In northern Europe, bordered by the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland, reigns Estonia. A developed nation with high income, high HDI, and an advanced economy, Estonia might sound like a great place to be. It is a great place to be, except during winters.
Due to its geographical location, the winter days are too short, cold, and dark making it quite depressing. In fact, Estonia isn’t the only nation that gets affected by seasonal depression catalyzed by winters. Many places that are close to either of the two poles, get affected by this. And what do people who live in these areas do to come out of the sadness?
They attend social events, get doses of Vitamin D, get cozy, use more artificial lights, travel if it’s affordable, and go for long walks. These might look like simple things, but it works cause what they are actually doing is hacking the ‘happiness chemicals’.
Wait, What Are the ‘Happiness Chemicals’?
Four key hormones produced in our body control our state of mind. They are oxytocin-the love hormone, serotonin -the mood stabilizer, dopamine -the reward chemical, and endorphin-the pain killer.
The activities that we do, quality of the our food, and the environment around us can positively or negatively affect these hormones. Cultivating regular mood-boosting habits is the way to get these ‘happiness hormones’ to work in a way that benefits our health.
Boosting the Love Hormone
What does a ‘long fireside chat with a loved one’ have in common with ‘playing with a puppy’? They both are activities that boost the production of a chemical called oxytocin in our body.
The chemical that helps us feel connected is called oxytocin. It is usually produced in the body during physical contact and hence also called the love hormone. It plays a key role in reproduction. When the level of oxytocin produced is low, we don’t feel good about ourselves. Instead, feelings of loneliness, anxiety and fear tend to rise.
Oxytocin production can be boosted by engaging in activities that make us feel connected. This includes giving compliments to people around us, hearing a ‘thank you,’ playing with pets or babies, etc. In fact, all forms of physical contact small or big like holding hands, hugging family, and even getting a massage are great boosters for oxytocin.
Physical contact is not the only way to boost the love hormone. Helping someone, telling someone how much you care about them, coffee chats with a friend, etc works wonders too.
Balancing the Mood Stabilizer
Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing is a Japanese tradition that involves connecting with nature through our senses. Not hiking, jogging, or exercising, just simply being present and connecting with nature through touching the trees, seeing the green hue all around, smelling the flowers, and listening to the chirping of the birds. It is a great way to boost the production of a hormone called serotonin in our body.
Serotonin is the chemical associated with mental satisfaction, optimism as well as a cognitive and metabolic functions of our body. Low serotonin is risky because it reduces immunity. It can also lead to depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). A high amount of serotonin is rare, but it can lead to physical problems. We need a balanced amount of serotonin to have a balanced mood.
Activities that one can do to balance the serotonin in our body include getting exposed to the sun or taking Vitamin D tablets, being in brightly lit areas, walking in nature, forest bathing, meditation, and activities like running, swimming, and cycling.
The Reward Chemical
Dopamine is the most famous ‘happiness chemical’. Of all the functions of dopamine, the most famous one is “motivational salience” or the ability to feel pleasure when getting a reward which in turn promotes more action.
While extremely low levels and extremely high levels (caused by illegal drug intake) of dopamine can be harmful, when it comes to creating habits and avoiding procrastination, dopamine is the happiness chemical that one needs to hack.
Boosting dopamine production in our body is very straightforward.
You simply need to celebrate every little win and reward yourself with self-care. Little things like ticking off to-do lists, gifts, completing a task, etc help in celebrating the little victories of daily life.
Last, but Not Least, The Pain Killer
Baking of bread gives rise to a specific smell. It triggers different feelings in different people. If you grew up somewhere where this smell was common and if you had a happy childhood, then that smell can trigger the release of endorphin in your body.
Endorphin is a chemical that is often called the ‘pain killer hormone’ cause when endorphin is produced in the body, you get a euphoric feeling. Low levels of it affect one’s mental health and hence it is important to hack this ‘happiness chemical’ to stay healthy.
Some simple activities that can trigger the release of endorphins include watching comedy shows, being around someone who makes you laugh, smelling calming scents like lavender, smelling something that can remind you of a happy childhood memory, eating foods that you love, listening to happy music and dancing.
“If Winter comes, can Spring be far ?” — P B Shelley, Ode to the West Wind
The Scandinavian countries have a long history of following similar positive traditions during the dark winter months to help them maintain a sound mind until the brighter days come.
Be it seasonal depression, mood swings, a lack of self-worth, or connection-less-ness, a little effort here and there for the right hormone will help us to get back on track. We can’t control every event that unfolds in our lives. But we can control how we deal with it.
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