One of the best things about being a dance teacher is seeing the joy that people get from their classes and from dancing in general. Here are some of the reasons why dancing triggers happiness hormones.
You may have noticed over these past few months, as we all struggle to deal with a world caught in a pandemic, that some things still make you feel amazing, no matter what’s going on in your life. Cuddling with a pet, or with your significant other. Listening to a favorite song. Getting outside for a walk or bike ride. Nibbling on some chocolate. Maybe even sipping a cup of coffee in front of the fireplace. All those things make you feel good because of very real physiological responses due to chemical reactions in the brain.
There are four main hormones that trigger feelings of happiness, and each chemical is connected to specific events or rewards. What’s really amazing is that all four of them are closely associated with dancing! Knowing how they work can help you create more opportunities in your life where you can take advantage of these very real responses in your body, and why dancing in particular is probably the best way of all to feel joyful.
Almost everything that makes you feel happy is linked to one of the four happiness hormones: dopamine, serotonin, endorphin and oxytocin.
The hormone dopamine is associated with motivation and reward. It’s why you feel excited when you set a goal, and why it feels good to reach that goal. Depression and certain situations can lead to low dopamine, which reduces your motivation and interest in doing things, including things you might normally enjoy.
Loretta Breuning, founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and author of “Habits of a Happy Brain,” says that “Approaching a reward triggers dopamine. Your ancestors released dopamine when they found a water hole. The expectation of a reward triggers a good feeling in the mammal brain, and releases the energy you need to reach the reward.”
Setting a goal and taking small steps towards it every day helps increase dopamine. Your brain rewards you with dopamine each time you take a step towards the goal. Repetition builds a strong dopamine pathway. Learning to dance is a powerful way to work towards a goal, thus improving your body’s dopamine response. Caffeine also triggers dopamine, as can chocolate. But be careful, as those can lead to bad habits that won’t help your dancing!
“Set a short-run, long-run, and middle-term goal so you will always be approaching one when another is blocked. Focus on things you have control over and don’t wait for others to set your goals for you,” says Breuning.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects your moods, and helps regulate other functions in your body like digestion, sleep and bone health. When it comes to happiness and how you feel every day, serotonin is vital for reducing depression and regulating anxiety.
Breuning points out that confidence triggers serotonin. However, you need to manage your confidence, so that your serotonin levels don’t take a hit. As a dancer, there are always things to improve and new technique to learn. Focusing on your positive strengths helps to manage confidence, as compared to being overly focused on areas that need improvement. Enjoy what is working! Even the world champions continue to take lessons to improve their skill, so don’t let the fact that you’re still learning lead to a lack of confidence. Embrace the fact that even if you’re a beginner, you are already well ahead of the thousands of other people around you who have no idea how to dance even the most basic steps.
Even the world champions continue to take lessons to improve their skill, so don’t let the fact that you’re still learning lead to a lack of confidence.
If you’re trapped in a cycle of low self-esteem or have had your confidence undermined by others, it can be hard to build it back up. Breuning points out that “You can develop your belief in your own worth. If you focus on your losses you will depress your serotonin, even if you’re a rock star or a CEO. You can build a habit of focusing on your wins. Your serotonin will suffer if you don’t.” By working on one small technical detail at a time and mastering it, you will build up your confidence step by step and thus increase your seratonin levels.
Something else you can try is finding ways to get out of your comfort zone each day. Every day that you challenge yourself to adapt to something new, even if it feels uncomfortable at first, you build more confidence.
Oxytocin is sometimes called the love hormone and is associated with how people bond and trust each other. Certain activities like kissing, hugging and physical intimacy trigger the release of oxytocin in the brain.
It explains why you feel happy when you pet or cuddle with your pets. Partner dancing has an obvious element of being closely connected to another person, sharing a common goal of moving together to the music. Trusting in your partner further enhances this connection. In this way, it’s a natural activity that elevates oxytocin levels.
“Social trust is what triggers oxytocin. If you hug someone you don’t trust, it doesn’t feel good. Trust comes first. You can build social trust by taking small positive steps toward people,” Breuning says.
Endorphins have long been associated with exercise. You’ve no doubt heard the term “runner’s high.” Endorphins are natural pain killers that help minimize pain and maximize pleasure. This chemical response is why professional athletes can experience significant injuries and continue on, like pro cyclists who continue to race despite suffering a broken collarbone from a crash.
“In the state of nature, it helps an injured animal escape from a predator,” Breuning explains. “It helped our ancestors run for help when injured. Endorphins evolved for survival, not for partying. If you were high on endorphins all the time, you would touch hot stoves and walk on broken legs.”
But you don’t have to injure yourself to enjoy the benefit of endorphins. Dance is a great form of exercise and can be just as physically demanding at high skill levels as Olympic-level athletic sports. Every time you dance, endorphins are released, and the benefit of this chemical extends to the rest of your lifestyle. Even post-dance stretching can help apply the endorphins that were released during the activity.
No wonder dancing makes you happy. Find opportunities to dance, and you’ll experience the natural high that comes from the body’s release of these four happiness hormones.
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