How To Increase My Happy Hormones and Prevent Burnout

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Research done in the field of positive psychology confirms that resilient and positive minds can raise productivity levels (1). Resilience is our ability to bounce back from life’s ups and downs. It is our capacity to deal with stress, get through difficult experiences and navigate challenges well. When we are too negative and critical or when we are faced with negative attitudes, criticism or rejection, our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol (2). Cortisol is the stress hormone that can shut down the thinking centre of our brain and make us  more reactive and  less logical,  conflict behavior or aggression may appear. On the other hand, on a neurobiological level, a positive mind means normal levels of certain neurotransmitters. Knowing that and bearing in mind that a fall in productivity is one of the first indicators when a person is at risk of burnout, we could actively stimulate our happy hormones and thus prevent burnout through lifestyle awareness.

So, are you exited to learn more about the happy hormones? Boosting them naturally will help you burn bright, not out! This article will help you better understand the way your brain functions and  give you some guidelines on how to easily introduce more happiness into your daily life.

Happy hormones? What is that?

Hormones and neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the body that are involved in many essential processes including regulating your mood and feelings. Some of them, the so called “happy hormones” are known for their ability to help people bond, feel joy, love and experience pleasure. They are endorphin,serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. As ‘happy hormone’ levels are not fixed and often depend on external and internal stimuli, we can stimulate them consciously and naturally to feel happier.  Happier means someone who is motivated, feels engaged, involved and enthusiastic; not quitting easily and enjoying the path. Basically, the opposite of someone who is burned out!

Are you ready to grow your own happiness?

Let’s start by taking a closer look at the individual “happy hormones”!

Endorphins

These neurotransmitters block the feeling of pain, help us deal with stress or discomfort and make us feel satisfied and happy. We release endorphins, for example, when we spend quality time with people we feel close to, when we achieve a success or when we experience physical pleasure.

How to stimulate endorphins? Check out those easy hacks!

Mind and body hacks: Endorphin levels tend to increase when you engage in reward-producing activities, such as sports, eating or having sex. The euphoric feeling after intense running is a result of elevated endorphin levels. They are also produced  when we spend good quality time with others, when we laugh or joke or when we meditate. So, try to include these in your daily schedule and don’t forget to reward yourself with every small achievement.

Diet hacks: Be sure to include dark chocolate, strawberries, animal proteins (if you consume them), oranges, grapes, spicy foods , nuts, seeds and ginseng into your menu.

Are you a manager?

Here are some ways to boost the release of endorphins among your staff: Offer simple treats like healthy snacks, encourage fun break times, include laughing yoga. Do not forget to give positive feedback and reward your team for their successes. Encourage their work- life balance.

Are you an employee?

Consciously and proactively include yourself in daily interactions with your colleagues. Try using  humor. Think about your personal work-life balance and be sure you spend quality time with those who you enjoy being with. In your workplace, be sure you reward yourself for your achievements. Take your breaks and use them to recharge (healthy snacks, talking with a close one, giving positive feedback to a colleague, etc.)

Serotonin

Serotonin improves mood, emotional stability and boosts stress resistance. It also increases activity and stimulates creativity and is connected to our self-esteem, sleep and apetite. A serotonin deficiency leads to fatigue, lack of motivation, inability to concentrate and sadness. Similar to endorphins, serotonin is released during all types of pleasurable experiences and when we feel significant to others.

How to stimulate serotonin?

Same as endorphins, a sure way to stimulate the secretion of serotonin is through physical activity and meditation. Apart from that, sunlight is also very important for serotonin secretion. It is good to expose yourself to the sun for at least 15 minutes a day to boost your serotonin levels.

Mind hacks: Involve yourself in some activity that makes you feel significant and needed; try to start a new habit- make a chart to record and celebrate even your smallest victories and achievements; spend  time in the evening to think about your happy moments of the day and  your life in general; write down or speak out aloud the things you feel grateful for; write down or recite the things you find meaningful for yourself; try to only take on  projects that meet your interests,  inner values and beliefs.

Diet hacks: Include more dark chocolate, avocado, bananas, dates, oats in your daily meals.

Are you a manager?

Here are some ways to boost the release of serotonin among your staff members: Encourage healthy food choices and think about light in the workspace. Allow small breaks in daylight if applicable. Natural light boosts serotonin production. For enclosed work spaces where sunlight isn’t available and outdoors is not an option, bright artificial lighting can help. Invest in light therapy lamps to keep workers energized and focused. Be sure you acknowledge the significance of every employee, especially the subordinates. Consciously give them the opportunity to feel valued.

Are you an employee?

If your job does not enable you to feel valued, consciously search for  opportunities within or outside the workplace. For example, think about something that will improve your work environment and address it with the management; help new colleagues adapt and offer support; prioritize what makes you feel significant outside the office.

Dopamine

This hormone and neurotransmitter, also known as the “feel-good” hormone, is an important part of our brain’s reward system.  It helps us deal with stress, improves our ability to make quick and effective decisions, sharpens our attention, keeps us motivated and focused and stimulates creativity and memory. At good levels this will not detract from our goals even if we encounter obstacles and difficulties. In contrast, procrastination and a lack of enthusiasm at the biological level result in low dopamine levels. Similar to endorphins and serotonin, dopamine is released during all types of pleasurable experiences.

How to stimulate dopamine?

Mind hacks: Try to start a new habit- make a list with your tasks for the day and check them, when done. That will stimulate the secretion of the hormone immediately! Divide all big goals into smaller ones and note your progress, this will turn the process into a source of pleasure. If you don’t have goals, try to set one or two pleasant and easily achievable ones. You could start each evening by setting three goals for the next day – this will build a supportive habit for better motivation and productivity.

Diet hacks: Include in your daily menu foods rich in tyrosine – bananas, dark chocolate, green tea, watermelon.

You are a manager?

If you are an employer or team leader, any recognition of the work done, such as a thank-you email, personal feedback or bonus, will cause a dopamine peak in your employees, which in turn will increase their future motivation and productivity. Set goals and encourage your workers to focus on important metrics. Make sure you provide them with the tools and support they need to successfully get a task done. Most of all, celebrate milestones at work – no matter how small they are.

Are you an employee?

Make a list of  your tasks for the day and check them, when done. Make time and space for healthy, pleasant activities outside of work.

Oxytocin

It is also called “the hormone of love” because it is released during sex. Furthermore, oxytocin creates feelings of intimacy and trust and is at the heart of a relationship. For example, mothers secrete oxytocin during breastfeeding their babies, but basically, the hormone is released every time we hug and kiss our loved-ones. Low levels leed to apathy and sadness. That’s why close relations and attachment  reduce stress, strengthen the immune system and on some level prevent us from burning out.

How to stimulate oxytocin?

Mind hacks: Spend enough time with your loved ones. Hug and kiss them often! If your daily life is busy and you rarely have time for anything other than work, anticipate time with loved ones in advance and include social contacts in your to-do list. If you find it difficult to do things that do not lead to a quick and clear result, keep in mind that quiet time spent communicating and “doing nothing” will actually help you be more productive at work. If you don’t have enough close relationships, try something that includes social contact- for example biking with a group, going to a dance class, participating in some group, hobby meetings or volunteering. Try something creative that appeals to you; say something nice to someone, even a stranger; make a present for or surprise someone.

Diet hacks: The most important thing about producing oxytocin while eating is to share food and good experience with others. But here are three nutrients that are effective in optimizing your oxytocin levels: Magnesium (spinach, pumpkin seeds, lima beans, tuna, and brown rice), Vitamin C (acerola cherries, chili peppers, red and yellow bell peppers, guava, parsley, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, lemons, and papayas) and Lactobacillus reuteri (cheeses, yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and miso).

Are you a manager?

Here are some ways to boost the release of oxytocin among your staff members: Oxytocin can be stimulated in the workplace by giving your employees a handshake, a friendly (and office-appropriate) hug or a pat on the back for a job well done. You may want to opt  for an in- office mobile massage to promote overall wellness.

Are you an employee?

Start with yourself and give positive feedback and support to your colleagues; say someting nice and include those who are overlooked.

 

Having looked at the specifics of all neurotransmitters associated with the feeling of happiness and gaining a new understanding, let’s move on to some general guidelines to feeling happy and preventing burnout .

Manage stress

It’s normal to experience some stress from time to time- it keeps us active and purposeful. But dealing with a highly stressful environment can cause a drop in dopamine and serotonin production. This can negatively affect your health and mood and may ultimately lead to burnout.

To manage stress, identify the main sources of stress in your daily life. They can be related to work, your personal life, your personality or something else. For each stressor try to ascertain to what extent it depends on you. Focus only on what depends on you. Look at what the opportunities are in any given situation, look for solutions to a problem and use more positive language when thinking about a situation. (3) e.g.Instead of saying ‘I can’t handle this’, try saying ‘It’s a difficult situation but let us see what can a do about it? ’ . Build an optimization plan. It should consist of clear goals, short and achievable steps. Be consistent and note your progress in each of the steps. Putting them in a notebook helps. Think about your needs and desires, what makes you happy? Make a plan how to realistically include them in your everyday life.

Tips: To set goals use the SMART technique (link); to set new habits you can easily start with a daily ‘10-2-10’ regime: exercise for 10 minutes, meditate for 2, and get out for some fresh air for 10. How does that sound to you?

Get outdoors and connect with nature

Being in nature or even just viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear and stress and increases pleasant feelings. Exposure to nature not only makes you feel better emotionally, it contributes to your physical wellbeing, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and the production of stress hormones. Sunlight exposure boosts your vitamin D, but furthermore, it increases your serotonin and endorphins levels. 10 to 15 minutes a day is a good start. Agree?

Tips: If your day is too full and looks like home-transport-work-transport-home, start with something really small, easy and achievable e.g. break on the balcony, lunch outside or just park your car a bit further from the office  so you can walk a bit to work and back.. Sounds doable, ah?

Make time for exercise

Research (4) shows that increased exercise overall reduces perceived stress as well as symptoms of burnout and depression. So, besides the health benefits, being physically active can also have a positive impact on your emotional well-being. Regular exercise increases endorphins, serotonin and dopamine levels! There is even a term “runner’s high”, a feeling of euphoria coupled with reduced anxiety and a lesser ability to feel pain, experienced after a nice long bout of aerobic exercise. Sounds good, ah?

Tips:

Start with small regular steps. Try to think about what  you really enjoy.

Include a few friends, studies show (5) that group exercise offers more benefits than solo exercise.

Time it! Aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at a time. Any amount of phsysical activity has health benefits, but research associates endorphin release with continued exercise.

Laugh

Laughter improves a bad mood by boosting dopamine and endorphins levels and this also reduces stress and anxiety. Research shows (6) that social laughter increases endorphin release. So spending time watching some funny, dumb, serial is not a waste of time, not by far! What a relief, a?!

Special  bonus: Bonding on something hilarious with a loved one might even trigger oxytocin release!

Did you know?: There is a specific type of yoga called ‘laughter yoga’ (Hasya Yoga) and it includes exercises involving prolonged voluntary laughter. This type of yoga is based on the belief that voluntary laughter provides similar physiological and psychological benefits to spontaneous laughter.

Cook and eat healthy. Enjoy a favourite meal.

The enjoyment you get from eating something delicious can boost all four of your happy hormones. Sharing a meal with someone you love, and bonding over meal preparation, can boost oxytocin levels.

Tips: Certain foods can also have an impact on your happy hormones, so note the following when meal planning;

  • spicy foods trigger endorphin release
  • yogurt, beans, eggs, meats with low-fat content, and almonds are linked to dopamine release
  • foods high in tryptophan are linked to increased serotonin levels. To boost your serotonin and dopamin, include bananas, dark chocolate, green tea, watermelon, avocado, dates, oats in your daily meal
  • foods containing probiotics, such as yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut influence the release of happy hormones

Listen to music and dance

Listening to all kinds of music, but especially instrumental music that gives you chills, can trigger  the production  of happy hormones in your brain. Music that people describe as highly emotional engages the reward system deep in their brains — activating subcortical nuclei known to be important in reward, motivation and emotion.

According to a study (7) , creating and performing music by dancing, singing or drumming led to endorphin release.

Tips: Make a playlist with music that makes you feel happy. If you are a manager, allow your workers to listen to music or apply a quiet instrumental music environment, if applicable

Meditate

Perhaps the most widely publicized benefit of meditation is that it makes you happier. A Swedish study (8) found that practicing mindfulness was “strongly related” to a positive state of mind and reduced stress. Not sure how to start? It is not as hard as you may think. Here are some basic tips for beginners:

  • Start out with 5 minutes of meditation
  • Find a quiet and comfortable place
  • Let all of your thoughts — positive or negative — rise up and pass you by. As thoughts come up, try not to judge them, cling to them, or push them away. Simply acknowledge them.
  • Be aware of your breath – breathe fully and deeply at your own pace, follow the breath in and out. Imagine all tension and stress leaving your body everytime you breath out and calmness and relaxation filling you when breathing in.

Pet a dog or simply spend some time close to animals you like

Pets lower stress and depression. Even watching fish swim can ease tension. Stroking your cat or dog can lower your blood pressure and make you feel calmer. Playing with your pet increases the levels of the feel-good chemicals serotonin and dopamine in your brain. Scientists have also observed that interacting with animals increases levels of the hormone oxytocin (9).  This helps explain why we literally fall in love with our pets.

Tips: If you don’t have a pet – it does not matter. If you are an animal lover, find a way to be close to animals, e.g.pet a random dog, feed the birds, find social places that encourage communicating with pets.

Try some gardening

Scientists have discovered that the mycobacterium found in soil can improve brain functions while boosting moods (10). The mycobacterium vaccae found in  soil increases serotonin produced in the brain. By getting your hands dirty, you’re also making your brain happy!

Tips: Start with something easy like a “Grass Head”.

Get a massage

 If you enjoy a massage, there is  good news: a massage can boost all four of your happy hormones. You can enjoy these benefits from a licensed massage therapist or you can also get your partner to give you a massage for some extra oxytocin!

Tips: You can start by learning some simple self massage techniques.

If you are a manager, try to include it in your workers’ social benefits

Get a good night’s sleep

Not getting enough quality sleep can contribute to an imbalance of hormones, particularly dopamine, in your body. This can have a negative impact on your mood as well as your physical health.

If you find it difficult to get a good night’s sleep, try these tips:

  • Going to bed and getting up around the same time every day
  • Creating a quiet, restful sleeping environment (try reducing light, noise, and screens)
  • Decreasing caffeine and alcohol intake, especially in the late afternoon and evening

Time to self-reflect: Do I enjoy enough pleasant experiences on a regular basis? Which of the activities mentioned in this article do I already include in my daily life? What else would I like to include? Where can I start from?

Portrait of Marina Kuncheva
Author

Marina Kuncheva

Clinical Psychologist

Bibliography

  1. Martin E. P. Seligman, ‘Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being’, Atria Books, February 2007.
  2. Judith E. Glaser and Richard D. Glaser, ‘The Neurochemistry of Positive Conversations’, Harvard Business Review, org/2014/06/the-neurochemistry-of-positive-conversations, June 12 2014.
  3. Shawn Achor, ‘Positive Intelligence’, Harvard Business Review, org/2012/01/positive-intelligence, February 2012.
  4. Gerber, M., Brand, S., Elliot, C. et al.Aerobic exercise training and burnout: a pilot study with male participants suffering from burnout. BMC Res Notes 6, 78 (2013
  5. Dayna M. Yorks, DOChristopher A. Frothingham, DOMark D. Schuenke, PhD. Effects of Group Fitness Classes on Stress and Quality of Life of Medical StudentsThe Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, November 2017, Vol. 117, e17-e25. doi:https://doi.org/10.7556/jaoa.2017.140
  6. University of Turku. Social laughter releases endorphins in the brain. :https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/06/170601124121.htm . June 1, 2017
  7. Dunbar RI, Kaskatis K, MacDonald I, Barra V. Performance of music elevates pain threshold and positive affect: implications for the evolutionary function of music. Evol Psychol. 2012;10(4):688-702. Published 2012 Oct 22.)
  8. Bränström R, Duncan LG, Moskowitz JT. The association between dispositional mindfulness, psychological well-being, and perceived health in a Swedish population-based sample. Br J Health Psychol. 2011;16(Pt 2):300-316. doi:10.1348/135910710X501683
  9. Petersson M, Uvnäs-Moberg K, Nilsson A, Gustafson LL, Hydbring-Sandberg E, Handlin L. Oxytocin and Cortisol Levels in Dog Owners and Their Dogs Are Associated with Behavioral Patterns: An Exploratory Study. Front Psychol. 2017;8:1796. Published 2017 Oct 13. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01796
  10. O’Brien ME, Anderson H, Kaukel E, O’Byrne K, Pawlicki M, Von Pawel J, Reck M; SR-ON-12 Study Group. SRL172 (killed Mycobacterium vaccae) in addition to standard chemotherapy improves quality of life without affecting survival, in patients with advanced non-small-cell lung cancer: phase III results. Ann Oncol. 2004 Jun;15(6):906-14. doi: 10.1093/annonc/mdh220. PMID: 15151947.
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