What do Sex, Chocolate, and Exercise Have in Common? Research Explains

By Jonathan Ford Hughes
Published April 28, 2021

Key Takeaways

While it’s true that 2020 has given physicians no shortage of reasons to be unhappy, doctors can still take steps to feel better. Some may gravitate toward external solutions, such as seeking the support of counselors, psychiatrists, and/or pharmaceuticals. Doctors should by all means avail themselves of these options. 

Others, however, may want to supplement with some self-care. We know, for example, that much of this feeling we call happiness is rooted in hormonal responses within the body. Here’s what we know about how those feel-good hormones affect us, and what we can do to boost them.

The four horsemen of happiness

On a chemical level, happiness stems from four hormones: dopamine, serotonin, endorphin, and oxytocin. Each has a unique role to play in making us feel good.

Dopamine: This neurotransmitter drives reward-seeking behavior in our brains. Eat something delicious or have an orgasm, and the brain releases some dopamine. The release results in feelings of pleasure and satisfaction, according to Psychology TodayDopamine is an important part of what makes us human. It’s part of what gives us our drive to discover and succeed.

Serotonin: Think of this neurotransmitter like ballast in a ship. Serotonin is what helps keep us emotionally stable, according to Hormone Health Network. Those with insufficient levels of serotonin may be prone to depression or anxiety. And those with too much may experience decreased arousal. According to Psychology Today, higher serotonin is linked to higher rejection sensitivity. People with higher rejection sensitivity will often challenge themselves more frequently, boosting self-esteem when they succeed.

Endorphins: This neurotransmitter is chemically similar to opiates and has potent analgesic effects. Endorphins flow from the pituitary and hypothalamus during strenuous exercise, sex, and orgasm, according to Psychology Today. The pain-numbing effects of endorphins have evolutionary advantages. For example, it comes in handy if you’re injured and running for your life from a saber-tooth tiger. 

Oxytocin: A vital neurotransmitter, especially at birth, you can think of Oxytocin as a trust-promoting chemical, according to Psychology Today. It’s responsible for the happiness we often associate with bonding. This can either be the bond between mother and child, or the feeling you get when you’re in a group of close friends. Oxytocin also has its evolutionary advantages. If our ancestors receive constant doses, they would have trusted untrustworthy people — and we wouldn’t be here! 

How to harness the happiness hormones

Those looking for non-pharmaceutical interventions, or non-pharmaceutical options to enhance therapy and/or antidepressants, can do specific things to boost happiness hormones.

Boosting dopamine: Those looking for a dopamine lift, according to Psychology Today, should first prioritize a good night’s sleep. Here’s a sleep routine to get you started. Additionally, you may want to consume tyrosine-rich foods, such as seeds, nuts, beans, lentils, meats, fish, dairy, and cheeses. Limit processed foods and caffeine, increase your magnesium intake, and be sure to get some daily exercise.

Boosting serotonin: According to a meta analysis published in the Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, light therapy, a common intervention for seasonal affective disorder, may also boost serotonin levels. The conclusion stems from indirect evidence that serotonin synthesis appears to be higher in the brain during daylight hours. Exercise is another option. Several studies indicated higher levels of serotonin metabolite in cerebrospinal fluid after exercise. From a dietary standpoint, foods rich in tryptophan, such as milk, tuna, turkey, or chicken, may also help the brain produce more serotonin. 

Boosting endorphins: Exercise raises endorphin levels in our brains, according to a Psychology study. Levels typically rise about 30 minutes after exercise. You’ll want to stick to moderate-intensity training for maximum euphoria, according to a Neuropsychopharmacology study. High intensity interval training appeared to have the opposite effect, the study indicated. Looking for a more sedentary option? The Psychology study also says you’ll get an endorphin boost from meditation, laughter, or enjoying some chocolate. If your taste is a bit more spicy, peppers and green chilis seem to boost endorphins, and so does sex!

Boosting oxytocin: Oxytocin is an integral hormone to mother-child bonding, therefore, many tend to think of it as the “love hormone.” Though, like happiness, the feeling of love is far more complicated than any one hormone. If you’re looking to raise levels of oxytocin, touch goes a long way, according to Psychology Today. You could hug or cuddle a partner, or even pet a dog. Watching an emotional movie may also help, according to an Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences study. Participants watched 30-minute clips of emotional movie scenes and experienced a 47% increase in oxytocin, compared to baseline. And of course, there’s always orgasms. An Archives of Sexual Behavior study showed an increase in oxytocin levels after orgasm in men and women. In women, the higher the subjective intensity of the orgasms, the higher their levels of oxytocin were.

Final thoughts

Defining happiness is extremely subjective and expansive. What makes you happy might make someone else miserable, and understanding the psychological components of happiness is an ever-expanding field of inquiry. However, research shows us that with some simple behavior modifications, such as diet, exercise, sleep, and a healthy sex life, we can all feel a little bit better.


How to boost the following happiness hormones:

  • Dopamine: Sleep, exercise, and eat some nuts and seeds

  • Serotonin: Get healthy amounts of sunlight and eat foods rich in tryptophan, such as turkey

  • Endorphin: Moderate-intensity exercise meditation, laughter, and chocolate

  • Oxytocin: Have an orgasm, watch an emotional movie, or give/receive some hugs

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