Hacking happiness hormones to help beat winter blues

The weekend time change ushers in dark winter months that can give some folks the blues, but an emotional health expert has tips for hacking happiness hormones in the brain.

“The four chemicals — dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphin — we’ve inherited them from animals; they each create a different good feeling to motivate a different survival behavior,” said Loretta G. Breuning, founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay.

Breuning has authored several books, including “Habits of a Happy Brain” and “The Science of Positivity.”

Dopamine, for example, plays a role in how people feel pleasure, satisfaction and motivation.

“Dopamine is what makes you feel good to go out and do things. And if you think about our ancestors in the winter, when they couldn’t go out and do things, it would be a benefit for them to have less dopamine because you couldn’t go out. So that’s how bodies could adjust if we allow that,” Breuning said.

Because dopamine is released when someone gets closer to a reward, she recommends stimulating its production by setting long-, medium- and short-term goals.

“Find a goal that you can reach by lunchtime. I did it one time by cleaning out my sock drawer,” she said. “Our ancestors would have starved to death if they didn’t go out and look for food. So they always had to be preparing their next step. And so, that’s what triggers our happy chemicals. So in your own life, you organize your next step. And then when you take it, a good-feeling chemical is released. So, this is the challenge for everyone — is to always be organizing, planning and taking your next step.”

She believes people should commit to making time to do things that make them feel good. She also said activities that can trigger happy chemicals are unique to an individual’s past experiences.

“I taught that for decades and was disappointed by the social science model,” said Breuning, who has a doctorate in management.

She started doing research on the “animal brain that’s inside of us.”

“My specialty was international, and I had been trained with utopian beliefs that other cultures are happier. I spent a lot of time abroad and realized that all humans have the same dynamics,” she said.

Her latest book is “Status Games: Why We Play and How to Stop.”

“We’re often focusing on negative social comparisons. But we can all find things that we can feel positive about,” she said.

Those positive feelings can stimulate serotonin that affects mood and feelings of well-being.

“So I say to put yourself up without putting others down. Do it three times a day for five seconds. Put yourself up without putting others down, and you will actually rewire yourself for more serotonin,” Breuning said.

Also to help escape negative thought loops, Breuning recommends thinking about or planning something positive, or perhaps just taking a few minutes to enjoy a comedy.

“Find ways to laugh. And especially at this time of year, I personally have a list of comedy, and funny things that I like, that I can turn to any time to give myself a laugh,” she said.

The National Institutes of Health has information on seasonal affective disorder and when mood changes beyond short periods of feeling sad or not someone’s usual self might suggest they may be suffering a form of depression.

If you or someone you know is in immediate distress or is thinking about hurting themselves, you can text the Crisis Text Line (HELLO to 741741). Or use the Lifeline Chat on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website. Or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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