I ran into breath-stoppingly cold, crashing waves at a deserted Coldingham Bay on Sunday. Mind you, it was blustery and wet, so I wasn’t surprised that right-minded people would be elsewhere. I was on a dopamine and serotonin-boosting quest, and it delivered both in joyful bursts. I screamed as the cold sea washed over my bare skin (did I mention I was wearing a swimming costume and not a wetsuit?) but the rush of pleasure came in waves for hours afterwards.

I’m not foolish enough to think this will inspire you to reach for your neoprene booties in search of addictive pleasure, though I do wonder whether you still ‘play’ just for the fun of it? You see, the point of my December dips is to release dopamine and serotonin in healthy and mindful ways. 

Dopamine and serotonin are two neurotransmitters that are important to maintain mental health. If you want to build mental resilience, then one way is to increase the release of these chemical messengers that carry electrical signals between neurons in the brain. However, dopamine has been shown to decrease by up to 50% with age, and serotonin levels deplete as we grow older too, so we have to plan in playtimes to boost these feel-good chemicals whenever we can.

As we enter the season of over-indulgence, I thought it fitting to share tips on how to be merry and joyful in healthy ways that you can easily build in around the festivities (and which don’t -necessarily – involve sea-swimming).

  1. Be in nature. Researchers have found as little as five minutes outdoors in a natural setting can improve mood, increase motivation, and boost self-esteem. Even a brief walk in the park can improve your well-being – and it might bring a welcome break from the family-dynamics-when-stuck-indoors-too-long syndrome.
  2. Do some exercise. Exercise has been shown to lower hostility and signs of depression. If you want to survive close proximity to visiting in-laws then a 30-minute run or brisk walk (away from them) will doubtless increase your tolerance levels, and make you a much nicer person. 
  3. Be grateful. Scientific research has shown gratitude affects the brain’s reward system and has been directly linked to causing happiness too. Being consciously grateful for each and every gift (even the reindeer jumper) will boost your dopamine and serotonin levels, as will savouring the extra time you spend with loved ones.
  4. Do something new. The brain reacts to novel experiences by releasing dopamine – and any kind of experience will work. The less familiar you are with the activity, the more likely your brain will reward you with dopamine. Try doing a familiar activity, but in a new environment or location to trigger a dopamine response, like swimming at a new location (sorry, I had to mention it again), or even doing Christmas dinner on the barbeque.
  5. Eat well. Coffee increases your serotonin and dopamine levels … but only for as long as you take it, sadly. Once you stop, you’ll go into withdrawal. Your brain, used to the high levels of neurotransmitters, will act as if there is a deficiency. And – contrary to internet rumours, eating turkey does not raise your brain’s serotonin levels. Many people think foods rich in tryptophan can boost mood, since the brain uses tryptophan to produce serotonin. However, tryptophan competes with several other amino acids for transportation to the brain and it usually loses. Better news is that omega-3 fatty acids boost serotonin levels so you could always trade in your turkey for baked salmon at Christmas.
  6. Set Goals. When we achieve one of our goals, our brain releases dopamine and goes on to seek out more dopamine by working toward another goal. Larger goals typically come with increased dopamine. However, it’s best to start with small goals to improve your chances of success, and enjoy those smaller rewards that come more frequently. Short-term goals can add up to achieve a long-term goal (and an even bigger reward). This pattern keeps a steady release of dopamine in your brain. So, perhaps it’s time to start setting those New Year resolutions, like integrating play into your every day.