What’s the secret to happiness?

It’s not an easy question to answer.

Some of your friends might say it’s “healthy relationships”. Spiritual gurus might say it’s “positive thinking”.

But isn’t it more interesting to find out what neuroscientists say? After all, they’re the ones studying our brains.

And according to neuroscience, there are 4 major chemicals in the brain that influence our happiness:

1. Dopamine

2. Oxytocin

3. Serotonin

4. Endorphins.

And today, we’re going go through how to activate these “happiness chemicals” so you can live a more positive and fulfilling life.

1) Ask yourself this question every day

CLA neuroscientist Alex Korb, author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, has some handy insights from neuroscience that may help us feel genuinely positive and happy.

He says that “worrying stimulates the medial prefrontal cortex and lowers activity in the amygdala, thus helping your limbic system, your emotions, remain copascetic.”

So what you can do about this?

Korb suggests asking yourself: “What am I grateful for?”

His reasoning is chemical:

“One powerful effect of gratitude is that it can boost serotonin. Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex.”

2) You’re not perfect. None of us are.

A big reason a lot of us can feel anxious and worried is that we feel we’re not perfect.

However, the key is to let go the need for perfection, and to be okay with being “good enough”, especially when it comes to making your decisions.

Neuoroscientist Alex Korb explains:

“Trying for the best, instead of good enough, brings too much emotional ventromedial prefrontal activity into the decision-making process. In contrast, recognizing that good enough is good enough activates more dorsolateral prefrontal areas, which helps you feel more in control …

“Actively choosing caused changes in attention circuits and in how the participants felt about the action, and it increased rewarding dopamine activity. Making decisions includes creating intentions and setting goals — all three are part of the same neural circuitry and engage the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, reducing worry and anxiety. Making decisions also helps overcome striatum activity, which usually pulls you toward negative impulses and routines. Finally, making decisions changes your perception of the world — finding solutions to your problems and calming the limbic system.”

3) The power of touch

Before we go further, you should only be touching others who want to be touch. Okay?

According to UCLA neuroscientist Alex Korb:

“A hug, especially a long one, releases a neurotransmitter and hormone oxytocin, which reduces the reactivity of the amygdala.”

Hand holding, pats on the back, and handshakes work, too. Korb cites a study in which subjects whose hands were held by their partners experienced a reduced level of anxiety while waiting for an expected electrical shock from researchers. “The brain showed reduced activation in both the anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — that is, less activity in the pain and worrying circuits.”

4) Give yourself accolades on every win – small or big

It is crucial to congratulate yourself for every success you achieve to release dopamine in the brain, says the Director of Persuasive Tech Lab of Stanford University BJ Fogg.

Our brain is incapable of differentiating between perceived progress and actual progress. Both setbacks and achievements cause emotional effects. So, start with a productive morning, as it will make you happy, increase energy levels and help in curbing depression and anxiety levels.

Teresa Amabile, from HBS, recently tested this and found what she refers to as “The progress principle”:

“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. … everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how [people] feel and perform.”

5) Exercise

We’ve all heard this.

Not only can exercise help you lose weight, but it can make you less stressed and more productive.

Specifically, it boosts dopamine, endorphins and serontonin – a beautiful cocktail of neurotransmitters that will make you feel a lot better.

The best bit?

The exercise doesn’t need to be strenuous. Simply taking a walk or climbing some stairs will achieve a good dopamine hit.

6) Listen to music

There’s a scientific reason music makes us feel so good! Research has shown that music actually increases our levels of dopamine.

So when you’re feeling down and out, crank on your favorite tune and let the music do its thing.

7) Eat dark chocolate

Dark chocolate help boost the production of “feel-good” chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins lead to feelings of euphoria, the exact same kind that joggers get from a “runner’s high”. They reduce pain and the effects of stress.

Consuming chocolate has also been found to increase dopamine levels, which is known for being crucial in motivation. Stick with dark chocolate at least 70 percent cocoa or higher, eat it regularly (about 2-3 times a week), and consume around 1.5 to 2 ounces for best results.

8) Stand up straight

Assuming a strong posture, even for as little as 2 minutes, has been shown to increase confidence levels and decrease stress hormones like cortisol, which works directly against neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.

9) Increase Tyrosine

Of all the chemicals that make up dopamine, the most important is tyrosine. Tyrosine is considered the building block of dopamine.

Fortunately, there are a long list of foods that increase Tyrosine, including: Bananas, Beef, Chicken, Green Tea, Watermelon, Yogurt, Coffee, Almonds…

10) Get focused on something you enjoy

Have you ever noticed that you become hyper-focused when you’re doing something you’re passionate about? Psychologists say that during these times we enter a psychological state called “flow”.

So go ahead and get passionate and focused on something you enjoy. Your brain will thank you for it.