The Love Of Happiness: Brain Chemicals At Work

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated April 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Happiness can be described as a mood, a feeling, or a state of mind. Depending on who’s defining it, you may see many words used to describe happiness, such as joy, contentment, satisfaction, pleasure, and delight. There can be equally as many explanations for why we feel happy, many of which have to do with complex biological processes. Current research tells us that our mood, energy levels, and an array of important systems in our bodies can be affected by our brain chemistry. This may mean that our happiness is often a product of a specific mix of chemicals, like hormones and neurotransmitters. Some of these can include endocannabinoids, dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins. If you’re interested in experiencing more happiness in your daily life, consider trying online or in-person therapy.

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Why we experience happiness

Our brains and bodies are generally programmed to seek out comfort, satisfaction, reward, and many other feelings that can help us survive. Many of these experiences can also be involved in producing happiness. When we pursue these states, our brains often release various chemicals and compounds that can change our moods. For example, eating a satisfying meal often makes you feel content and nourished because of a chemical called dopamine. These biological processes may only be part of why we experience happiness, however. Happiness can also be affected by external circumstances like relationships and careers, physical health, mental health conditions, and a variety of other influences. 

The neuroscience of happiness: Important brain chemicals 

The numerous neurochemicals that can be produced naturally in our bodies often perform an array of essential functions, including controlling our mood. While we’re still learning about many of the functions and inner workings of these brain chemicals, we know that several of them can produce feelings related to relaxation, satisfaction, and pleasure. 

1. Endocannabinoids

Endocannabinoids are sometimes called “bliss molecules” because of their calming effects. These neurotransmitters usually work on the CB-1 and CB-2 receptors of the endocannabinoid system, which is generally responsible for numerous functions, including our ability to process emotions. Endocannabinoids can help moderate stress, increase pleasure, and improve our overall mood, all of which may contribute to increased happiness.  

2. Dopamine

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or a molecule used to transport impulses in the brain, that's usually seen as part of our reward system. Dopamine is often released when we feel satisfaction or pleasure. For example, when you set a goal, achieve it, and experience a reward, you may experience a rush of dopamine that likely makes you feel happy. 

3. Oxytocin

Whenever you are touching, cuddling with, or becoming intimate with someone, your body typically releases oxytocin. Oxytocin is often known as the bonding molecule. It can be directly linked to human connection and may be partially responsible for our feelings of trust and loyalty. When you're separated from a loved one, your oxytocin level often goes down, which can leave you with a longing feeling. In addition to touch, eye contact is thought to stimulate the production of oxytocin. Studies also show that oxytocin can increase in dogs and people when they look at one another

4. Endorphins

Endorphins can be defined as peptides that are usually released during periods of stress to help us exercise self-control and decrease pain. The body can also produce endorphins when we exercise, have sex, and even laugh. Endorphins typically produce a pain-relieving effect similar to that of morphine, which is likely how they got their name (endogenous morphine—endorphin). The pituitary gland and the hypothalamus can produce endorphins, which normally resemble opiates in their chemical structure.


Another neurotransmitter typically found in the central nervous system is gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Producing a moderating effect on stress-inducing brain activity, GABA may have anti-anxiety properties that can calm us down. This is likely why common anti-anxiety drugs, like alprazolam, work by stimulating GABA receptors. While there can be foods and supplements that contain GABA, researchers aren’t sure that their consumption will have beneficial effects due to a possible inability to cross the blood-brain barrier. 


Studies have shown a potential link between meditation, yoga, and the release of GABA. Studies suggest that yoga can improve mood by elevating GABA levels.

6. Serotonin

Frequently known as the “happy hormone,” serotonin may control mood and can be integral to several other processes in our bodies, including the digestive system, reward system, and immune system. Serotonin can also boost our confidence, which is often vital to our feelings of happiness. When we have a sense of purpose and accomplishment, our brains typically release extra doses of serotonin, which has been linked to increased optimism

7. Adrenaline

While an increase in most of the above chemicals is typically associated with improvements in mood, higher levels of adrenaline may reduce your happiness. Yet another neurotransmitter, adrenaline usually plays a role in our fight-or-flight response. Higher levels of adrenaline can increase your heart rate and blood pressure, which may lead to stress and anxiety. 

How to activate brain chemicals

Several lifestyle changes and alternative therapies may alter the brain's chemistry to naturally boost your mood. The following can be useful ways to stimulate the chemicals in your brain that may help you feel happier. 


Physical activity can lead to increased production of serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine, which may boost mood and energy levels. Exercise usually also stimulates the production of GABA and endorphins in the body, which can have relaxing and pain-relieving effects. To take advantage of these chemicals, consider joining a gym, practicing yoga, or developing an at-home exercise routine.

Light exposure

Contact with natural light first thing in the morning can produce melatonin, which may help you sleep at night, alleviate symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, and improve your mood. Bright light is also thought to help produce serotonin. Consider taking a walk every morning or reproducing the effects of natural light using light therapy boxes. 


A balanced diet can stimulate the production of certain brain chemicals. For example, foods that are high in tryptophan (e.g., salmon, nuts, turkey) can increase serotonin levels. Additionally, because approximately 50% of your body’s dopamine is usually found in the gut, eating foods that are high in probiotics (such as yogurt, kombucha, and cottage cheese) may improve mood as well. Consider implementing a diet that includes a variety of different foods to take advantage of these benefits. 

Fostering happiness with therapy

Engaging in therapy sessions with a licensed mental health professional can be another way to invite more happiness into your life.

Benefits of online therapy

If you feel as though happiness is elusive, or if you’d like to address another mental health-related challenge, consider utilizing an online therapy platform like BetterHelp. BetterHelp works with thousands of therapists who have a range of specialties and areas of expertise, so you may connect with someone who can help you work through your specific concerns. You can also schedule sessions that fit into your existing routine and attend them from anywhere with an internet connection.

Effectiveness of online therapy

Studies show that online therapy can be a convenient form of care for those experiencing mental health concerns that may be affecting their happiness. For example, in a study on the efficacy of online therapy for depressive disorders, researchers found that online treatment was generally as effective as in-person therapy.

Find happiness in life with online therapy


Feelings like joy, excitement, and contentment are often the results of complex internal processes that we aren’t always able to reproduce. Knowing about the neurobiological sources of happiness may help us understand why happiness can sometimes be hard to find. Serotonin, adrenaline, GABA, endorphins, and oxytocin may be just some of the brain chemicals involved in the experience of happiness. If you’re struggling to experience happiness, know that support is available. Consider talking to a licensed therapist online and taking the first step in your mental health journey.
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