Planning for laughter?!

Last time we had a closer look at the role of the neurotransmitters Oxytocin and Serotonin in experiences that lead to happiness. This time we will focus on how dopamine and the endorphins are produced and what we can do to stimulate their production.

 Dopamine produces a sense of excitement about an event that rewards us more than we expected. It can motivate us to take action toward goals, desires, and needs, and gives a surge of reinforcing pleasure when we achieve them. Many of the goals we had before lockdown have had to be postponed indefinitely, like celebratory events, or holidays we planned. So to produce more dopamine, we can focus on goals that are possible given our current circumstances. Is there something that challenges you, maybe something you always wanted to do? It could be learning a new skill, finishing something you previously started, tidying up a specific area, writing a journal, recording memories for your grandchildren. Breaking the task into bite-size pieces, maybe making a start of just a few minutes, makes success easier to reach. Crucial to the process is that we celebrate the achievements in some way – giving yourself a “gold star” obviously won’t work, but doing something you really enjoy after meeting your goal may do the trick.

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When last did you hug someone?

Although I am all for understanding our challenging emotions and growing through them, we need some happiness to keep us creative in the way we address our challenges. Happiness is associated with some of the experiences we cannot currently enjoy given current restrictions, like going to a party, a night out with friends or a long awaited holiday. If we break it down to brain chemistry, this is when neurotransmitters like oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine and endorphins are released. It may feel reductionistic, but maybe there is something useful to learn here. I have been reading about these neurotransmitters and practical ways (not medical) that stimulate our “happy chemicals”. It is a vast and complicated subject, and in writing briefly about it, I will no-doubt oversimplify. Perhaps it encourages you to find out more detail…

When we are isolated, our oxytocin levels fall. It is related to our sense of belonging. How can we increase our connection with others while keeping our spatial distance in one-to-one conversations? We have grown so accustomed to interacting with whatsapp messages and they definitely have their value, but hearing a human voice in a phone conversation connects us more. A video call where we can see a face without a mask has an even more positive effect. Could we aIso create more group experiences? Our extended family regularly meets up in group video calls, but there are many other options. Uniting towards a common goal is part of belonging. One of the classic ways we usually do this is in supporting a sports team, or belonging to a club with a common interest, or joining a support group around a common challenge. Many of these are now happening online or – in the case of sports – before cameras without live audiences.

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Dwelling on the positive

It is so easy for us to focus on the negative, especially at this time in history. The news headlines grab our attention with words that play into this human habit and feed our fears: “Jobs bloodbath”, “emergency budget”, “decimating and devastating storm”, “lockdown dictator”, “Eastern Cape battles shortages”.

We also have a tendency to replay our blunders from different angles and regurgitate our mistakes.

Pleasant emotions seem to be so much more subtle than negative ones. Our attention is arrested by numbing anxiety and we hardly notice the passing potential of the positive experience.

According to research in the field of positive psychology, pleasant incidents are more frequent than negative, but it is a choice to let those positive events become positive emotions by giving them more attention. Apparently our perspective is broadened and we become more creative when we are positive. I could certainly benefit from a broader perspective and more creativity right now!

So, I have decided to pause and prioritise those fleeting experiences – the fresh taste of the juicy grapefruit, the warm comforting glow of the open fire, the contagious belly laugh of the toddler, the colourful flower conquering the cracks in the pavement, the smiling eyes above the mask, the polite gesture from the stranger, the effort made by shop attendants to communicate despite the PPE barrier, the reassuring hug of a close family member. Let’s linger a little longer as we think upon these things…

 

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