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The science behind pleasure: what happens in our brain?

The science behind pleasure: what happens in our brain?

Most of us understand that something is going on in our bodies and brains when we feel good. It could be a post-workout rush, laughing with friends or having sex; we know when we’re feeling on top of the world, and that there are some chemicals at work. But it’s not a ‘one chemical fits all’ situation. Our brain releases different chemicals for different reasons, to make us feel good in different ways. Serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins all have different roles within the body, all linked to pleasure. 

Serotonin 

Found in our brain and intestines, serotonin runs through our blood and throughout the central nervous system. Serotonin is considered ‘the happiness chemical’, contributing to self-esteem, feelings of belonging and holistic well-being. Serotonin spikes when we feel valued by those around us, and contributes to a general baseline state of happiness. Adversely, people diagnosed with depression often have lower levels of serotonin, and as such report lower levels of general happiness. 

You can maximise your serotonin levels by engaging in physical intimacy, aerobic exercise, sunshine, and self-care rituals. 

Dopamine 

Dopamine is sometimes referred to as the ‘reward molecule’. This is because, while it can be released after eating a good meal or having sex, it is usually associated with the feeling you get after achieving a goal. Even ticking a small task off your to-do list can release dopamine in the brain, which can affect bodily functions such as heart rate, nausea and your experience of pain. 

You can release dopamine in most of the ways you’d expect - exercise, healthy diet, etc. Perhaps less predictably, a good night’s sleep. 

Oxytocin 

Different again, oxytocin is a neurotransmitter typically released during physical contact. Oxytocin plays a big part of parent-child bonding, and is typically the bonding chemical released during breastfeeding. When we feel calm, safe, loved and protected in the arms of a friend or lover, that’s most likely oxytocin doing its thing. 

Happy side effects of this chemical include improved immune systems and decreased stress levels - with studies being conducted into its role in accelerating wound healing. And you can get it all from a hug.

Endorphins 

The word endorphin in part literally derives from the word ‘morphine’, as it is the body’s natural pain reliever. Produced by the central nervous system and pituitary gland, endorphins tend to release in the body during and after exercise (including sex), as well as eating and drinking. Feel amazing after a run, swim or dance? You guessed it, endorphins. Self-care activities like massage or eating dark chocolate can also stimulate these neurotransmitters, although you have to enjoy these moments while you can - endorphins don’t tend to last.

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