Dopamine is a feel-good chemical that’s produced in your brain. Essentially, it makes you happy. And your brain releases it with certain activities and behaviors ― many of which you already do every single day.
“Whenever we participate in activities that are considered essential from our body’s point of view, our brain releases a large amount of dopamine,” which is meant to encourage you to do this activity more, according to Dr. Kiran F. Rajneesh, the director of the neurological pain division and associate professor of neurology at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Throughout evolution, dopamine’s task was to “sense reward, learn the place and activity that leads to reward and also motivate you to go to those places to obtain [a] reward,” said Dr. Hitoshi Morikawa, an associate professor in the departments of neuroscience and psychiatry at the University of Texas at Austin. And that is still the case today. In essence, “dopamine is a reward sensor,” Morikawa said.
While this reward sensor was and is essential to human survival, evolution has made it so maladaptive behaviors also result in the release of dopamine in humans, both experts said.
“Generally, when neuroscientists talk about dopamine, we think about addiction because it is an addiction driver,” Morikawa explained.
The hormone makes you want to repeat certain behaviors, turning them into habits ― whether they are healthy or not. (Like substance misuse or smoking, for example.)
However, that’s not always the case. The release of this hormone is also part of your body’s daily function. While this is not a cure for any disease or condition, it can be helpful to know when dopamine is released — and when you can expect to feel a little mood boost as a result. Here are a few times when your body releases dopamine:
Our prehistoric ancestors knew that food was necessary for survival, in part because of the reward sensor that dopamine activated. This is still true today.
In fact, Rajneesh said that any activity that is “evolutionarily protective and essential for our well-being and survival” releases dopamine. Being able to find food and eat that food certainly falls into this category.
Some studies even say that eating results in a dopamine release twice: first when the food is eaten and again when the food is in the stomach.
Think about it: When you’re parched, a glass of water certainly feels like a reward, so it’s no wonder it also triggers the release of dopamine in your brain.
But not all sips of water will release dopamine, Morikawa noted. Instead, you have to really want or need the water — like after a tough workout or on a hot day.
“In the middle of summer in Austin, and you’re really thirsty, then drinking water should increase dopamine levels in the brain — that should be one of the most effective ways to increase them,” he said.
One really common way that dopamine is released is when praising children for good behaviors, Rajneesh said. Praise triggers a release of dopamine in kids’ brains — and the same goes for praising pets. In these situations, their good behaviors are reinforced by the feel-good nature of that dopamine release, he said.
The same is true when adults receive praise, Rajneesh added. So sending a congratulatory email to your colleague or a celebratory text to a friend is actually doing more good than you think.
This is especially important for people with certain conditions that are a result of low dopamine levels, like ADHD, according to ADDitude Magazine, an ADHD-focused publication.
Playing Video Games
Many studies have measured and found that playing video games results in the release of dopamine in the brain for some people, Morikawa noted.
While this in itself is not a bad thing, it can become negative if the feeling of playing video games is too positive or too fun, he added. When “elevating dopamine levels, sometimes you get really hooked [onto] certain activities,” Morikawa said.
In this case, that activity can be video games, which can lead to problems for people who aren’t professional gamers, he added. (For example, students who should be doing homework instead of playing.)
Sex causes a release of endorphins, as Dr. Elizabeth C. Gardner, an orthopedics sports medicine surgeon at Yale Medicine, previously told HuffPost. And studies show it also causes a release of dopamine.
During evolution, the dopaminergic system developed to promote the “survival and maintenance of our species,” Morikawa said. In other words, there’s an instinctual reason sex feels so enticing. Our brains are wired to know that sex is important for survival, and the neurons that release dopamine do so when they sense the reward associated with the act.
Activities That Enhance Your Well-Being
Meditating and other activities can also lead to a release of dopamine, Rajneesh said.
“Engaging in activities that enhance your well-being such as yoga, exercise, hobbies [and] games ... can help release dopamine in the brain and further enhance your sense of well-being and health as nature intended it to be,” Rajneesh said.