Did you know that when you smile your brain releases ‘happiness hormones’ like dopamine and serotonin? The mind-body connection has always been real, but more of us are waking up to just how important managing our thoughts and emotions are to our physical health.
In an age when many of us have embraced the glorification of stress, negative emotions can go unchecked, leaving us feeling low, exhausted, depleted and worse.
No one can define happiness for you, but you — however, understanding the chemistry at work in your body when you’re feeling good can lead to more of the same.
Dopamine is a well-researched neurochemical said to be partially responsible for our perception of happiness, and pleasure keenly related to functions of focus, interest, thinking and planning. Let’s look at how dopamine functions, as well as simple ways to activate its participation in our daily life.
We talked to our go-to herbalist, Adriana Ayales of Anima Mundi in NYC about how she addresses these key neurochemicals from an herbal standpoint. But, first, some lifestyle support for dopamine from brain scientist, Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D.
Dr. Breuning On 3 Habits To Support Dopamine
Here’s how to feel happier by increasing dopamine. Implementing the following habits are small ways to feel good on a short-term and long-term basis when practiced regularly…
01 Celebrate Small Victories | You have some success every day. Commit to finding it and saying, “I did it!”.
You will not conduct a symphony at Carnegie Hall every day. You will not lead starving hordes into the Promised Land every day. To feel good on a regular basis, adjust your expectations so you can be pleased with something you actually do. This doesn’t mean you are lowering your expectations, or are “full of yourself,” or losing touch with reality. It means you are lingering on your gains the way you already linger on your losses (which, as I’m sure you can imagine, is not a key for how to feel better).
Celebrating small steps towards success triggers more dopamine than ‘saving it up’ for one big achievement. Big accomplishments don’t make you feel happy forever, so if you always tie happiness to a far-off goal, you may end up frustrated.
Instead, learn to be happy with your progress. You will not be celebrating with champagne and caviar each day. You will be giving yourself permission to have a sense of accomplishment. This feeling is better than external rewards. It’s free, it has no calories, and it doesn’t impair your driving. You have a small victory every day. Why not enjoy it and feel good in the process?
At first, it might feel silly to look for reasons to pat yourself on the back, and the reasons you come up with might make you uncomfortable. Still, commit to doing this whether or not it feels good. You can decide to be worthy of your own applause and enjoy the feeling, even if just for a split second. If it feels fake or forced, that’s normal, because the circuits that berate your accomplishments feel strong and true.
Celebrating small accomplishments is a valuable skill, not only because it’s one of the ways to feel happier, but also because big things come from many small steps. You won’t take those steps if you are just running on the fumes of the last big thing.
Finally, your daily triumph will feel better if it doesn’t depend on one-upping someone. If you have to win in ways that make someone lose, you limit yourself and end up with side effects. You can celebrate what you are creating instead of just who you are defeating.
02 Take Small Steps Toward Those Large Goals | It doesn’t take much time or money to step toward a goal. Just commit ten minutes a day and you will feel momentum instead of feeling stuck.
Ten minutes is not enough to move mountains, but it’s enough to approach the mountains and see them accurately. Instead of dreaming about your goal from afar, you can gather the information you need to plan realistically. Your goals might change as your information grows. You might even learn that your fantasy goal would not make you feel happy.
Those ten-minute investments can free you from unnecessary regret and help you find a hill you can actually climb and feel good in the process. Your ten-minute efforts can define manageable steps so you’re not just waiting for huge leaps that never come.
If you think you can’t spare ten minutes a day, consider the time you already spend dreaming of what you’d rather be doing. You can use that time to research the necessary steps needed to reach your goal. You will get a dopamine feeling each day as those steps come into view. You will start to expect that dopamine feeling and look forward to it. You will learn to feel that it’s possible to transform a dream into reality with steady effort.
When your ten minutes are over, go back to living in the present, which is another hack for how to feel good and happy: do not make a habit of focusing constantly on the future.
Take action, don’t just daydream. Spend your time on concrete action. Don’t spend it fantasizing about quitting your day job or pressuring others to help you. Dig into practical realities instead. Do this faithfully for forty-five days and you will begin to feel better and have the habit of moving forward.
03 Divide Unpleasant Tasks Into Smaller Portions | Everyone has a dreaded task they’d rather forget about. It might be the mess inside your closets or the mess inside an important relationship. One method for how to feel happier is to commit to spending ten minutes a day on your dreaded task. You don’t need to have the solution when you start, only the willingness to keep stepping.
You may think it’s impossible to clean out closets or renegotiate relationships in ten-minute chunks. But if you wait for grand solutions, you may languish for quite a long time.
Instead, go to that closet, pull out one chunk of mess, and sort it out for ten minutes. Go to that yucky relationship riddled with disappointment and plant goodwill for ten minutes.
You might not feel happier right away, but don’t let a day go by without tackling another chunk. Keep it up for forty-five days and you will be comfortable tackling the annoyances that stand in the way of making your life feel better.
Of course, you can’t control other people the way you can control the contents of your closet. But you will replace a bad feeling with a good feeling if you keep trying. And you will keep trying because your positive expectations trigger dopamine, which is one of the neurochemical ways to feel good.
Your dreaded task may miraculously resolve itself in less than forty-five days! If so, don’t stop. Find another mess that needs cleaning up and keep going for forty-five more days. That’s what builds the habit of facing tough challenges in small increments instead of being intimidated by them. Remember to feel good about what you’ve done each day. Soon, you’ll have the habit of tackling obstacles and feeling rewarded by them, which is a great way to feel happy.
04 Adjust Your Goals Every 45 Days | Good feelings flow when the level of challenge you face is “just right.”
For example, if a basketball hoop is too low, you get no pleasure from scoring points, but if it’s too high, you have no reason to try. The effort is fun when you expect a reward for your effort, but it’s not certain. Adjust the “hoops” in your life to make things fun.
One way of doing this it to experiment with raising and lowering the bar in your life for forty-five day periods. In areas where you have set yourself impossible goals, lower them. Where you’ve raised the bar so low that you feel no reward, consider raising them.
Anima Mundi’s Mood-Boosting Herbal Coffee
Adriana Ayales is the founder of Anima Mundi and procured these dopamine-boosting tips from Dr. Breuing just for us. Ayales has blended some of the top researched herbs for mood optimization into Anima Mundi’s new Happiness Powder, an herbal coffee alternative with Mucuna, Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Albizzia and St John’s Wort.
According to Adriana, “It’s a product our customers have been asking us for, as it contains many of the herbs in our Happiness Tonic, but makes it easy to blend into a delicious, caffeine-free latte in the mornings. We’ve blended these herbs into a base of rich, roasty flavors that mimic coffee’s flavor with benefits all their own — roasted dandelion, roasted chicory, maca, lucuma, burdock, mesquite and real organic vanilla.
You can learn everything about our mood-boosting Herbal Coffee here, but let’s talk about the star ingredient, Mucuna
Mucuna: “The Dopamine Bean”
Mucuna Pruriens is one of the only naturally occurring (and certainly most concentrated) sources of L-Dopa, a precursor to dopamine. In fact, Mucuna is so rich in the dopamine precursor L-Dopa that it is sometimes used as an herbal alternative treatment for Parkinson’s disease, which is believed to be caused (in part) by a lack of the essential neurotransmitter (dopamine).
Mucuna Pruriens is used in herbalism as a natural support for dopamine, serotonin, and tryptamine and many other mood-influencing neurochemical known. Mucuna has traditionally been used in herbalism as a non-addictive antidepressant or mood enhancer.
Other herbs for mood-enhancement in the Anima Mundi’s Herbal Coffee include…
Albizia | Dubbed the “herbal Prozac” by Chinese herbalists and acupuncturists, TCM has long revered this tree for supporting the body during times of anxiety, stress, trauma, grief, and depression.
Ashwagandha | A mood stabilizer and insomnia support reliever, this evergreen adaptogenic shrub can sometimes lower cortisol levels without any side effects or withdrawal.
Rhodiola Root | Popular since ancient times in Siberia, this adaptogen has long been used to enhance mental and physical endurance. It also supports adrenal gland function and encourages a healthy response to physical, mental, and emotional stress. Rhodiola’s anti-stress and fatigue-fighting properties, in addition to its ability to help support libido, reestablish balance among hormonal functions and support optimal brain health, make it one of the greatest botanicals available anywhere today.
St. John’s Wort | Besides easing symptoms of depression in some, this herb is also reported to act as a positive nerve tonic for the nervous system and support the relief of anxiety, tension, stress, irritability and sleep-related issues. It also stimulates the release of the “happy hormone”, serotonin.
We’ve blended all these supportive herbs into a roasty blend of healthful, classic coffee alternatives like dandelion and chicory. Superfoods like cinnamon, lucuma, vanilla and mesquite all lend a delicious, lightly sweet flavor you’ll love, all with benefits of their own.