The Biology of Happiness : Part 1 Serotonin


The endemic pursuit of happiness that most Human Beings are striving for has been a long standing battle between ancient Eastern Philosophies and Western Medicine.  Influences and modalities are introduced via religious beliefs, cultural processes and lifecycles and even the laws of some countries.  However, it is my opinion that nothing has a larger influence on our pursuit of happiness than the constant bombardment of our values, morals, dreams and aspirations than social pressure.  This pressure comes through from the media in all its forms, including but definitely not limited to recent technological development of social networks.  Social pressure literally has the ability, and for some people succeeds, to redefine what we believe “success” is and how it is the sole dependency on the definition of our happiness.

That said, we do have a better understanding as to the biology of happiness and therefore what actions we can take to develop and promote it.  Over the last 40 years, studies have shown there are 4 key “happy hormones” that can nurture a happier state of being.  These are :

  1. Serotonin
  2. Oxytocin
  3. Dopamine
  4. Endorphin


In this first article I take a look at serotonin, arguably the most well known “happy hormone” and in particular, how to manage a consistent level within our bodies.


What is Serotonin?

Serotonin is a chemical found throughout the body and plays an important in regulating a number of bodily functions, not least our mood.  Research has shown that low levels of serotonin in our system is not only linked to depression but can also cause memory issues.  Therefore establishing a reliable and consistent level of serotonin is essential.


Where does Serotonin Come From?

Serotonin is made within the body using an amino acid called Trytophan.  We are not able to make tryptophan so the only way we can get it is through a balanced diet.    Benefits of tryptophan go beyond serotonin production and also include general brain function and healthy sleep.  So having a healthy, balanced diet really is the key to physical, mental and emotional health.


Which Foods Contain Trytophan?

The general rule of thumb here is if the food contains protein it is highly likely to contain tryptophan.  But for the avoidance of doubt, here is a list of the 8 main foods that contain tryptophan (Source webMD for a more extensive list look at MyFoodData) :



This oily fish is great as a source of Omega3 fatty acids which help promote  good health, strong bones , healthy skin and eye function.  Additionally, Salmon is a reliable source of Vitamin D which coimpliments the Omerga3 in strong bones as well as teeth and muscles.  Eating just 2 portions of salmon each week should provide enough tryptophan for more people.

For vegans, omega3 can be obtained from pumpkin seeds, walnuts and soya.



This includes chicken, turkey and goose.  Select the leaner cuts of meat like breast to maximise protein but are lower in fat.  These cuts of meat (the lighter meat) will contain generally (it does fluctuate bird to bird) about 410 milligrams per pound of raw meat for turkey and 238 milligrams per pound for chicken.



Whole milk is the super hero of Trytophan which has 732 milligrams of tryptophan per quart and even 2% milk has 551 milligrams per quart.



Any type of prepared oatmeal is a great source of tryptophan containing 147 milligrams per cup.


Other Foods

Cheese – for example cheddar, contains 91 milligrams per ounce

Nuts and Seeds – for example peanuts, contains 65 milligrams per ounce

Bread – for example whole wheat, contains 19 milligrams per slice

Chocolate – 18 milligrams per ounce

Some fruits – for example, medium sized banana contains 11 milligrams; medium sized apple  2 milligrams.


There are other means to increase the production of serotonin in our bodies and the most easily accessible is to take LIGHT exercise out in nature.   As we want to establish a consistently reliable level of serotonin production, we should aim for a minimum of 20 minutes walking in nature, 3 times every week.  Along with the dietary tweaks listed about, at the end of the 3 weeks there will be a noticeable positive shift in our mood.

In Part 2 of this series we will look at the effects of Oxytocin on our happiness.