Reasons to be Happy: Neurotransmitters
Chemistry makes some people happy and biology makes some people, but biochemistry makes everyone happy.
Don’t try to argue—“But I was an English major!”—because, even if you don’t know the difference between neurons and atoms, your body’s biochemistry is working around the clock to keep you happy.
Ok, I might be erring a little on the optimistic side. It’s more accurate to say that these “brain chemicals”—called neurotransmitters—help regulate mood, which means that they—or their absences—are equally responsible for making you sad.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals—usually amines or animo acids—that are transported between neurons (nerve cells that transmit impulses). They come in two varieties: inhibitory and excitatory, although those labels are a little misleading. Excitatory neurotransmitters don’t induce sudden fits of Red Bull-level hyperactivity; rather, they stimulate the brain or nervous system, making their target neuron more likely to send out an impulse. Inhibitory neurotransmitters have the opposite effect; they are calming, helping to balance mood, making the target neuron less likely to fire.
Let’s take a look at two of the protagonists of the neurobiology narrative:
Serotonin: You may have heard of this one before, especially if you suffer from depression. Serotonin is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which means that it does not have stimulating effects. Responsible for balancing mood, regulating sleep, and modulating carbohydrate cravings and digestion, it is a crucial player in achieving happiness.
To ensure that your serotonin levels stay high, doctors recommend some familiar healthy habits: avoiding high-sugar foods and excessive caffeine, exercising daily, and getting sufficient sunlight—especially during the winter doldrums.
Dopamine: Although dopamine is largely responsible for movement and muscle control, it also plays a role in mood regulation through its effects on the brain’s reward-center. Remember how happy you were eating that slice of black forest birthday cake last year? You can thank dopamine for that, which was released in response to the pleasurable experience. Dopamine, because of its relationship with memory centers, tells your brain to “do it again!” For cake, the consequences of this pathway might be a bigger waistline; for cocaine, it could mean an early grave.
Of course, reading about neurotransmitters isn’t likely to make you happier—unless you are among the .0006% of people who study this stuff—but it is important to reify happiness, to make it less of an idyllic abstraction. Certainly, plenty of mystery still surrounds mood regulation, but it is important—especially when you’re feeling sad—to remember that emotions are not always within your control. What is in your control, however, is cultivating a healthy habitat (read: your body) in which your neurotransmitters can flourish.