The science of happiness

When was the last time you felt wildly happy? When was the last time you woke up feeling energetic, joyful and grateful for all that you had? What causes happiness like that? And what makes some of us

happy almost all the time, while others battle with issues like depression and have a hard time feeling happy?

Our happiness depends on many things. Your state changes depending on how you react to changes in your career, marriage, personal life and finances. Happiness can also be due in part to giving back to the people and community around you, adopting a growth mindset during challenging times and making progress in life. We are often more in control of our happiness than we may think – we can cultivate what makes us happy through a set of strategies and behaviors that anyone can practice.

But there is another aspect to consider: the science of happiness. Neurological chemicals like dopamine and serotonin vary from person to person, causing them to feel more or less happy in life. But does dopamine make you happy? Does serotonin make you happy? The answer is that serotonin and dopamine are proven factors in our overall well-being, but they’re not the only thing you need to be happy.

What causes happiness?

Human beings are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain; we look to not only survive in life, but to experience what makes us happy. Our brain chemistry is designed to support these efforts by releasing chemicals into our brain and body that make us feel good. There are numerous neurotransmitters, or substances released by nerve fibers, that affect happiness. Although there are quite a few that make us feel joyful, right now we’ll focus on two: serotonin and dopamine.

Does serotonin make you happy?

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that’s created in the brain as well as in the intestines. Once produced, it’s circulated in the blood and throughout the central nervous system. Serotonin is linked to digestion, blood clotting and bone density, but its most important function in terms of what makes us happy is in regulating mood. Some scientists even refer to serotonin as the “happiness chemical,” because higher serotonin levels increase feelings of well-being, confidence and belonging.  

People who are diagnosed with depression typically have low levels of serotonin available, whereas people with high serotonin often report being happier. People with higher serotonin levels also demonstrate higher levels of self-esteem and have an easier time handling rejection.

Humans are social animals, and being around others is what causes happiness for many of us. There’s a scientific reason for that: Serotonin is more free-flowing when you feel important or valued by those around you. When you’re experiencing serotonin happiness, it takes no effort to feel joyful – it just seems to happen naturally.

So does serotonin make you happy? The short answer is yes – and you don’t have to rely on your natural serotonin levels. Cuddling with your partner, aerobic exercise, getting out in the sunshine, getting a massage and even visualizing something that makes you happy can all increase serotonin levels.

Does dopamine make you happy?

Dopamine is another neurotransmitter made in the brain and distributed through various pathways to affect bodily functions like heart rate, blood vessel and kidney function, nausea, vomiting and even pain.

Dopamine is perhaps most famous for its role in what makes us happy. Your body releases dopamine as part of the reward system – after sex or a good meal, or when you’ve reached a goal – that’s why its known as the “reward molecule.” In this way, it plays a role in how quickly and efficiently you get things done. Your body knows that if it achieves an objective, your mind will flood the body with dopamine, causing you to feel happy and fulfilled.

This isn’t just true of achieving big goals. Even when you accomplish a small task, your dopamine levels will increase. Dopamine happiness feels invigorating and energizing. People with low levels of dopamine might experience depression or other mood disorders and can have trouble staying on task and remaining focused.

Dopamine is a big part of what causes happiness – and like serotonin, you can increase its levels naturally. Exercise plays a part again here, as well as avoiding processed foods, sugar and caffeine. But the best way to keep dopamine levels high? Get a good night’s sleep.

Cortisol: The enemy of what makes us happy

While there are biological conditions that decrease the levels of these chemicals, dopamine and serotonin are typically balanced in those who eat nutritious diets, get plenty of exercise and manage their stress levels effectively. However, for those who lead unhealthy lifestyles or let stress take over, a deadly chemical called cortisol can be released and inhibit the chemicals that make us happy.

Cortisol is a hormone made by the body’s adrenal glands. In normal amounts, it reduces inflammation in the body and regulates blood pressure, blood glucose and sleep. It’s also the body’s main stress hormone and is most famous for instigating the “fight-or-flight” response. When you’re living in a state of constant stress, cortisol becomes elevated. This state not only reduces our serotonin and dopamine happiness, it also negatively impacts memory and focus, can lead to weight gain and can have serious effects on our major organs and immune system. 

Does dopamine make you happy? Sure. Serotonin does, too. But you wouldn’t want a brain filled with only the “happy” neurotransmitters and none of the others. Your body needs both. Because in the end, what causes happiness comes down to one word: balance.

Natural strategies for balance in the brain

You might think that because your brain is wired a certain way that there’s nothing you can do about your everyday happiness. After all, some of this is genetic, right? While it’s true that your brain chemistry is affected by your biology, the science of what causes happiness shows that you have the power to change your thoughts. However, if the following techniques do not work and you are experiencing a depression you can’t shake, seek professional help.

1. Move your body

 Get up and move on a daily basis for at least an hour to release endorphins and boost your mood.

2. Practice gratitude

You can also practice gratitude regularly by writing in a journal, meditating on all the good things in your life or finding ways to show appreciation to those close to you.

3. Feed your mind

Make a point to feed your mind with nutritious information like self-help books, interesting biographies or inspirational novels.

science of happiness

serotonin happiness

4. Use the latest developments

Taking natural supplements and utilizing stress-reducing technology like NuCalm can increase the levels of chemicals that cause happiness.

5. Surround yourself with support

Finally, surrounding yourself with those who are positive and supportive will stimulate the release of “feel good” brain chemicals and help you remain in a peak state.

No one feels happy 100% of the time, but the science of what causes happiness shows us that there are things we can do to boost our mood. Even when you face a challenge, you can find a way to accept and learn from it. By creating close social connections and making progress in life, you have the power to reframe your mindset and create a cycle of happiness. While neurotransmitters certainly affect your state, as Tony Robbins says, “Progress equals happiness.”



Discover how you can reframe your mindset in order to create our own cycle of joy with Tony Robbins’ free digital Limiting Beliefs guide.