Happiness: Increasing the Odds – and Neurotransmitters

Individuals with lupus experience more than a fair share of ups and downs. Some days, it may feel possible to run relays while other days, loading the dishwasher may take every ounce of available energy – and then some. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to save some of the good days in order to spend some of them on the days that are far less than perfect? This may not be as far-fetched as we think. We may be able to bankroll positive feelings – and positive chemical reactions – to help finance the tough-times.

In our article, “Happiness: The Wonder Drug of Well-Being,” we explored  the physiology of the neurotransmitters responsible for feeling optimistic well-being.  This happens deep inside the cells of our bodies when we do  something we enjoy. While some days it may seem impossible to feel good about anything, let alone feel good in your own bodies, there are several steps we can take start taking to increase happiness potential.

Increasing Neurotransmitter Production

To get the most reward for our efforts, here are some relatively easy things we can all do to target the production of specific neurotransmitters – dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins – that work in synergy to help you feel our optimal best.


Keep moving – Erica Julson, MS, RDN, CLT, suggests exercising in a way that supports individual physical abilities and needs. While the jury is still out on the type and intensity level of exercise needed to stimulate significant dopamine levels, no one can argue that being physically active improves overall good health. We don’t have to go at it like an Olympian – a series of gentle and relaxing stretches may be all it takes.

Listen to music – enjoy the process of stimulating dopamine levels! Julson notes that several studies have shown that dopamine levels increase when we listen to music that touches our soul. That chill we feel when listening to our favorite song? Yep, that’s dopamine at work!

Eat foods that stimulate dopamine production – In “How do I Increase Serotonin & Dopamine Levels,” Maura Banar suggests eating foods that are considered “precursors” to dopamine – foods like almonds, avocados, and pumpkin seeds. These foods help to create dopamine. Stay away from foods that prohibit dopamine production like processed foods, sugar, and saturated fats. Your body will thank you for treating it kindly!


Spend time in nature – Goodtherapy.org suggests taking a walk through the park, working in the garden, or even sitting in the backyard watching a hummingbird to improve mood and increase serotonin production. A side-effect of spending time outside? Being in daylight can also work to increase serotonin levels, even in the middle of winter. No matter what time of year, however, always remember to wear sunscreen and protective clothing!

Express gratitude – In “How Happiness Happens in your Brain,” Debbie Hampton explores how gratitude affects our brain’s reward system which can affect serotonin production. Be thankful for the wonderful things in life – even keeping a gratitude journal to list the things we are grateful for each and every day can change the tone of our day, bringing joy and peace. Read “The Mind Body Connection” for more information on how we think can change how we physically feel.

Try acupuncture  – a 2018 study conducted by experts in Turkey concluded that women experiencing the painful symptoms of fibromyalgia not only received symptom relief, but also a significant increase in serotonin levels when they were treated with acupuncture. While acupuncture may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it is one of the many integrated healthcare practices that may provide some respite from autoimmune disease pain. Read “Lupus and Low Disease Activity” to learn about how integrated and complementary approaches to treating lupus symptoms may be beneficial to overall health and well-being as well as symptom reduction.


Smile – show off your pearly whites! Nicole Spector in “Smiling Can Trick Your Brain into Happiness” explains how the simple act of smiling can boost oxytocin levels. Even if we are having a rough day and aren’t up to grinning, fake it until we make it – oxytocin, that is. Smiling even when we don’t exactly feel joyful has been shown to boost oxytocin levels, improving overall mood.

Reach out and touch someone – physical contact with someone we care about – a friend, parent, partner – is a quick way to increase oxytocin. Powerofpositivity.com tells us that when we are in a loving relationship, our oxytocin “reward” system is triggered, stimulating good vibes.

Meditate – this “buzzword” is on the tips of many tongues for a reason. A daily meditation practice – if only for five minutes at a time – can reduce stress by lowering blood pressure and keeps stress hormones at bay allowing for more efficient oxytocin production, according to Powerofpositivity.com.


Laugh – described as “inner jogging,” laughter may be our best medicine. In “Endorphins: Effects and how to Increase Levels,” Jennifer Berry writes how laughing has been shown to lower blood pressure, decrease stress hormones, and boost immune function by producing endorphins. Watch your favorite comedian, share a silly joke, or read the funnies for a little comic relief!

Savor some dark chocolate – yes, you heard it here. Dark chocolate – in moderation – has been shown in studies to increase endorphin production according to Berry. Splurge a bit – look for products that contain at least 70% cocoa to avoid a lot of the fats and sugars added to commercial chocolate bars. 

Enjoy aromatherapy – a whiff of vanilla or lavender can go far in lifting our mood as Reader’s Digest suggests. Indulge in some lovely lavender-scented hand cream from a favorite bath-and-body shop or even add some vanilla to that morning brew to experience the bliss of endorphin production.

In Conclusion

Developing new habits that stimulate happiness at the cellular level can enable us to acquire the building blocks we need to gain and maintain a greater overall sense of peace and contentment. Feeling at ease and positive about ourselves and the world around us can have a profound effect on how we cope when life throws us a curve, how we process emotions, and how we experience symptoms, possibly even reducing their intensity and frequency. The more we incorporate activities that can sustain us through the rough-spots into our daily lives, the more appreciative we’ll become of the things that truly bring us joy. We will feel richer from acquiring the skills and ability to practice good self-care!

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10 natural ways to release endorphins instantly. (2018). Retrieved from: https://www.rd.com/health/wellness/natural-endorphin-boosters/
10 ways to boost dopamine and serotonin naturally. (2017). Retrieved from: https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/10-ways-to-boost-dopamine-and-serotonin-naturally-1212177
10 ways to increase the oxytocin in your body. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://www.powerofpositivity.com/increase-oxytocin-levels/
Akay, S., Karatay, S., Okur, S., Uzkeser, H., &Yildirim, K. (2018). Effects of acupuncture treatment on fibromyalgia symptoms, serotonin, and substance P levels: A randomized sham and placebo-controlled clinical trial. Retrieved from: https://academic.oup.com/painmedicine/article/19/3/615/4689181
Anderson, H. (2018). What happens to your brain when you smile. Retrieved from: https://www.theladders.com/career-advice/what-happens-to-your-brain-when-you-smile
Banar, M. (2017). How do I increase serotonin & dopamine levels? Retrieved from: https://www.livestrong.com/article/301434-how-do-i-increase-serotonin-dopamine-levels/
Berry, J. (2018). Endorphins: Effects and how to increase levels. Retrieved from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320839.php
Hampton, D. (2015). How happy happens in your brain. Retrieved from: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-happy-happens-your-brain-debbie-hampton
Julson, E. (2018). 10 best ways to increase dopamine levels naturally. Retreived from: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-to-increase-dopamine
Spector, N. (2017). Smiling can trick your brain into happiness – and boost your health. Retrieved from: https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/smiling-can-trick-your-brain-happiness-boost-your-health-ncna822591

Author: Liz Heintz

Liz Heintz is a technical and creative writer who received her BA in Communications, Advocacy, and Relational Communications from Marylhurst University in Lake Oswego, Oregon. She most recently worked for several years in the healthcare industry. A native of San Francisco, California, Liz now calls the beautiful Pacific Northwest home.

All images unless otherwise noted are property of and were created by Kaleidoscope Fighting Lupus. To use one of these images, please contact us at [email protected] for written permission; image credit and link-back must be given to Kaleidoscope Fighting Lupus.

All resources provided by us are for informational purposes only and should be used as a guide or for supplemental information, not to replace the advice of a medical professional. The personal views expressed here do not necessarily encompass the views of the organization, but the information has been vetted as a relevant resource. We encourage you to be your strongest advocate and always contact your healthcare practitioner with any specific questions or concerns.

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