Balancing your happy

What does it take to be happy? In this world where we have never had more comfort and ease, the rates of anxiety climb year on year. As I sit here contemplating the many factors that contribute to this, the sun is beaming in through the open door and birdsong fills the room, bringing about a true sense of happiness and connectedness. It is easy to be happy on such days, but their rarity brings me to ask how can we nourish our souls and maintain our happiness on the long dark days or when life throws up its inevitable stresses and challenges?  

Happiness is characterised by feelings of joy, satisfaction and contentment. When we are happy we are satisfied with life and need nothing more. It is always simple. However, the world in which we live is not geared towards this deep contentment, where we want nothing more, the world works hard to make us want more, to stoke desire with the promise that happiness lies in objects outside us. We experience temporary pleasures which never quite satisfy so it’s on to the next thing, leaving us wanting more, unable to rest and relax. This is the basis on our consumer society, where more is always more and we are always hungry – whether in spirit or flesh. And this craving is at the root of discontent and addiction. This striving for pleasure is not commensurate with true happiness.

Did you know that there is a biological difference between happiness and pleasure; especially from the perspective of our neurotransmitters, namely serotonin and dopamine? In fact, our individual levels of happiness can really come down to the balance or lack of between these two.

Dopamine is an excitatory neurotransmitter, which means it stimulates neurons into action. When dopamine is released we experience feelings of reward. You may have heard about dopamine ‘hits’ where you get a spike of dopamine from engaging in activities that bring you pleasure and this is anything from sex to shopping to eating chocolate cake. Anything that stimulates pleasure stimulates dopamine release. Dopamine is considered to be the pathway to pleasure and is a powerful motivator. Dopamine is exceedingly important, without it humanity’s greatest achievements may not have been attained, it provides the spark and the passion to accomplish.  However, if we release too much dopamine, we are over-stimulating our receptors, which builds up tolerance, this means we require more stimulation to achieve the same level of reward. If we become dependent on this feeling we find ourselves in the clutches of addiction, whether it’s to social media, alcohol or caffeine; it is a wide spectrum. Dopamine drives addiction. Our addictive nature as human beings is determined by our biology, which if out of balance can be expressed as full-blown addiction. It is a far cry from the happiness we seek.

Serotonin on the other hand is an inhibitory neurotransmistter, which means it relaxes or calms the neurons. In sufficient quantity it positively impacts mood, cognition, reward, learning and memory. As with dopamine, serotonin has an important role to play in our feeling good and when deficient, it’s thought to lead to depression. A common way of treating depression today is through anti-depressants known as SSRIs (Selective Serotonin reuptake inhibitors) which shows how important an adequate supply of this neurotransmitter is. 

Fascinatingly, excessive dopamine will down-regulate your serotonin levels. We become caught in overstimulation cycles (dopamine) and unable to relax (serotonin). If we add our old friend cortisol to the mix, it becomes more and more challenging to relax and just be and instead we chase the highs. And the downstream consequences can be serious, burn-out, depression and/or addiction. We are no longer able to regulate as our neurotransmitters are out of balance. In this regard, it is clear that according to our biology, pleasure or pleasure-seeking is not commensurate with happiness.

We need to find ways to lower our dopamine and cortisol levels and raise our serotonin, to replace our wired and tired states with calm and ease. This is the secret to happiness; which is not something to pursue, happiness exists in our capacity to be and be here with whatever arises. 

What positive changes can we make in our lives to better balance our neurotransmitters and live a happier life?

• We need to connect, with ourselves, with each other. If addiction arises in isolation then connection is the cure. Learning how to relax and breathe and be is essential. Listening to the birds sing as you breathe consciously, allowing the world in and feeling your relationship with it. It is so important that we slow down in order to allow this connection. We hear all the time about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness, but they really do have an impact on our bio-chemistry of happiness.

• Contribute with purpose, that is, find ways to help others. When we do good, we feel good. This again leads back to the feeling of connection. Being part of a community of like-minded people with a common objective, is essential to our wellbeing because it raises our serotonin. 

• Get the basics right

Sleep: Despite oft-heard arguments to the contrary we need between six and eight hours of quality sleep daily. Try to get to bed before 11pm and avoid screens at least an hour before you sleep.

Exercise: Are you walking daily? It is the simplest, oldest and easiest activity for most human beings. There is a beautiful latin phrase ‘solvitur ambulando’, ‘it is solved by walking’; a simple stroll for a minimum of 30 minutes is as good a medicine as you will get. Do more if you have the time. Any form of exercise is valuable but I find walking to be the one form that is most accessible to people of all ages and abilities.

Eat nutritious food: It is essential that we consume real food. Shocking new statistics from the UK show that 64 per cent of calories consumed by children are now coming from ultra processed food and over 80 per cent of the food carried by US and UK food retailers is ultra processed. Teaching our children how to cook is imperative…if we do not, we are setting them up for a dependency on convenience foods, the implications of which will be disastrous for their mental and physical health.

Following this advice will certainly keep us on the path to balancing our serotonin and dopamine levels, which will help us feel more content and present. And today, as the sun still shines and the birds still sing, maybe we can all slow down enough to smell the proverbial roses and enjoy some moments of calm and be happy.

Lorraine Dufficey

With 20 years of experience in the fitness industry, Lorraine Dufficey is trained in the classical True Pilates method, is a qualified Neuromuscular therapist and a Fascial trainer, and has a lifelong interest in health and wellbeing. As ‘West Cork Pilates’, she has been teaching mat classes in Clonakilty since 2005 and has a private studio in Rossmore where she teaches Reformer, Cadillac and Wunda chair for both fitness and for rehabilitation.

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