The Science of Happiness

If it’s a dose of warm, fuzzy feelings you’re after, look no further than the pleasure centre located in your brain.

The human brain is a wonderfully complex organ made up of 100 billion nerve cells. The spongy, wrinkled and jelly-like mass encased in our skull, controls not just our bodily functions but also the more intangible aspects of our lives such as our thoughts, memories and emotions.

Together, the brain and nervous system form a network of cells called neurons which transmit information via electrical impulses. Chemicals formed naturally in the body help bridge the gap from one neuron to the other, allowing this information to be passed all along the body.

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The Pleasurable Chemicals

The ‘rush’ that we feel when we’ve just won a game, done a job well or completed a hard workout is caused by a series of complex chemical reactions in the brain.

Although there has been much work on the physical workings of the brain, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia clinical psychologist Farah Puterinegara Ahmad Bahrom says that research on emotions has been a neglected field. Fortunately the focus on cognitive neuroscience – the study of how chemical reactions in the brain affect emotions – in the past decade has stirred greater interest and increased our knowledge on how the brain works.

Farah says that for now, “Much less is known about positive emotions than negative emotions. She also explains that there are two widely accepted fields of research in neuroscience: The first is focused on ascertaining which parts of the brain correspond to which emotions. This is usually done by looking at which parts of the brain are activated when certain emotions are present.”

The second type of research focuses on neurochemicals and emotions. For instance, it has been found that ‘pleasurable chemicals’ such as endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin when released in the brain, increase feelings of happiness. Research has also shown that drugs and certain medicines can affect our emotions by imitating the effects of chemicals produced naturally within our bodies.

“Drugs have been created to target these receptors in the brain. For instance, anti-depressants may be prescribed for persons with depression in order to boost chemicals that are associated with happiness,” explains Farah.

Here’s a handy set of notes that list out the most significant pleasurable chemicals which occur naturally in the body, how to boost it and why you shouldn’t go over board!



 What it is: Serotonin plays many crucial roles in the body, from regulating our sleep cycles to aiding our intestinal movements. It also plays a big part in boosting our confidence and sense of wellbeing. A large amount of serotonin is stored in our digestive system.

How to boost it: Spend time in the sun. When working indoors, open the curtains or sit close to a window that lets in a lot of sunlight.

Why you shouldn’t get doped up on it: Too much serotonin can cause excessive nerve cell activity and a variety of problems including headaches, confusion, rapid heart rate and shivering.



What it is: Dopamine lessens inhibitions and can increase feelings of excitement. It is responsible for that rush you feel whenever you’re about to achieve something. It also affects processes that control movement, emotional responses and our ability to feel pleasure and pain.

How to boost it: Dopamine is connected to the reward center in the brain and having or moving towards a new goal will stimulate production of this chemical. So set yourself small tasks everyday, and you’ll find that once you’re close to completing them, your dopamine levels will increase. That way you’ll get small but regular doses of this feel-good chemical.

Why you shouldn’t get doped up on it: Dopamine gives us a boost of energy when we’re about to complete tasks that are rewarding. If we are on a dopamine high all the time, we would unnecessarily expend all our energy, even on things that may not be important.




What it is: The release of endorphins promotes feelings of happiness. They also act as natural painkillers, to help us push through pain and help to improve our immune system.

How to boost it: Exercise is known to activate the production of endorphins, which accounts for that high you get after a run or a vigorous session at the gym. Laugh and smile! Engaging in a belly laugh or a true smile is a great way to up the levels of endorphins in our body.

Why you shouldn’t get doped up on it: Remember that endorphins act to block pain. Although being pain-free all the time can sound like a good thing, it can actually be damaging. Pain is the body’s natural way of informing us that something is harming us, so blocking these important sensations prevents us from taking the necessary action to heal the body or prevent irreparable damage.



What it is: Oxytoxin is sometimes called the bonding chemical. It is one of the first chemicals to be produced in our bodies during our birth and released as we’re being held by our mothers for the first time. It helps us to determine who we can trust and be loyal to. That happy cloud you are on when you are cuddling with a loved one is the work of oxytoxins.

How to boost it: Make a habit of greeting your friends with hugs, as this action automatically causes the brain to release oxytoxins. If you’re on your own, picture yourself hugging or being hugged by someone to get the same effect.

Why we aren’t doped up on it all the time: As a chemical that promotes trust and bonding, being on a constant oxytocin high can affect the ability to discern which relationships are beneficial or harmful to us.




 Books to Boost Brain Power

Here’s our pick of the best books to teach you how to get the most out of your grey matter.


  1. Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom

by Rick Hanson (Ph. D.) with Richard Mendius (MD)

A fun, easy read that explains how the brain works. Backed by sound science, it also suggests practices for increasing joy and compassion.


  1. Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence

by Rick Hanson (Ph. D.)

This book thoroughly explains a four-step protocol for training your brain to achieve lasting happiness.


  1. Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way To A Better Life

by John. B. Arden

This book will introduce you to methods to boost your mood, improve your memory, have better relationships and enjoy simple pleasures, such as getting a good’s night sleep.



 Happy Foods

Include the following foods in your diet so you can feel good, naturally.

  1. Mussels: Contains zinc, iodine and selenium, which are important for stabilising the thyroid, the body’s mood regulator.


  1. Asparagus: This vegetable contains not only serotonin but also tryptophan, an essential amino acid that helps the body to process the hormone more effectively.


  1. Eggs: Contains tryptophan and the nutrient choline, which increases mental sharpness and positive attitude.


  1. Dark chocolate: A rich source of magnesium which helps to relax muscles and reduce anxiety.Dark chocolate

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