The Serotonin of Life: Decoding Happiness and Mental Health


March 20. 2023

Writer: Jasmin Cyrille
Researcher: Jasmin Cyrille
Editor: K Ballesteros
Graphics: Jacklyn Moral, Sarah Mondoy
Tweetchat Moderators: Marc john Paul Agbuya, Tobey Fhar Isaac Calayo

Since 2013, the United Nations has celebrated the International Day of Happiness every March 20th as a way to recognize and celebrate happiness as a human right and its importance in the lives of people around the world [9].

With this year’s theme: ‘Be Mindful. Be Grateful. Be Kind.’, MentalHealthPH and #UsapTayo is joining the conversation to celebrate this year’s International Day of Happiness. Tara #UsapTayo?

How do you define happiness?

I’m in my room preparing for a trip outside the city at the time of this writing. I can’t help but feel giddy and excited just imagining that I’ll be out of reach for a while, away from work stress, and just in front of the beach while sipping a refreshing fruit shake or playing with a beach dog near the shore. This is what I imagine happiness looks like—my kind of happiness. Happiness is personal yet universal; we all know it as a feeling but define it differently. In psychology, happiness is a state of emotional well-being that a person experiences either in a narrow sense, when good things happen in a specific moment, or more broadly, as a positive evaluation of one’s life and accomplishments in general—that is, subjective well-being [1].


Happiness is probably the easiest yet hardest word to define. We all know what happiness means, but how it looks for people differs uniquely. Perhaps that’s also why it’s hard to actually “decode” what happiness is. 

Here are some tips we found to decode happiness in a way that can be universal.

The Happy Hormones

Most of us know that serotonin is called the “happy hormone” or a chemical produced by the body to produce positive feelings. But did you know that there are other “happy hormones” in our bodies?

  • Serotonin- helps to regulate mood, sleep, appetite, learning ability, memory, and digestion [2].
  • Dopamine- is associated with pleasurable sensations, along with learning, memory, and more. Also known as the “feel-good hormone” [2].
  • Oxytocin- also called the “love hormone”, oxytocin helps promote trust, empathy, and bonding in relationships. Levels generally increase with physical affection [2].
  • Endorphins- the “pain reliever hormone”. These hormones are your body’s natural pain reliever, which your body produces in response to stress or discomfort. Levels may also increase when you engage in reward-producing activities such as eating, working out, or having sex [2].

Lifting the Mood

Given the happy and pleasure hormones stated above. Here are some ways to naturally boost them in our systems:

  • Have sunlight- just like how it has direct benefits in plants, sunlights are also beneficial for us humans, as its effects are seen in serotonin levels, mood, and also sleep [5].
  • Add some music- research about whether dopamine plays a role in reward experiences elicited by music showed concluded that dopamine plays a causal role in musical pleasure. This means that listening to music produces “feel-good hormones”!
  • Prepare to run- several studies have shown that doing a quick run or exercise helps in producing several happy hormones including serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine [6]. Interestingly, studies also suggest that aerobic exercises also have a causal effect on one’s serotonin level [7].
  • Pet your dog- In an exploratory study about the relationship between behavioral patterns and levels of oxytocin and cortisol in dog owners and their dogs, the study concluded that oxytocin and cortisol levels, both in dogs and in their owners, are associated with the way the owners interact with their dogs and also with behaviors caused by the interaction [4].
  • Yawns to sleep (Getting a Good Night Sleep)- Not having enough quality sleep contributes to an imbalance of dopamine and other hormones in our body and can give a negative impact on our mood and health. Having 7-9 hours of good sleep will make us feel better as it helps restore and balance our happy hormones [2].

Pursuit of Mankind: Happiness as a Fundamental Goal

Naturally, physical and material experiences will have a greater influence on happiness. Happiness is a derived state in which many factors play a role, the most important of which is one’s attitude. The main thrust of happiness thus depends on the way an individual interprets experiences [8].

A lot of times, happiness is seen as a reward after accomplishing something–could be a long-term or a short-term goal. However, happiness doesn’t have to be conditional, rather it is fundamental.

As John Locke said “The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty” [3].

This means that true happiness lies within ourselves. It is the individual’s mindset that determines what happiness is and what causes it. The most important conclusion, however, is that happiness is an ethereal experience, and seeking eternal happiness may be an ethereal wish [8].

Be Mindful: Happiness in Being Present

Mindfulness is the quality of being present and engaged in the present moment. Being aware of one’s thoughts and feelings without getting too caught in them. Mindfulness isn’t a temporary state but a living practice [11]. Compared to meditation, mindfulness doesn’t eliminate stress or other difficulties; rather, by becoming aware of unpleasant thoughts and emotions that arise as a result of difficult situations, we have more options for dealing with them at the moment — and a better chance of reacting calmly and empathetically when faced with stress or challenges [11].

Mindfulness has been shown to increase our level of positive emotions directly [10]. Mindfulness is here to tell us that there’s a lot more to life if we only try to stop and notice

Be Grateful: Happiness in Gratitude

Gratitude has been strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships [12].

We can cultivate gratitude and happiness by consciously focusing on being appreciative of what we have. In addition, the more that we try to express gratitude—through reminding ourselves of all we can appreciate, by writing down what we’re grateful for, or by sharing our thank yous with someone else—the more happiness we’ll feel. Gratitude contributes to more gratefulness as well as greater happiness [13].

Be Kind: Happiness in Kindness

A meta-analysis study about rewards of kindness found that people who were kind tended to be higher in “eudaimonic happiness” (a sense of meaning and purpose in life) more than “hedonic happiness” (a sense of pleasure and comfort). Perhaps this makes sense, given that being kind involves effort yet provides a sense of meaning [15].

A study about acts of kindness and acts of novelty affecting life satisfaction revealed that people performing acts of kindness or novelty resulted in an increased level of life satisfaction. Another study from the Journal of Happiness has also shown in their findings that people felt happier when they were asked to recall a moment they’ve shown an act of kindness to someone else [14]. 

This proves that kindness can make people happier and at the same time, happiness can make people be more kind.

Since 2013, United Nations have been celebrating the International Day of Happiness every March 20th as a way to recognize and celebrate happiness as a human right and its importance in the lives of people around the world [9].

With this year’s theme: ‘Be Mindful. Be Grateful. Be Kind.’, MentalHealthPH and #UsapTayo is joining the conversation to celebrate this year’s International Day of Happiness. Tara #UsapTayo?

Pre-session activity:

  • If you are to write a book about happiness, what will be the title?

Guide Questions

  1. How do you define happiness?
  2. What do you usually do to lift your mood?
  3. What does happiness look like for you if happiness is the pursuit of life?


Post-session Activity

Connecting to this year’s theme for International Happiness Day: “Be Mindful, Be Grateful, Be kind”:

What are you most mindful, grateful, and kind to lately?



  1. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2023, January 26). happiness. Encyclopedia Britannica.
  2. Raypole, C. (2022, July 26). How to Hack Your Hormones for a Better Mood. Healthline. 
  3. John Locke – Pursuit of Happiness. (n.d.).
  4. Petersson, M., Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Nilsson, A., Gustafson, L. L., Hydbring-Sandberg, E., & Handlin, L. (2017). Oxytocin and Cortisol Levels in Dog Owners and Their Dogs Are Associated with Behavioral Patterns: An Exploratory Study. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 1796.
  5. Azmitia, E. C. (2010). Evolution of Serotonin: Sunlight to Suicide. Elsevier EBooks, 3–22. 
  6. Basso, J. C., & Suzuki, W. A. (2017). The Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood, Cognition, Neurophysiology, and Neurochemical Pathways: A Review. Brain plasticity (Amsterdam, Netherlands), 2(2), 127–152. 
  7. Zimmer, P., Stritt, C., Bloch, W., Schmidt, F. P., Hübner, S. T., Binnebößel, S., Schenk, A., & Oberste, M. (2016). The effects of different aerobic exercise intensities on serum serotonin concentrations and their association with Stroop task performance: a randomized controlled trial. European journal of applied physiology, 116(10), 2025–2034. 
  8. P. (2016b, July 24). Decoding happiness. The Pioneer. 
  9. Latestly, T., & Latestly, T. (2023, March 14). International Day of Happiness 2023 Date and Theme: Know the History and Significance of the Global Event. LatestLY. 
  10. Awareness. (n.d.). Action for Happiness. 
  11. What Is Mindfulness? – Headspace. (n.d.). Headspace. 
  12. Harvard Health. (2021, August 14). Giving thanks can make you happier. Harvard Health. 
  13. Brower, T., Ph.D. (2021, April 25). Gratitude Is A Key To Happiness: 4 Reasons Why. Forbes. 
  14. Kindness Makes You Happy. . . and Happiness Makes You Kind. (n.d.). Greater Good. 
  15. Hui, B. P. H., Ng, J. C. K., Berzaghi, E., Cunningham-Amos, L. A., & Kogan, A. (2020). Rewards of kindness? A meta-analysis of the link between prosociality and well-being. Psychological Bulletin, 146(12), 1084–1116.


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