If you live in a large city and have been feeling unhappy, frustrated or anxious lately, rest assured that you aren’t alone.
While scientists haven’t figured out which factors definitely contribute to the unhappiness of those living in cities, studies have shown that urban populations experience higher levels angst, anxiety, and possibly higher levels of mental disorder.
In fact, new research posits that the bigger and denser the city you live in, the more unhappy you’re likely to be.
Unfortunately, hightailing it out of our office cubicles and making a getaway to the nearest beach or mountain retreat isn’t always going to be a practical solution. Which is where a deeper understanding of our brains comes in: Scientists have managed to isolate the four chemicals – dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins – that are primarily responsible for feelings of happiness.
Here’s a quick, no-nonsense summary of the four neurotransmitters that underlie the feeling of happiness, and how you could potentially harness them to combat stress and anxiety.
What it does: You know that feeling of satisfaction you get from ticking boxes on a to-do checklist? That emotion is basically dopamine at work. Besides being a neurotransmitter that is responsible for a variety of brain and body functions from regulating movement to controlling our attention, dopamine is also what makes our pleasure-reward system tick; it makes us competitive, motivates us to accomplish goals, and helps us to reinforce patterns of learning and reward.
On the flip side, dopamine is also responsible for addiction to harmful substances and destructive behaviour. Dopamine reinforces the feedback loop between rewards and behaviour, but makes little distinction between whether that reward comes from winning a big hand at the poker table or securing a client for your new business.
Ways to boost dopamine: Practice meditation and mindfulness; learn how to engage in flow-state activities; break down big goals into a list of small, quantifiable activities; and go about fulfilling them; learn how to form good working habits.
What it does: Also known as the ‘cuddle hormone’, oxytocin plays a major role in social interaction. The hormone has an anti-anxiety effect, increases attachment and empathy, and facilitates parent-child bonding. During childbirth, women experience a massive surge of oxytocin, which helps to cement the bond between mother and child.
While physical acts of touch are known to boost oxytocin levels, acts of human interaction (even on social media) will likewise lead to spikes in oxytocin levels. Likewise, being on the receiving end of an act of trust will trigger an increase in oxytocin.
Ways to boost oxytocin: Engage in meaningful conversations, give a friend a hug; volunteer and give aid to a charity.
What it does: Serotonin is the hormone associated with feelings of significance and importance, and is believed to be a mood stabiliser. Loneliness and depression are causally related to an absence of serotonin; cortisol, the stress hormone, causes the depletion of serotonin.
It may sound twee, but taking the time to visualise past successes and happy events may help boost serotonin. The human brain has trouble distinguishing what’s real and what’s imagined, and will produce serotonin in both cases.
Ways to boost serotonin: Expose yourself to sunlight for 20 minutes every day; take a few moments each day to visualise past accomplishments; minimise your intake of caffeine; partake in massage therapy.
What it does: Endorphins can be seen as the body’s natural painkiller; it’s an opiate-like chemical that’s released to alleviate pain and stress. Marathon runners who feel a surge of euphoria – known as a ‘runner’s high’ – are experiencing a surge of endorphin levels in their bodies.
Ways to boost endorphins: Head to a comedy show (laughter is one of the easiest ways to trigger endorphins); engage in regular exercise; add more spicy food to your diet; eat dark chocolate; drink in moderation; have an orgasm.