that love is the healing answer, you know that it is not just romantic poetry talk but a real scientific fact.
It is in our benefit to look after our oxytocin, and here’s a few ways to do so:
The more hugs, the better-literally. According to family therapist Virginia Satir,
We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.
Hugging a loved one releases oxytocin. You recognize that by that warm and fuzzy feeling of security, comfort, and love that flood through you, especially if you prolong the hug.
There are numerous benefits of hugging, such as:
*increasing cardiovascular health
*decreasing pain levels
*boosting your immune system
*improving communication and understanding
Most of those functions are founded on oxytocin and serotonin.
Hug your pet
If there is no Favorite Person around, cuddling with your pet can have similar results for oxytocin in your brain
Play with animals/babies/your partner
Just play! Unleash your inner child! Yes, this naturally increases oxytocin as well!
It may strike you as weird if you haven’t heard it before, but hugging yourself tightly is very reassuring, loving and comforting. It is an expression of self-love.
In fact, one prominent method in EMDR traumatherapy is based exactly on this concept of self-hug. It is called the butterfly hug because if you hug yourself with your right palm on your left shoulder and vice versa, you could envision a big butterfly resting on your lap. Try it out, it is soothing!
Increase oxytocin levels through your sexual relationship with your partner
Oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins are implicated in sexual contact, but on different levels depending on the quality of the sexual contact.
The difference between dopamine sex and oxytocin sex is that, while dopamine sex is fast, steamy, exciting and novel, focused on intense pleasure and climax, oxytocin sex is more slow, tender, loving, focused on connection and feelings, includes slow touch, massage, and physical touch of any kind- it is “making love” rather than just having sex. It may not be focused on quick climaxing, pleasure and reward (dopamine) but rather gradual arousal and connection (oxytocin).
The practice of tantra embodies a lot of ways to connect with your partner that help release oxytocin. Alternatively, you could designate special time to get intimate with your partner, and explore ways that you can slow down and explore your sexuality in a new-found, romantic way together.
A recent study indicates that yoga can also boost oxytocin production, among other health benefits.
It is no secret that mindfulness and meditation have numerous health and well-being benefits. A specific type of meditation practice, loving-kindness meditation, involves directing thoughts of love, compassion and care towards someone you care about. Yes, intensely focusing your thoughts on someone you love can also increase oxytocin and fill you with blissful warm feelings of love.
Increase physical touch
Oxytocin is released via intimate physical touch (and has been therefore depleted in many people who were alone and isolated during the lockdowns). If you are not too touchy as a person, even getting a massage by your partner or a massage therapist can help boost your oxytocin levels. Giving a massage to your loved one works just as well!
Listen to your favorite music
You can find a lot of research showing a possible relationship between music and the release of oxytocin in the brain. Especially when this is music that is connected with pleasant and loving memories, it can trigger the same response in your brain.
Serotonin: The Well-Being Neurotransmitter
Serotonin is our well-being neurotransmitter, playing a key role in mood regulation, digestion, appetite, sleep, bone density, blood clotting and sexual function. Serotonin is also associated with positive emotions, an increased sense of well-being, and prosocial behaviours.
Depression and other mood disorders are associated with low serotonin, which explain their implication on all the above-mentioned functions. Most antidepressant medications work to impact the release and reuptake of serotonin by our nerve cells.
If your serotonin is low, you are likely to experience low mood and anxiety, irritability, sleep issues, digestive issues, and exhaustion. It is also important to understand that stress interferes with serotonin, so basically if you want to boost serotonin, you have to manage stress and engage in relaxing and pleasant activities.
Let's have a look at some more tips to boost serotonin:
Nutrition: consumption of foods high in tryptophan
A healthy mind in a healthy body could not be a more relevant phrase in the case of serotonin. One of the most effective ways to boost serotonin in your brain, is through your nutrition- read healthy eating.
You can’t eat serotonin itself, but tryptophan is contained in food- and tryptophan gets converted to serotonin in your brain.
Research shows that trypophan-rich foods when combined with carbohydrates have a better chance of getting through the blood-brain barrier. Carbohydrates are not bad for you. How you eat them matters in order for them to be good, and of course everything in moderation.
There are simple carbs (like sugar, yoghurt, white bread, white rice, pasta) and complex carbs (legumes, whole grain foods, starchy vegetables), and overall complex carbs are better for you. Also bananas are high in tryptophan and can boost your serotonin levels.
A diet containing whole wheat products, leafy greens, starchy vegetables, good fats (e.g. salmon, fish, nuts, avocado), dark chocolate, serves the purpose of serotonin boost. Avoiding certain foods like candy, sugar, caffeinated sugary drinks and white rice/pasta/bread is better for both your body and mind.
Adding various supplements such as vitamin B-complex, magnesium and vitamin D can help with serotonin production in your brain.
Light helps serotonin synthesis, and light therapy is often recommended for people with depression and seasonal affective disorder (winter depression). So the more you are in natural daylight, the better for you!
Moderate and high intensity exercise boosts your tryptophan levels, which is then translated in higher serotonin in your brain. Developing a regular exercise routine is guaranteed to do wonders for your mood!
Gratitude and Positive Memories
The single act of being grateful -actively thinking of things and moments you are grateful for- increases serotonin in the brain. Keeping a gratitude journal can be a great start in this direction!
In addition, remembering and reliving positive memories can have a similar effect for boosting serotonin in your brain. If you feel depressed, you may have difficulty in recalling happy times- but then you can talk to friends and family or look at pictures of happier times, to facilitate your serotonin boost.
I am a major nature lover and always try to promote time in nature in my work as a therapist too, as I strongly believe nature is the greatest healer. Time in nature is great for your mental health, for many reasons. First of all, you get to breathe fresh air and be in the sunlight. Also, you get physical movement and exercise. Lastly, by absorbing your surroundings and the beauty of nature and being mindful, you get to feel grateful and euphoric. It is proven that time in nature leads to a boost in serotonin levels.
Mindfulness and meditation
Being mindful, attentive and conscious of your life and experiences, leads to being grateful- thus boosting serotonin. Adopting a regular meditation practice is also shown to have the same effect.
Endorphines: The Natural Pain Relievers
Out of all the above substances, endorphins are by definition your brain’s own happy drugs.
The word itself is a combination of endo+morphines= endorphins, which means endogenous morphines. Endogenous means from within the body. Morphine is a powerful opiate pain reliever. So endorphins are natural pain relievers that stem from within your body.
Endorphins, just like morphine, act on the opiate receptors in your brain. They play a key role in the reward circuits of your brain, acting to reduce pain and enhance pleasure, and bringing euphoric feelings.
In general, endorphin release occurs when you are injured (they alleviate pain perception, so you can keep going despite pain), experience stress, or during reward system activation with activities such as sexual intercourse, eating and exercising (and anything else that we consider rewarding and pleasant).
Since humans are naturally programmed to avoid pain and seek pleasure, from an evolutionary perspective, endorphins play a key role in ensuring survival despite adversities.
How to naturally boost your endorphins:
The intense “high” you feel after rigorous exercise is caused by endorphine release in your brain. Research shows that moderate-intensity exercise may be best, while group exercising is also regarded to maximize endorphin release. Regular physical exercise is one of the recommendations you may hear from your psychologist to combat depressive symptoms.
Have you ever noticed that any pain or sickness symptoms seem to magically disappear during sex? Your endorphins, in conjuction with oxytocin and dopamine, are susceptible for that.
Dark chocolate and wine
Dark chocolate and wine are both associated with endorphin release. So it is ok to indulge in those small pleasures, if you want to give your endorphins a small boost!
Watch a movie that stirs up emotions
Here I do not only suggest watching a comedy, that is guaranteed to make you laugh. If you enjoy drama movies, they can also do the trick for endorphin release in your brain. Research indicates that watching an emotional movie may trigger endorphin release as a response to feelings of sadness, similarly to what would happen if you would experience physical pain. So sometimes when we feel depleted and sad, we may seek negative stimuli, because later on we will feel better after feeling sad! Yes, us humans are complicated indeed 😊
Did you know that activating your sense of smell through essential oils aromatherapy can help boost your endorphins? Research shows that inhaling lavender essential oil helped reduce anxiety and pain perception, possibly through activating the endorphin system. Taking a long hot bath with some lovely smelling oils can bring a similar boost to you and help you feel really euphoric and blissful.
Random Acts of Kindness
Being kind and performing random acts of kindness is rewarding. Not just in theory- research also suggests that individual acts of kindness release both endorphins and oxytocin in the brain, and help form new neural connections.
Just like any other habit, kindness can become a self-reinforcing habit. We can teach ourselves to be nicer people! And because of how good that feels, all of the D.O.S.E. neurotransmitters can contribute to making this more likely to happen again.
Music and dance
You probably have tried playing a favorite boosting track and dancing it out in your living room. Or do you recall the rush you experience at concerts and parties where you really love the music? Both music and dancing are therapeutic and can promote endorphin release.
Get a massage
Getting a massage has multiple benefits and is associated with the release of the whole spectrum of D.O.S.E. A professional massage therapist can be an excellent companion to help you unwind through times of stress, and feel connected to your body again.
Hopefully it became clear whilst reading this article, that our D.O.S.E. are a complicated collaborating system. All of these substances work together in your brain, in the reward center and other areas, in order to help keep you happy and healthy. It does come down to brain chemistry, so why not help your brain a little?
Regardless of any potential lockdowns, it is helpful to know what simple ways can kickstart and boost your brain's happiness chemistry. This is by no means a substitute for working on yourself through therapy, though your therapist will often suggest tips like the ones discussed here, in order to help yourself feel better.
Like a client of mine pointed out the other day,
Not everyone goes to therapy, but anyone can employ those little things to boost their mental health and feel happier
I could not agree more :)
Self-work is often hard work, but it can definitely start with something as simple as upgrading your daily habits.
Dunbar R.I.M., Teasdale B., Thompson J., Budelmann F., Duncan S., van Emde Boas E., Maguire L. (2016). Emotional arousal when watching drama increases pain threshold and social bonding. Royal Society Open Science, 3(9) : 160288. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsos.160288
Jayaram N., Varambally S., Behere S.R.V. , Venkatasubramanian G., Arasappa R., Christopher R. , Gangadhar B. N. (2013). Effect of yoga therapy on plasma oxytocin and facial emotion recognition deficits in patients of schizophrenia. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 55, 409-413. doi: 10.4103/0019-5545.116318