“Here’s to feeling good all the time,” declares Kramer in one of my favorite episodes of Seinfeld. He’s smoking and drinking when he says it, but for those of us on a more positive health path, there are plenty of other ways to do just that (or at least get close). Consider endorphins, the chemicals that transmit information from one cell to another in the central nervous system and produce feelings of euphoria, intimacy, happiness, and overall well-being. Stress and pain are primarily what activate their release, because it’s when we experience those feelings that we need a mood boost most. However, endorphin production is not limited to situations like worrying about a work performance review or being chased by a bear. There are much more enjoyable ways to reap the benefits of a surge of feel-good chemicals.
Exercise is a surefire way to beat a case of the blues. Some even claim that exercising extra-hard will produce “runner’s high,” a euphoric state supposedly achieved through intense physical activity. Actually, the only reason I started jogging a few years ago was to see if this really exists, and while I certainly felt happier afterward, I couldn’t tell if it was from a rush of endorphins or simply from my relief that the run was over.
Up until recently, the reality of runner’s high was highly disputed in the scientific community. The idea that exercising produces an endorphin rush makes sense, since it puts the body under physical stress (muscles straining, heart pumping, etc.). But pinpointing whether that happens in the brain, and therefore affects mood, is much harder to do without harming the humans being tested. Luckily, improving technology makes such studies easier. In fact, a 2008 study published in Cerebral Cortex used a PET scanner on athletes’ brains both at rest and right after a two-hour run. Researchers found not only a significant increase in endorphins, but also that the endorphins attached to receptors in parts of the brain are responsible for emotions. Their discovery suggests a correlation between intense exercise and elevated mood levels.
Not a runner? Don’t get discouraged—any kind of moderate to intense exercise, like heavy weight lifting or interval aerobics, can create the same rush. But if you push your body to the point of serious pain, it can have the opposite effect.
Love and Affection
There comes a point in every relationship when passionate love (signaled by a racing pulse, decreased appetite, etc.) starts to wane. That’s when the relationship either comes to an end or, if endorphins step in, develops into something deeper and more meaningful. When you’re with someone you love and trust, a release of endorphins makes you feel secure, compassionate, and connected. It’s what strengthens long-term relationships.
Even if you’re not in love, just having physical contact with another person can achieve the mood increase. Hugging, holding hands, and other ways of getting close cause the same effect. You won’t feel automatically closer to an acquaintance you hug, but you will feel a small, albeit noticeable, rush of comfort. (Well, depending on the person, of course.)
Though science hasn’t directly proven that eating chocolate lifts people’s mood, who isn’t a little happier after a square or two of sugary, creamy decadence? Chocolate contains well over three hundred chemicals, many of which affect happiness. It’s got phenylethylamine, a chemical the brain releases when we fall in love that makes us more alert and content. The tryptophan in chocolate prompts serotonin production and sends us into relaxation mode. As if these weren’t enough, eating chocolate also tickles our taste buds into triggering an endorphin release. It’s their way of telling the brain, “She’s eating something yummy; reward her!” Some in the scientific community feel that chocolate’s chemical combination is still too mild to bring about significant mood elevation. But if it really doesn’t make a difference, why do we crave it in times of stress and sadness—or at all?
It’s said that laughter is the best medicine, but is that really true in terms of physical health? Researchers at Loma Linda University sought to find the answer by testing the blood of participants asked to either watch a comedic movie of their choice or watch nothing. The funny-movie viewers had higher endorphin levels in their bloodstreams than those who didn’t watch anything, both before, during, and after the movie, meaning that even anticipating laughing could signal an endorphin release. However, because the researchers couldn’t test the endorphins in the brain (where emotions are regulated), there’s no true way of knowing whether that actually enhanced the subjects’ moods. But, as with chocolate, most people feel better after a few belly laughs—you don’t need science to tell you that.
As we saw with the runner’s-high study, constantly improving technology might help us reach a more definitive conclusion about what affects endorphin levels in the brain. But getting bogged down in the science of endorphins can be, well, a downer. Here’s what we do know: exercising, being in love, getting hugged, eating chocolate, and laughing are instant mood lifters. And just about anyone can do at least one of these things at any given moment. The next time you’re in a funk, try watching something funny, taking a long walk, or eating a little chocolate. Science is still working to prove that these things have a physical effect on our moods, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do informal studies of our own. Now that’s my kind of research.