Happiness is elusive at the best of times. But right now, with the pandemic yet to be controlled, it appears more so. Long periods of isolation, coupled with chronic stress and worry, are building up into a crisis in mental health.
Humans are a social species, and isolation has a major impact on our emotional state, says Dr Dean Burnett, neuroscientist and author of The Happy Brain. "We have pathways [in our brain] which aren’t being stimulated as much, and physical connection is such a big part of that."
Feelings of well-being and happiness are largely driven by four brain chemicals – endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin. These neurotransmitters and hormones have complex effects on the brain and body, and our lifestyles – what we eat, who we’re with, what we’re doing – can turn them up and down. We ask the experts for the best ways to kickstart them.
Endorphins affect the same receptors in the brain as opioid painkillers. They relieve pain but, just like morphine, create a feeling of bliss as a welcome side-effect.
If you’ve ever experienced a runner’s high, you’ll know exactly how these chemicals work: after a gruelling session, any physical discomfort falls away, and you’ll feel euphoric.
The best-known way to release endorphins is through cardiovascular exercise. Research shows that if you’re going at a steady pace – jogging while still being able to hold a conversation – it will take an hour to get an endorphin buzz. If you push yourself harder, they’re released faster. However, don’t overdo it: high-intensity exercise causes the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which might erode some of your good mood. An hour of moderate exercise is better than HIIT for a happiness hit.
The key to an endorphin rush is to go out of your comfort zone a little, but there are other routes besides getting sweaty. In fact, you could try the exact opposite. Several studies have shown that cold water exposure – for example, cold showers – boosts mood, the theory being that the body releases endorphins to counteract the discomfort. Burnett recommends starting slowly – gradually turning down the temperature in the shower until it feels a little cold, and standing under it for a few seconds.
Regular cold showers help the brain to cope with stress by teaching it that suffering is temporary, adds Dr Tara Swart, neuroscientist and author of The Source. She recommends a brief blast of cold water, followed by a warm shower, which will initially spike cortisol levels before rapidly bringing them down again.
If it’s too much to bear on a March morning, you could always eat your way to endorphin euphoria with a curry. Capsaicin, the compound responsible for the burning sensation in chillies, is thought to trigger endorphin release as the brain tries to numb the pain in your mouth. Or try singing – the physical exertion involved in filling your lungs and working the vocal cords has been shown to release endorphins in a similar way to exercise. Little wonder so many people have sung from their balconies during lockdowns.
Oxytocin is known for its role in childbirth, but it’s involved in almost all forms of human bonding. It causes the warm, fuzzy feeling after intimate moments, the contentment of being with close friends and the joy of cuddling your pet. If you’ve ever missed meals when you were falling in love, that’s oxytocin, too: In high doses, it suppresses your appetite.
Hugging, or any close physical contact with people you love – such as holding hands or massage – will deliver oxytocin and boost your mood, so do it as much as possible, says Burnett. Unsurprisingly, getting intimate has a strong effect on several chemicals that are linked with happiness, including dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin.
"Talking through Zoom is better than nothing," says Burnett.
Taking a bath may help, too. Says Swart: "Your skin is immersed in the warm, which is the closest thing to a hug you can get if you’re alone," she says.
People commonly say that they get a ‘dopamine rush’ when doing things that give them immediate pleasure, like getting social media updates or eating. If you have found yourself lacking motivation during these tough times, it might be due to disruption in the dopamine pathways of your brain. To get some zeal back, try to rewire your reward circuits with a technique called behavioural activation, says Dr Ciara McCabe, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Reading. The technique helps you out of a period of low motivation by getting you to take on small, manageable tasks. As they are completed, you will feel satisfaction that will help you to gradually rebuild your drive.
She recommends thinking about practising a hobby you enjoy, like playing a musical instrument, painting, or knitting. At first, practise just a little each day, so the task doesn’t feel overwhelming, and over time you will build motivation. "It’s about training yourself to seek out reward," she says.
Clearing out a cupboard or organising your photos into albums also helps.
This neurotransmitter can affect processes from digestion and bone health to sleep. People with depression often have low levels of serotonin.
The amino acid is also found in dark chocolate, which will come as no surprise to anyone who gets pleasure from eating it. To give your brain a good shot at making enough serotonin, try to spend as much time as possible outdoors every day (but of course not during summers).
Consult your GP before making any major changes to your lifestyle.
The Daily Telegraph