The Science Behind Happiness: Dopamine Vs. Serotonin

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated April 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Some people believe happiness is an elusive state of being that can significantly affect one's mental health. However, when examining happiness, it can be essential to understand the role of two essential neurotransmitters in the brain: dopamine and serotonin. These powerful chemicals influence mood, motivation, and overall well-being. 

By learning about the science behind happiness, one can appreciate the differences between dopamine and serotonin and gain insight into how they work in harmony. This understanding can help individuals adopt strategies for increasing dopamine and serotonin levels while improving their overall mental well-being. 

Are you ready to take the first step towards a happier life?

Understanding the science behind happiness

Happiness is a complex concept that can differ from person to person. However, scientifically, happiness is an emotional and physiological response in the body that lasts a few minutes to a few hours at a time. Some people strive for "happiness" as an end state when describing their definition of success. Although happiness may not be a "forever" state of being, there are ways people can increase the moments of joy they feel daily. 

Happiness is linked to improved physical health, greater resilience in facing challenges, and stronger social connections. In short, cultivating happiness can majorly impact one's overall well-being. The scientific study of happiness (positive psychology) has gained momentum over the past few decades. Researchers are interested in identifying the underlying mechanisms contributing to happiness and developing interventions to boost happiness levels.

Neurotransmitters and happiness 

A vital component of this research is the examination of neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers in the brain responsible for transmitting signals between nerve cells. Dopamine and serotonin are two neurotransmitters that can increase the chances of happiness and a sense of well-being. These chemicals act as messengers that enable communication between brain cells, influencing various functions, including mood, motivation, and emotional control.

Dopamine 

Dopamine is often associated with pleasure and reward. Time quotes Russell Poldrack, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, as saying, "Dopamine is a 'feel-good' chemical that transmits signals between neurons in the brain. The first time you engage in a new, 'rewarding' behavior, you get a euphoric feeling from doing it due to a dopamine release."  This reward system drives motivation and helps individuals pursue goals and engage in activities that bring them happiness. 

Serotonin 

Contrarily, serotonin controls mood, social behavior, appetite, and sleep, among other essential functions. A serotonin deficiency has been linked to mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Forbes states, "Unlike dopamine, serotonin is associated with alignment to a larger purpose and long-term accomplishments… Too much dopamine makes you frantic---Adding serotonin can make you focused."

The science behind happiness may lie in understanding how these neurotransmitters interact and influence one another. Balancing dopamine and serotonin can be crucial for experiencing more frequent happiness and maintaining mental and emotional well-being.

How to increase dopamine 

When individuals have the proper balance of dopamine, they may be more likely to experience a sense of happiness and satisfaction in their daily lives. Therefore, finding ways to increase dopamine production naturally can positively impact mood and overall well-being. Below are several tips for increasing dopamine levels. 

Exercise 

Engaging in regular exercise can be an effective way to boost dopamine production. Physical activity, whether via a brisk walk, run, or yoga session, releases endorphins and stimulates dopamine release, leading to an improved mood and increased energy.

Eat healthy 

Eating a healthy diet can be another factor in maintaining balanced dopamine levels. Consuming foods rich in the precursors to dopamine, such as lean protein, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, can support the body's natural production of this essential neurotransmitter. Staying hydrated and limiting the intake of processed foods and sugar can contribute to better overall mental and physical health.

Socialize 

Building strong connections and discussing positive experiences with loved ones can stimulate dopamine release, creating feelings of happiness and a sense of belonging.

Partake in hobbies 

When individuals immerse themselves in enjoyable activities, their brains naturally produce more dopamine, leading to an improved mood and greater fulfillment. Find hobbies you enjoy and can fit into your schedule to take advantage of this natural benefit. 

Avoid unhealthy behaviors 

While it can be valuable to promote healthy dopamine production, maintain balance by avoiding maladaptive behaviors that can lead to a dopamine "crash." Overindulging in activities that provide a quick, intense dopamine surge, like excessive use of technology or specific substances, can decrease dopamine levels or cause a long-term dopamine deficiency. 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

How to increase serotonin 

Maintaining healthy serotonin levels can contribute to a better mood and improved mental health. Below are a few strategies you can try to increase these levels.  

Have regular sunlight exposure 

Exposure to sunlight can boost serotonin production. Spending time outdoors in natural sunlight for a few minutes a day may elevate your mood and support the body's natural serotonin production. If you live in a cloudy or dark area or in winter, you can also try a sunlight-mimicking lamp, which has been associated with decreased levels of depression during the winter. 

Exercise and eat healthily 

Like with dopamine, exercise is another effective way to increase serotonin levels, leading to improved mood and increased energy levels. Eating a healthy diet can also contribute to balanced serotonin levels. Consuming foods rich in tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin, can support the body's natural production of this essential neurotransmitter. 

Relax 

Practicing meditation or other relaxation techniques may increase serotonin production. By calming the mind and promoting relaxation, individuals can support their brain's ability to produce serotonin and improve their overall mood.

Dopamine, serotonin, and mental health

Dopamine and serotonin are two essential neurotransmitters that significantly impact mental health. Both chemical messengers in the brain control mood, motivation, and overall well-being. When dopamine and serotonin levels are well-balanced, individuals are more likely to experience emotional stability, happiness, and satisfaction in their daily lives.

However, dopamine and serotonin production imbalances can lead to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. When dopamine levels are too low, individuals may experience a lack of motivation, pleasure, and feelings of reward. Similarly, low serotonin levels can contribute to sadness, irritability, and difficulty sleeping. These imbalances can considerably impact overall mental health and sometimes lead to a mental illness diagnosis. 

Optimizing dopamine and serotonin production can improve overall mental and emotional well-being. By incorporating natural strategies to increase the levels of these neurotransmitters, such as regular exercise, exposure to sunlight, a healthy diet, and relaxation techniques, individuals can help balance these essential brain chemicals.

Finding mental health support 

Seeking professional support from a therapist may benefit those struggling to maintain balanced dopamine and serotonin levels. Therapists and psychiatrists can provide guidance and recommend treatment options, such as therapy or medication, to address underlying imbalances in neurotransmitter production.

If you're living with a condition like depression, getting out of bed or making appointments can be challenging. In these cases, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp may help individuals receive care from home. Online therapy also provides flexible scheduling options, allowing you to balance work, personal commitments, and self-care. By engaging in online therapy, you can embark on a journey of self-discovery and growth, learning how to harness the power of dopamine and serotonin to enhance your overall well-being and happiness.

One study reviewed initial evaluations of cognitive-behavioral therapy delivered via telephone as a treatment for adult depression. The study found that 69% of participants were satisfied with the eight-session CBT-TT. Reduction in depression severity was stable over three and six months, and 42% of participants were considered recovered at termination of services. Online therapy has proven a practical and available means of addressing mental health concerns while helping individuals better understand and manage their neurotransmitter levels.

Takeaway

Achieving more frequent moments of joy can be difficult if you're living with an imbalance or low level of serotonin and dopamine. These influential chemicals shape mood, motivation, and overall well-being. Individuals can discern the distinctions between the two by understanding the science underlying happiness. To understand how these chemicals might impact your well-being, consider contacting a licensed therapist for further guidance and support.
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