Gray Matters: Serotonin vs. dopamine


People on the internet will watch a video of a dog playing with butterflies, comment, “This gave me serotonin” and fancy themselves neuroscientists.

But they don’t really mean serotonin at all. Pleasure gained from passively watching a happy video would more notably prompt dopamine release.

I think there’s a great amount of value to understanding the different chemicals in our brains that make us happy.

It seems abundantly clear to anyone who does a bit of introspection that there are different kinds of happiness.

There is the kind of happiness one feels when they win a jackpot or when they use hard drugs.

There is the kind of happiness one feels when they see their newborn child or when they back up and look at their finished Minecraft house.

There is the kind of happiness one feels when they find someone they believe is just like them or when they hug someone they love.

And there is the kind of happiness one feels after they finish working out or when they laugh harder than they have in a long time.

There are separate neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) for each of these feelings, and I think that understanding each of them can help us experience a more broad kind of happiness, rather than what we feel when we only achieve one kind of happiness.

The first kind, that I associated with winning a jackpot, is dopamine. Dopamine can be thought of as a burst of motivation to do something. It is a fast-acting and strong positive feeling that has the effect of habit building.

Like I mentioned, when people consume videos that make them happy, it is most likely dopamine at play. It is important to note that these neurotransmitters always exist in our brains at some level, but some spike at certain times while others don’t.

The next, which I linked to seeing your newborn, is serotonin. Serotonin may be generally thought of as a more mild feeling of pride and contentment. When someone feels proud of something they’ve accomplished, their serotonin levels rise.

The next is oxytocin, which I associated with hugging a loved one. Oxytocin levels are high when people feel genuine trust and love for others.

The last, which I paired to working out and laughing, are endorphins. These produce less feelings of “happiness” and more feelings of “euphoria.” Endorphins are released to produce a “runner’s high” — it can be a very powerful feeling.

Often, when someone’s typical neurological process of releasing and intercepting these neurotransmitters is different relative to others, the difference manifests itself through symptoms that will allow for diagnosis of an emotional disorder.

There is a common type of medicine for treating symptoms of depression and anxiety called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These work by hijacking the system, by which happy chemicals are intercepted, to make it more likely for someone to feel better.

When neurons release neurotransmitters, there are receptors on the end of that neuron called reuptake receptors. Their job is to recycle extra neurotransmitters back into the neuron to be reused.

SSRIs work by binding to and blocking these receptors on neurons that work with serotonin, so extra serotonin cannot get back into the neuron to be recycled. They stay between one neuron and the next, which encourages more of it to be intercepted by the next neuron and, therefore, propagate the signal that will yield serotonin’s benefits.

Thankfully, there are activities associated with all of these chemicals. So long as your own happiness systems are not completely compromised, you should be able to benefit from incorporating some of them into your life.

Serotonin activities: sunlight, remembering happy events, massage, light exercise, fresh air.

Dopamine activities: consume caffeine, sleep well, TikTok death scroll.

Oxytocin activities: spend time with friends, sex, hug people, do something nice for someone.

Endorphin activities: exercise, eat dark chocolate.

Although some activities are more associated with one neurotransmitter than another, it is clear that these chemicals are very closely linked. Working on just one of them will likely help all of them.

Many economic practices reflect the hijacking of these happiness systems for the sake of profit. Dopamine rushes sell things very well, as does making someone feel trust, excitement or pride. Thus, we should be cautious about this, because there are substances or products out there that readily allow us to feel as much of this happiness as we’d like. 

But, as you may expect, we become desensitized to their effects. My brother, who runs cross country, says that he no longer feels a runner’s high regularly.

These chemicals are a balance that our environment is readily willing, and able, to exploit and disturb, and so, we need to be vigilant and engage with them properly.

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