Are There Happiness Hormones? One of the most mentioned expressions in psychology and allied sciences is that there are certain substances which, when released in our brain, induce us to a state of emotional well-being.
However, it seems a bit simplistic to reduce such a complex and abstract emotion as happiness to a simple set of chemical reactions in our nervous system, so there is generally some skepticism about a biological view of human behavior.
We will discuss here the question of what is usually understood by the concept of “happiness hormones”.
What are the hormones for happiness?
One of the most common expressions in psychology and the health sciences in general is that there is something commonly known as “happiness hormones”. These substances that claim joy are usually the quartet of serotonin, dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin. This expression, which is already almost a mantra, it may seem simple and simplistic to try to reduce a feeling as intense and abstract as happiness to simple biochemical reactions..
But of course, our emotional states are not the product of magic. Despite the risk of falling into too biological a perspective, it is a fact that our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and other psychological aspects must be based on a biological medium. This support is the central nervous system, an organic machine that houses various neurological phenomena and biochemical reactions that are at the origin of our feelings and reactions.
Yes we can say that there are hormones of happiness but, to put it more properly, it seems that what causes us happiness are in fact neurotransmitters. The difference between “neurotransmitter” and “hormone” is very subtle and, in practice, few people know the difference between the two. To say that serotonin is a hormone is as correct as to say that it is a neurotransmitter, although when it comes to reactions in our brain the second term is preferred. The most important thing is that neurotransmitters are molecules exchanged by neurons, while hormones circulate in the blood and the effects are less immediate. Many molecules that act as neurotransmitters are, in turn, hormones, depending on their location and context.
Whether we’re talking about neurotransmitters or hormones, the point is that there are substances that, when released into the synaptic space of neurons, induce changes in our mood. Happiness, along with other moods, is in part the product of brain chemistry, the same on which psychopharmacology has been based to create drugs aimed at improving the health of patients with various disorders by intervening in the production and collection of certain neurotransmitters.
What are these hormones and how far do the emotional effects extend?
Although everyone felt happy, describing this emotion has never been an easy task. It is for this reason that for thousands of years, philosophers have discussed what it is to feel happy, its causes, how our soul behaves because we feel happy. We will therefore describe happiness in a more pragmatic way, using the same definition. that scientists are used to looking for in the brain: it is the sense of well-being and positive emotions we subjectively feel when we do something pleasant.
Based on this definition, neuroscientists and endocrinologists have established that there are a total of 4 different substances that play a key role when we experience happiness: endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin.
Endorphins are neurotransmitters and hormones that generate a certain sedative effect, thus they help decrease physical pain. For example, in situations where we experience a sudden increase in stress levels, the increase in endorphins causes us to experience less pain due to the possible injuries that we may experience in this situation associated with risk or danger.
Obviously, pain is linked to unhappiness, which is why we can say that it takes us away from happiness, but its absence does not guarantee it either. And something can be said about the state of relaxation that endorphins sometimes give us; for example, we can be calm but at the same time very boring.
Serotonin is often linked to well-being, but the truth is that their operation is much more complex than that, and can “unfold” through multiple pathways and chain reactions of various molecules interacting with each other and with neurons.
Indeed, an excess of serotonin can have very harmful consequences for the organism: the main exponent is the serotonin syndrome, which can be caused as a side effect of certain psychotropic drugs.
Dopamine is associated with love and affection. However, this fact in itself gives you one of the keys why this cannot be a cause of happiness: it is closely linked to social experiences, that is, the interaction with other people or beings that we want or learn to want over time.
Oxytocin is also linked to affection, but not so much to falling in love. Its presence has been shown to be associated with long-term relationships, so the process of release in the human body is more stable and sustained. But it must also be “supported” by something beyond the body: these relationships with others.
The key lies in the interplay between the biological and the behavioral
As we have seen, there are hormones which can be associated with certain pleasurable experiences and which can participate in the process of being happy. Happiness, however, is too complex a phenomenon to be reduced to molecules, and it always involves social relationships and interaction with the environment (i.e., what is by definition beyond our skin). ).
For that, the concept of “happiness hormones” makes sense, but it’s still a simplification that can sometimes be used to explain the functioning of parts of the body involved in emotions.