But historian Darrin McMahon, after his study into the definition of happiness through the ages of Western civilisation, would argue otherwise. In Ancient Greece happiness was used in the same way we use the word luck - happiness is when the gods of Olympus decide not to jest with you today. Aristotle extolled the virtues of being happy as something one experiences when leading a virtuous life. During medieval times happiness was something you got when you reached heaven, and until then all life was a painful test of faith. Then came the renaissance with its ‘joie de vivre’, where happiness was betrothed to pleasure. Today we expect happiness to be a state of being we should be experiencing all the time, a right to play with puppies all day long. Let’s see if our bodies can provide some insight into what happiness is...
did you know?
Over 90% of our serotonin is produced in our gut!
The feeling of happiness is associated with the release of serotonin (aka the ‘happy hormone’) into our brain and body. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a brain messenger that initiates waves of happy thoughts and feelings through our physical body. It is manufactured in our body through the conversion of a protein amino acid called tryptophan which becomes serotonin, and seeks out the 5HT family of receptors to do its thing. These receptor sites, or docking stations, happen to be scattered throughout the body, not just the brain. This is why serotonin imbalances have been tied to a variety of diseases like osteoporosis and blood clotting abnormalities.
Production of serotonin is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. This could be changes in how our 5HT receptors look and function either from genetic variation or from damage to receptors caused by prolonged stress and increased cortisol. Serotonin deficiencies lead to depression, PTSD, sleep problems, autism, learning and memory problems, and a range of anxiety disorders.
But by far the biggest influence on serotonin balance, and resultant happiness, in our body is the health of our gut. Over 90% of our body’s total serotonin is located in cells lining our gastro-intestinal tract, where it helps the gut wall to contract around the food, digesting it and moving it along. If we experience poor gut health, we find drops in our levels of serotonin.
So how does this tie in with our quest for happiness? Think of the gut. It is exposed to waves of nutrition alternating with fasting. This correlates with a natural ebb and flow in the release of serotonin into our systems. In the same way, we should have moments of awareness and happiness. The sweet moments of happiness are made more precious by the journey to them. How sad would we be if we lived happily ever after?
6 TIPS TO BALANCE SEROTONIN
- Sleep long enough to repair and rejuvenate the body.
- Make sure your vitamin D levels are topped up, especially through winter time.
- Avoid the stimulant cycle - reduce or eliminate caffeine and alcohol, both of which interfere with serotonin and cortisol production.
- Exercise to encourage endorphin and serotonin release and healthy gut function.
- Eat healthy protein, e.g. fish, beans, nuts and pea protein isolate - your body absorbs much more tryptophan through whole foods than from a tryptophan supplement.
- Make Omega-3 fatty acids your best friend - these help support healthy brains that are more receptive to the effects of serotonin.