What makes you happy? It’s a serious question, since more and more people seem to be suffering from depression, and are worryingly hooked on prescription medications. In the Kingdom of Bhutan, “Gross National Happiness” is a concept which implies that sustainable development should take a holistic approach towards notions of progress, and give equal importance to non-economic aspects of wellbeing. The result – happier citizens, which can only be a good thing.
I don’t know about you, but sun, exercise and relaxation always make me happy, and my recent 10 days away gave me that in spades. I was fortunate to be able to go to a wonderful place in the Caribbean where there was plenty of sun (in fact, it was directly overhead), I exercised at least twice a day and did plenty of dancing in the evenings, and I relaxed by having regular massages and hanging out with new friends at the juice bar. Who wouldn’t be happy under these circumstances? With my scientist’s head on now, was something really happening physiologically to raise my “feel good” levels?
Sunshine boosts levels of serotonin – the body’s natural happy hormone. That’s why we tend to feel happier and more energetic when the sun shines. Regular sun can stave off moderate depression, particularly if combined with exercise, such as a walk in the park, running, or even an outdoor aqua class. It’s also been shown that exercising outdoors creates more endorphins in the body than exercising indoors.
Bright sunlight suppresses the hormone melatonin, which regulates sleep, so having lower levels of this hormone in your body gives you more get up and go. This is why you need less sleep in summer but still feel livelier. Plus, being woken by natural light rather than an alarm clock helps you feel more positive. A natural daylight alarm clock really helps in the dark winter months too.
Now, on to the specific benefits of exercise. If you start exercising, your brain recognizes this as a moment of stress. As your blood pressure increases, the brain thinks you are either fighting the enemy or fleeing from it. To protect yourself and your brain from stress, you release a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). This BDNF has a protective and also reparative element to your memory neurons and acts like a “reset switch”. That’s why we often feel happier and can think more clearly after exercise.
At the same time, endorphins, morphine-like brain chemicals which fight stress, are released. The main purpose of endorphins is to minimise the discomfort of exercise and block feelings of pain. Exercise for long enough and they are even associated with a feeling of euphoria (runner’s high, for example).
New York Times best-selling author Gretchen Reynolds has written a whole book about this subject, entitled “The First 20 Minutes”. Less exercise than you might think is needed for improving happiness levels:
“The first 20 minutes of moving around, if someone has been really sedentary, provide most of the health benefits. You get prolonged life, reduced disease risk — all of those things come in the first 20 minutes of being active.”
Human touch is also relaxing and therapeutic. Massage is a great way to improve your wellbeing and reduce or eliminate the effects of anxiety and depression. Stress levels dramatically decrease after a massage; pampering in general is a great way to boost your mood. If life starts catching up to you, book a massage appointment!
Likewise, feelings of affection and bonding just feel good. The hormone involved in this effect is oxytocin, and it is the polar opposite of the stress hormones. Oxytocin makes you feel calm and relaxed, trusting and affectionate. It makes you feel, in a nutshell, unstressed. Oxytocin also reduces pain and improves sociability. Studies published in the Journal of Neuroscience back up these claims. If someone sitting next to you has high levels of oxytocin, it also increases your own oxytocin levels. Scientists are still not sure how or why this happens, but it’s a good thing – so mix with happy people! You can read more about oxytocin in my book The Whole Body Solution.
Is it therefore necessary to fly off somewhere exotic to get your regular dose of happiness? Actually, no, we can access happiness wherever we are. But if someone wants to send me back to the Caribbean to conduct further research, I’m in!