During my many years of practicing psychotherapy many of my patients either refused to take prescription psychotropic medications or suffered unpleasant side effects, motivating them to stop the medication. With virtually all my patients, before recommending prescription medications, I encouraged them to engage in activities that would spark the production of the very same neurotransmitters or “happiness chemicals” that they would receive with medication. Sad to say, but only a small percentage actually began doing the suggested activities.

As you read this article, please note that occasionally you are referred to read the “Happiness chemicals” chart.


Neurotransmitters lubricate our brains. They facilitate greater connectivity from one neuron to the next. They are like the oil we must have in our fossil fuel engines. Antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are designed to keep selected neurotransmitters in our brains for longer periods of time. I read a long time ago that we have 30-40 different neurotransmitters in our brains. We only know very much about eight of them and in this article we’re addressing only four of them.

Dopamine: The reward chemical

The more we reward ourselves by disciplining ourselves to accomplish tasks, the more dopamine we produce. We feel better! Our mood is elevated! As we age, this also applies to focusing our attention, so we remember names, events, and information better. When we don’t remember, it’s like failing to complete a task.

An effective tool to enhance remembering is pause, link, rehearse. Pause long enough to fully take in what you want to remember. Link the information to something you know well. For example, I link “Dorothea” to Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. I rehearse by visualizing and repeating the information. Remembering is exhilarating. Forgetting drains the dopamine out of our brains.

Doing self-care activities like disciplining ourselves to get enough sleep, eating the right foods and the

Right amounts of food and managing our use of electronic devices, all spark the production of dopamine.

Celebrating little wins like meeting exercise goals might be foreign to us. Most of us probably have to pinch ourselves to remember to celebrate little wins. We are probably conditioned to be humble and self-effacing rather than joyfully recycling our wins.

Oxytocin: The love hormone

The activities listed to spark the presence of more oxytocin are pretty straight forward. We should add that having nude time together with your spouse or significant other, coitus and orgasms are rich sources of oxytocin. We are never too old for sexual pleasure/intimacy.

The polar opposite extreme of oxytocin is the stress hormone, cortisol. Actually, as a generalization, any time we fail to do the disciplined activities that spark the happiness biochemical, we are producing some level of cortisol.

Endorphin: The pain killer

My brother is 88 and he is a champion at watching television comedy shows.

Understandably, he also excels at laughter! I know little or nothing about essential oils, but I am becoming more and more attached to dark chocolate! What a pleasurable way to have more endorphins!

Of course, we cannot emphasize exercise enough. We need stretching cardiopulmonary and weight resistant training to get the full package. Around 75% of Americans do not exercise regularly. Obesity is rampant with our chronic overeating and under exercising. Someone said, “The most overused anti-anxiety medication is food, and the most underutilized antidepressant is exercise.”

Research reveals that goal setting, making a decision/commitment, and getting an exercise partner are pivotal in sticking with whatever program you devise for yourself. You don’t need money. You simply need to “Plan your Work and Work your Plan!”

Serotonin: The mood stabilizer

The six suggested items listed here are dear to my heart. I recommend meditating first thing in the morning before any electronics like TV, emails, smartphone, etc. No electronics until you have finished meditating! How does meditating help to stabilize your mood? Eventually you will connect with your True Self/Core Self/Inner Self where you are OK just in being. Eventually you will stay connected with your True Self throughout the day, becoming more impervious or insulated against inevitable daily ego


The other five are pretty much self-evident. I am particularly enthusiastic about walking in the woods. The Japanese call it “Forest Bathing.” We are renewed or made new in the magic of the forest, lake, pond, ocean, mountain, or stream.

Happiness chemicals and how to hack them



• Completing a task

• Doing self-care activities

• Eating food

• Celebrating little wins



• Playing with a dog

• Playing with a baby

• Holding hands

• Hugging your family

• Giving a compliment



• Meditating

• Running

• Sun exposure

• Walk in nature

• Swimming

• Cycling



• Laughter exercise

• Essential oils

• Watching a comedy

• Dark chocolate

• Exercising

Adapted from a “Happiness chemicals and how to hack them” chart provided by Emily Preston, LMSW, Resident Services Coordinator, Erickson Retirement Village, Silver Spring, Maryland

Keep this chart!

What could you do for yourself to routinely do the activities discussed in this article and outlined on “Happiness Chemicals and How to Hack them?” One answer is to paste the chart on your bathroom mirror, refrigerator door, office wall, or any place where you would notice it so as to remind yourself. Another method is to do a self-examination each morning or evening to gauge your progress or lack of it.

Isn’t it wonderful that we can spark increased production of the neurotransmitters/happiness biochemicals to elevate our moods? If we do some or all of the 20 activities listed, we will most likely never need prescription psychotropic medication. Ben Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Silver Spring, MD. He now does Personal, Spiritual and Executive Coaching. Visit his website at www.askdrdavidnow.com or email at [email protected]

Please support OutLook by the Bay with a subscription.

OutLook by the Bay magazine and this website are made possible through the support of our advertisers and subscribers. We guarantee you’ll learn something new each issue. Please subscribe today.

Dr. Jim David is a retired psychotherapist in Silver Spring. Currently busy with personal, spiritual and executive coaching.