Neuroscience of happiness: how hormones affect our mood

Neuroscience of happiness
Image: Janneke Luursema via @still_______

The definition of happiness is individual to each and every one of us. For some, it is about family and children, for others - it is to do with having a successful career or, perhaps, about feeling fulfilled creatively. Irrespective of the meaning you attribute to it, as long as you are member of the homo sapiens species, you are subject to the same biological mechanisms of happiness as everyone else.

Hormones of happiness

For an emotion so subjective and inconsistent, there are surprisingly objective mechanisms behind it. By deconstructing human happiness, scientists have arrived at the conclusion that there are only four main neurotransmitters responsible for positive emotions. Namely, dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin and serotonin which are counterbalanced by cortisol.

Each of them has its own sphere of influence and responsibility. For example, oxytocin is in charge of intimacy, while endorphins help cope with pain. Needless to say, it is more complex than simply jump starting the production of any of these neurotransmitters when it comes to coping with sadness or loneliness.

Nevertheless, we can all benefit from a better understanding of the biology of happiness. It all boils down to ensuring a gradual release of each of these hormones into our bloodstream through rational and safe means. More on that below.


If you think that the sole role of hormones is to regulate our emotional state, it is time for you to find out more about serotonin. This neurotransmitter is not only responsible for our mood but also controls our appetite and sleep, libido levels, our ability to learn and even produce breast milk. Its lack is linked to the development of depression and anxiety, gastrointestinal disorders and decreased bone density. So, maintaining high levels of serotonin in the blood is not only the gateway to achieving happiness but also to our overall health. In order to synthesise serotonin, a body needs sufficient amounts of sunlight and vitamin D, a high level of physical activity and tryptophan, an amino acid found in eggs, cheese, oily fish, turkey and peanuts.

Whilst serotonin is commonly known as the feel-good hormone, it is perhaps more accurate to refer to it as a vanity hormone. The release of this hormones takes place when we feel significant and our efforts are acknowledged. Be it praise from your team leader, respect from your colleagues, happy clients or even an Insta like.

This is not to say that your self-esteem should be a 100% dependent on the opinions of others, which will leave you vulnerable to any thoughtless comment. However, by being overly self-sufficient and putting up your defences too much, you deprive yourself of a valuable supply of friendly support and risk missing out on being part of something greater. All of us need social recognition of some sort, so do not shy away from your achievements and learn to accept compliments as well as criticism with integrity.

Influence of hormones on our mood
Image: @still_______


A natural pain relief created in the process of evolution to disguise exhaustion, hunger and injuries in a feeling of light euphoria. Endorphin is responsible for the so called second wind, which comes halfway through a marathon and helps new mothers deal with sleep deprivation. In other words, it comes into play whenever we try to go above and beyond our abilities or find ourselves in an uncomfortable situation.

It was discovered that endorphins reduce our susceptibility to pain better than morphine, speed up tissue regeneration and help deal with anxiety. All in all, it is an extremely beneficial energy supply but also one that should be utilised with care.

Endorphin dependence can backfire as an addiction to suffering, where we unconsciously ruminate over our emotional and physical pain. Detecting it is not easy, as it takes different forms in different people. It can come in the form of continuously falling for those “bad boys” or having a predisposition for unnecessary risks or in such impulsive behaviour as sticking to a super strict diet, putting the body under intense stress.

The good news is, however, that a burst of endorphins can also be stimulated in a number of emotionally and physically safe ways too. For example, by taking regular exercise, having sex, doing intermittent fasting or working to strict deadlines.


Often known as the love hormone, oxytocin creates that pleasant feeling of intimacy and safety. Even if you have satisfied all of your other needs, it is impossible to feel happy without feeling like you belong. Isolation is perceived as a physical pain, if not worse. This was known to ancient Greeks, who often used ostracism in place of physical punishments by putting a criminal in a decade-long exile.

From an evolutionary point of view, the role of oxytocin is straightforward. In large mammals, it is responsible for maintaining a strong attachment bond between a mother and its offspring. It was proven that the mere presence of a baby kick starts oxytocin production in an adult, even if they are not closely related. A baby practically demands to be loved as it is essential for its survival.

Oxytocin helps a new mother to recover from giving birth and reduces anxiety levels. Evidence points to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. In any situation involving intense stress, our number one priority is to provide a generous serving of this hormone.

Whilst you may want to refrain from having your own baby for now, any close bodily contact is sufficient. The closer and objectively more pleasant this physical proximity is, the higher the level of oxytocin released. If for any reason, close physical proximity with loved ones is not available even in the form of a hug, you can always try massage.


This hormone is responsible for emotions of joy and motivation. Dopamine is probably the most treacherous of the four. It is the culprit of our constant search for simple pleasures, be it gossip, delicious macarons or spontaneous purchases.

The constant stimulation of dopamine receptors which comes in abundance from social media, advertising or smartphone apps leads to addiction. Even when binge watching Friends stops sparking any joy, we just cannot help ourselves. The only way out of this vicious cycle is a voluntary dopamine detox, which requires significant willpower, but is so worth it.

It becomes apparent that more complex activity that requires attention and effort elevates pleasure onto a new level. Books become more enticing than a news feed, whilst the time spent cooking dinner in place of a ready meal is definitely not a waste. Unlike with oxytocin, there are no universal sources of dopamine, which is individual to each person.

Think of a complex activity that tops up your own dopamine levels. Is it playing a musical instrument or coming up with the next chess sequence? Is it taking a yoga class or maybe gardening? Look for your very own sources of dopamine supply and look for ways to combine it with other neurotransmitters for maximum impact. A dance class with a partner will not only top up your dopamine but you’re your oxytocin, whilst taking part in a sports contest will fill you with a potent cocktail of all four happiness hormones at once.

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