Wellness·6 min read

The Biology of Happiness and How to Hack Your Hormones

Woman in exercise class dancing and smiling
Getty Images
May 24, 2023

We tend to think about hormones and other chemicals in our body as binary. There are “good” or “happy” ones, like serotonin, and there are “bad” ones, like cortisol. Tips for boosting happy hormones may sound simple: Get outside to increase serotonin and exercise for endorphins. But this tricks us into believing that manipulating these chemicals is an easy happiness hack. The reality is more complex.

Back up. Which hormones are we talking about? 

So-called happy hormones are substances our bodies produce to regulate how we feel and function by relaying info between our cells, tissues, and organs. The key ones to know are dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin, and serotonin. However, Dr. Olusola Ajilore, a psychiatry professor and the director of the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program at the University of Illinois Chicago, cautions against oversimplifying these chemicals because they each play a unique role in the body. Let’s dive in… 

  • Dopamine is primarily known as the “reward” chemical because it helps control when you feel pleasure and regulate your motivation, memory, attention, and mood. It also plays a key role in mediating addiction because our brains can get used to the dopamine bursts from things like drugs or even social media, making us feel like we need more and more (and triggering a comedown after we get our hit). 

  • Endorphins are also called “natural painkillers” because of their ability to reduce pain and promote well-being. The brain mainly produces endorphins in response to circumstances that elicit stress, pain, or pleasure — including exercise and doing things you enjoy. 

  • Oxytocin is known as the “love” hormone because it helps facilitate bonds between people through activities like kissing or cuddling. Plus, it plays a crucial role in initiating childbirth and lactation. And while it can help fuel loyalty, it can also trigger feelings of aggression and have other adverse and unpredictable effects.

  • Serotonin is the sleep, appetite, and mood regulator. Deficient levels of serotonin have previously been linked to depression. And while it’s typically thought of as a brain chemical, most serotonin in the body is actually produced in the gut.

So we ~want~ to boost these hormones, right? 

It’s not that simple. Adjusting the levels of these chemicals doesn’t guarantee specific health benefits. “It's not like the brain is just like a cup that you fill with these neurotransmitters, and you can sort of mark the level at which it should be,” Dr. Ajilore says.

Research does suggest that activities like exercising, listening to music, and getting outside can help increase these hormones. But what’s not clear is whether the hormones alone cause these benefits, says Dr. Ajilore. For example: After sticking with a regular exercise routine for a couple of months, you’ll probably start to notice mental health improvements. “That may have something to do with serotonin,” says Dr. Ajilore, or “it may not.”

It was once thought that depression was more explicitly related to levels of chemicals like dopamine or serotonin, but Dr. Ajilore says those theories have "gone by the wayside." Researchers have since realized that there are likely many contributing causes to depression and that brain chemistry is more holistic. “It's … how these things interact together in a network or in a circuit,” says Dr. Ajilore.

Your move

Your overall health and well-being can benefit from habits that are good for your brain chemistry. But, if you’re hoping to tackle mental health concerns, adapting habits specifically to increase a certain brain chemical or decrease another may not be the best approach. Try working with a professional who can help you address the issue holistically instead. 

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We Tried It

Screenshot of the open mindfulness app

We try out the buzziest wellness tools, trinkets, and experiences, so you don’t have to (yet). 

What we tried: Open, a digital mindfulness studio that offers a range of one to 40+ minute courses in breathwork, meditation, movement, and more. 

Where you can find it: On the App Store, online, or in person (if you live in Los Angeles) 

What it'll cost you: A digital subscription is $20/month or $150/year, but you can get the first seven to 14 days free, depending on which subscription you pick. In-person experiences at their LA studio are $32 each.

What to expect: If the previous wave of mindfulness apps made the practice more accessible, Open is making it more chic. Some examples: Breathwork classes that encourage screaming, meditation classes called “I Love Myself,” and the option to invite friends to join you virtually. You’ll hear music from different artists in the background of most of these offerings,  some of whom have partnered with Open to create unique live events. In our experience, the app can occasionally feel overwhelming — especially since its designers went with whimsical vibes over a completely intuitive experience. But the good news is, there’s a class for that…literally. 

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 

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