The 4 Keys to a Happier You
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The Dalai Lama proposes that “the very purpose of life is to be happy.”1 For most of us, this is easier said than done.
If you know any die-hard optimists, they will tell you that happiness is a choice, but the latest science suggests that perhaps happiness is really the result of many small choices that we make each day.2 These daily choices include the food we put in our bodies, our willingness to exercise, the media we consume, and how we value the people and things in our lives.
All of these small choices impact our brains and our bodies – specifically the chemical levels of the positive endorphins and serotonin, and the negative cortisol -- which ultimately impact our individual levels of happiness.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects brain cells and impacts our emotions, moods, sleep, memory and appetite. Conversely, low serotonin levels lead to high cortisol levels which can lead to depression, insomnia, anxiety, negative thinking, obesity, pain and migraine headaches.3 Not a good way to go through life.
Glossary of Terms
Endorphins – Endorphins are morphine-like chemicals produced by the body that help diminish pain while triggering positive feelings. They're sometimes referred to as the brain's "feel-good" chemicals, and are the body's natural painkillers.
Serotonin – Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that sends signals between nerve cells in the brain. It plays an important role in regulating mood, and low levels of serotonin in the brain have been associated with depression.
Cortisol – Cortisol is a steroid hormone that helps the body respond to stress. Cortisol levels spike during times of high stress, which is why people sometimes refer to cortisol as "the stress hormone."
So with the goal of increasing our serotonin levels in mind, let’s explore some of the small choices we make in life that could potentially have a big impact our overall happiness:
1. Food – You know the saying, “you are what you eat.” Studies show that low serotonin levels could be the result of a poor diet, digestive problems, inflammation, blood sugar imbalances, and alcohol use – all the result of the food we choose to put in our body. Try eating more of the foods recognized for increasing serotonin levels, such as turkey, chicken, salmon, avocado, baked potato, walnuts, chickpeas, lentils, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds.4
2. Fitness – Exercise is a great way to boost serotonin levels. Aerobic exercise such as walking, running, biking, and swimming are the most effective at increasing serotonin levels. The optimal amount of exercise needed to raise serotonin levels is a combined three (3) hours per week. If possible, mix up your fitness routine between the indoors and outdoors, as light exposure also impacts serotonin levels. And perhaps the most important and underappreciated part of fitness is rest and recovery. Make sure to get plenty of sleep and try to manage you stress levels through your preferred method of relaxation (i.e. mediation, hobbies, etc.)
3. Laughter – With all new technological advances, we should always ask, “Just because we can, does it mean we should?” Just because we now live in an interconnected world of 24/7 news, it doesn’t mean watching the news 24/7 is good for your health. Instead, try to be mindful of the media you consume, and how much. Being informed is important, but make sure to get a balanced media diet of laughter too. Laughter really is the best medicine. Studies show that hardy belly laughs induce serotonin production, which calms the brain’s stress center.5 Perhaps even better than watching your favorite sitcom or a comedy show, spend time with friends who make you laugh, or try to help others laugh and smile too.
4. Love – How we choose to value the people and things in our lives also has a positive impact on our serotonin levels. Studies show that thoughts of gratitude increase serotonin and decrease cortisol, so take time to reflect on the things in life you are grateful for each day. More important than things are people, and you can boost the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine through acts of kindness. So lend a helping hand, volunteer in your community, or do something as small as share a compliment or a smile. Acts of kindness not only help others, they help increase your own levels of happiness.
“I believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy. From the very core of our being, we desire contentment. In my own limited experience I have found that the more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being. Cultivating a close, warmhearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the principal source of success in life. Since we are not solely material creatures, it is a mistake to place all our hopes for happiness on external development alone. The key is to develop inner peace.” ― Dalai Lama XIV
1. Dalai Lama quotes, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/401282-i-believe-that-the-very-purpose-of-life-is-to
2. This Is Scientific Proof That Happiness Is A Choice, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/09/scientific-proof-that-you_n_4384433.html
3. Low Serotonin Levels Symptoms, http://www.livestrong.com/article/245341-low-serotonin-levels-symptoms/
4. The Effects of Exercise on Serotonin Levels, http://www.livestrong.com/article/288554-list-of-foods-with-serotonin/
5. 5 Ways to Train Your Brain to Be Optimistic, http://www.livestrong.com/article/1012092-5-ways-train-brain-optimistic
With the goal of increasing our serotonin levels in mind, let’s explore some of the small choices we make in life that could potentially have a big impact our overall happiness.
© Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona | An Independent Licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association.
This information is provided for educational purposes only. Individuals should always consult with their healthcare providers regarding medical care or treatment, as recommendations, services or resources are not a substitute for the advice or recommendation of an individual's physician or healthcare provider. Services or treatment options may not be covered under an individual’s particular health plan.