The science of happiness

The Science of Happiness

Happiness, defined as: “an emotional state characterized by feelings of joy, satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment.” A common end goal for many, and a huge component in the quickly growing “self-help” industry – which is set to be worth over 13 billion dollars in 2022. Woah, right!? 

Considering the vast and often complicated information out there on happiness, we thought it would be beneficial to take a step back and simplify it by asking two questions. What is the science of happiness, and what simple things can we do to get more of it? 


What’s going on in our brains when we’re happy? 

We all know what happiness feels like. But what’s happening inside our bodies when we experience happiness? As with every human experience, there is always a lot going on behind the scenes. 

Happiness in particular, is brought on by a complex set of neurochemical interactions in our body; with neurotransmitters, hormones and different parts of the brain as the primary players. 

Some of the main hormones involved in happiness include dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins. When these hormones are triggered for release by certain experiences, they act on receptors, engaging specific parts of the brain. When those parts of the brain are engaged or activated, we feel happiness – and an array of other positive emotions! 


Where can we start? 

What’s really cool is that the networks in the brain responsible for hormones and feelings of positive emotion, mentioned above, are flexible and modifiable. Meaning that, not only in the short-term can we focus on acute feel-good behaviors, but overtime, we can actually alter our neurophysiology to be more sensitive to happiness! 

Above, we mentioned that certain experiences trigger key hormones. So the science behind happiness-based strategies is largely about capitalizing on that process. 

Here are a few of our favorite research-backed strategies to promote happiness.


1. Exercise 

Now, we wouldn’t be exercise physiologists without bringing this one up first. Exercise, as we’re sure many people know, is a key driver of endorphins. It also has subjective benefits in relation to things like self-esteem and confidence. Research shows that people who regularly partake in exercise, no matter the life stage, are more satisfied and happier in life. 


2. Meditation/Mindfulness 

Research is extremely supportive of the benefits of mindfulness in relation to experiencing a higher ratio of positive emotions. From a neurological perspective, mindfulness has been shown to increase the activity in feel-good areas of the brain – not only during meditation, but during day-to-day tasks as well. Furthermore, it has been suggested that practicing mindfulness makes us less sensitive to negative emotions, by maintaining a more “balanced” sense of reality. 


3. Social Connection

When we’re feeling low, sometimes the last thing we feel like doing is socialising! But research suggests that it’s worth the extra effort on those days. Connection is a key component of happiness. Our hormone friend, oxytocin, thrives on connection – so much so that it has been termed “the cuddle hormone”. Strong relationships and social networks also provide a means to share our experiences, which enhances those that are positive and off-sets the ‘threat’ of those that are negative, according to research. 


4. Flow State 

This is a relatively new concept, but one that is gaining momentum in happiness literature. Think about those activities that allow you to get in “the zone”; anything from gaming, music, art, and extreme sports. When that noisy part of the brain turns off and you find yourself engrossed fully in one of your favorite activities. Emerging research suggests that finding yourself in a flow state on a regular basis is a predictor of happiness, by boosting serotonin and providing a “euphoric state of joy and pleasure without strain or effort”. 


Now, it is important to note that we can’t be happy all the time. Every emotion has its place. But there’s nothing wrong with wanting to improve that feel-good ratio. If this is a venture you are looking to partake in, try one of these strategies and let us know how you go! It would make us happy to hear about it. 




Alexander, R., Aragon, O., Bookwala, J., Cherbuin, N., Gatt, J., Kahrilas, I., Kastner, N., Lawrence, A., & Lowe, L. (2021, February 1). The neuroscience of positive emotions and affect: Implications for cultivating happiness and wellbeing. ScienceDirect.

An, H. Y., Chen, W., Wang, C. W., Yang, H. F., Huang, W. T., & Fan, S. Y. (2020). The Relationships between Physical Activity and Life Satisfaction and Happiness among Young, Middle-Aged, and Older Adults. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(13), 4817.

Tanzer, J. R., & Weyandt, L. (2019). Imaging Happiness: Meta Analysis and Review. Journal of Happiness Studies, 21(7), 2693–2734.


Author: Tessa Nielsen
Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Content Creator at Specialised Health


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