The difference between dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin — and how each one helps you feel happy
- Four main chemicals in your brain are responsible for feelings of
happiness: dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin.
- You can boost your levels of these four happy hormones naturally by eating right, exercising regularly, dancing, and more.
- If you suffer from low levels of serotonin and natural remedies aren't working, consider discussing medical treatment options with your doctor.
- This article was medically reviewed by Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, MD, Chair, Department of Psychiatry, MedStar Washington Hospital Center.
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Whenever you feel joy or satisfaction, it's the result of a complex network of synapses firing in your brain at once.
While it's hard to disentangle what exactly is responsible for your sense of happiness, four chemicals can take a big chunk of the credit: dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin.
These are considered the hormones of happiness — though, in truth, only one of them is technically a hormone. Here's what you need to know about dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin and how to boost them for a happier life.
Dopamine is what's called a neurotransmitter. Meaning that it helps your brain send messages via your nervous system to different parts of the body so they can communicate with one another.
As a result, dopamine plays an essential part in your physical movement but is also crucial to your general well-being. For example, it helps you feel pleasure, like for example when you eat something delicious or hear your favorite song. It is also heavily involved in the brain's reward system and influences motivation.
Serotonin, like dopamine, is a neurotransmitter. It helps regulate sleep, appetite, and mood. It also helps to inhibit pain. Research shows that lower serotonin activity has been linked to depression and an increased risk of suicide.
"Serotonin is an important chemical when talking about depression. That is why SSRIs [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors] are prescribed to help treat depression because they increase the level of serotonin," says Monica Starkman, MD, professor emerita in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry.
Endorphins are molecules associated with pain relief and a sense of well-being that is produced by the pituitary and hypothalamus glands in your brain. They interact with the brain's opiate receptors — the same receptors that are at play when you take opioid-based drugs.
Endorphins trigger positive feelings in the body and are released whenever you do something you enjoy like exercise, have sex, eat sweets, laugh, and listen to music. The feelings caused when endorphins are released mimic morphine, according to research. In fact, a "runner's high" is the product of endorphins.
"Endorphins get produced with exercise, and they stay in the bloodstream and make us feel good," Starkman says.
Oxytocin, a hormone connected to maternal behavior, lactation, social bonding, and sexual pleasure, is produced in the hypothalamus — the "command center" of the brain — and is either released into the blood through the pituitary gland or to other parts of the brain and spinal cord. It ultimately binds to oxytocin receptors, influencing behavior, and physiology.
How to boost happy hormones
Although many activities can give your brain a boost of happiness, the two most effective ways are eating healthy and exercising, Starkman says.
Eat right. "If you have a healthy diet that is broad and doesn't eliminate things, theoretically, you should have enough of these (chemicals)," Starkman says. "Having a good, balanced diet is good for overall well-being."
And while you can't get any of these chemicals directly from foods, Starkman says you can eat foods high in tryptophan, an amino acid that is converted to serotonin in the body. Tryptophan is mostly found in high-protein foods, like meat, fish, and poultry. Some research shows that eating carbohydrates with tryptophan-rich foods can help the body absorb it.
Because about 95% of serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract, it is important to eat foods that promote gut
A 2018 study found that low levels of omega-3 fats and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) are a major component of brain function. Low levels of omega-3 fats and fatty acids affect the brain's dopamine systems and, when combined with genetic and other factors, increase the risk of developing disorders such as Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and depression.
Get some exercise. Exercise has been found to increase dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin levels. A wide variety of workouts can have positive effects. For instance, one 2018 study linked martial arts to higher oxytocin levels. Other exercises, such as yoga and weight training, have also been found to help with mood and brain health.
Try light therapy. Sunshine can also increase happiness, which may be caused in large part by an increase of serotonin. Bright light that mimics sunshine is effective in helping mood, Starkman says, and light therapy is a notable option for the treatment of seasonal affective disorder.
Do a little dance. Exercise, healthy foods, and sunshine aren't the only mood-boosters. As it turns out, a good old-fashioned dance party might do the trick. According to researchers, dancing helps increase all four of these happiness building blocks.
"Have some music in your lineup that makes you move," Starkman says. "That kind of pleasure and movement will help stimulate these."
Dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin all play a crucial role in your ability to feel good and lead a happy, fulfilling life.
These chemicals can be naturally boosted through proper diet, exercise, exposure to sunshine, and activities that you enjoy, such as dancing.
For people who suffer from low levels of serotonin, there are treatment options you can discuss with your doctor, including SSRI medications.
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