What You Need to Know About the Science of Happiness

Kelly Calkins, BCHN®

For over a decade, Kelly battled six autoimmune diseases with unwavering determination. Her journey led to personal transformation, calming her body's autoimmune response, healing her gut, and banishing fatigue, sleepless nights, and brain fog. Today, Kelly is dedicated to helping others facing chronic symptoms, autoimmune diseases, and nutritional oncology concerns. She works with 1-on-1 clients, leads group coaching, and collaborates with organizations like the Arizona Foundation for Women. As a Board Certified Holistic Nutritionist® and co-founder of Abundant Hope Nutrition, Kelly's expertise shines. Her core belief: we're meant to thrive, not just survive.
Published: November 09, 2023

I don’t know about you, but I was taught that happiness is based on circumstances and joy is not.  Well, what if that’s not exactly true.  What if happiness and joy can both be independent of circumstances?  Guess what?  We’re going to be looking at science that shows just that!  I work with a lot of clients who are not living in happiness.  It goes hand in hand with chronic symptoms and disease but what if I told you it didn’t have to?

In fact, one study compared happiness levels in lottery winners to quadriplegic patients.  Any guesses what the study found?  Who do you think had more happiness?  Most of us would probably say the lottery winners but lets see what the study found.  The results were surprising.  After 1 year of living with the change, both groups leveled out at the SAME level of happiness.  Probably not what most of us would have thought.  Studies found that after just 3 months (even major life trauma) had no impact on happiness!  Surprised?  Let’s take a closer look.

What the studies found is possible because of our amazing brains -talk about intelligent design!  The frontal lobe is the part of the brain located directly behind your forehead.  It’s responsible for behavior, learning, personality, and voluntary movement. It’s also the part of the brain that separates humans from other animals.  The prefrontal cortex is located in the frontal lobe.  This is the part of the brain is an experience simulator, meaning it allows us to imagine experiences without them having to actually happen.  In other words our imagination.  No other animal has this ability.  

Our amazing brain is able to generate 2 types of happiness – natural and synthetic.  An example of natural happiness is the result of getting something that we wanted.  An example of synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted.  This is when we reframe and adjust our perspective on the situation.  Now, our culture would have us believe that this is self-soothing and not real happiness.  Let’s talk about how that’s wrong.

Research demonstrates that a happy life is not about getting what we want, it’s about being happy with what we have.  You probably don’t have to look far to find someone who ‘has it all’ but is miserable.  Hollywood, sadly, is a great example of this.  When we shift our mindset to being happing with what we have instead of what we want we increase our happiness.  This is synthetic happiness.  Make no mistake, synthetic happiness is not cheating; it is internally driven.  Natural happiness is externally driven by factors.  This actually makes synthetic happiness more long-term and stable.  It’s akin to JOY!  General happiness in life comes from the relationship between natural happiness and synthetic happiness.  You’ve heard me say this before – like all things in life it’s about balance!

There are lots of chemicals in the brain that tie into to our happiness -but the ones I want to touch on today are serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. Serotonin is considered a ‘happy’ hormone because of its mood boosting effects.  When I see clients low in serotonin they are commonly experiencing more depression, low emotion, and feeling like everything they feel is muted.  Like the highs aren’t as high as they used to be or should be. Dopamine is the ‘pleasure’ hormone and it increases our drive and motivation so we can experience the pleasure of the reward.  Oxytocin is the ‘love’ hormone and ‘love’ hormone it’s naturally released in your body when you have physical contact.  You know when someone scratches your back for you and it just feels freaking amazing?  That’s oxytocin.  

Here’s the exciting part…we can naturally boost these hormones and increase our happiness! Let’s take a look at some of the ways to boost each of these 3 hormones naturally.


  • Focus on positive memories or things you are grateful for
  • Get sunshine daily – it’s great for boosting serotonin
  • Do low-instensisty exercises like walking or yoga
  • Eat serotonin boosing foods like eggs, pineapple, salmon, nuts, and turkey


  • Set specific, measurable goals you can achieve. This can be as simple as making your bed or washing your face. Completing the goal and marking it off your list is a dopamine hit for your brain!
  • Exercise regularly. Just like serotonin, our dopamine levels rise when we exercise
  • Listen to music you enjoy – it boosts your dopamine levels
  • Eat dopamine boosting foods like lean meat proteins, omega 3s (fish/nuts/seeds/oils), avocado, and dark chocolate


  • Get a massage. Not only does a massaage relaxed your body and release stress and tension, it also releases oxytocin
  • Hugging. Even the simple act of hugging releases oxytocin. It’s a great way to show appreciation to those you care about while boosting your oxytocin.
  • Cuddling. Ever wonder why happy people cuddle? It’s free oxytocin!
  • Eat oxytocin boosting foods like fresh fruits and vegetables foods rich in Vitamin A and B Vitamins, protein based foods, and omega 3s (fish/nuts/seeds/oils)

The takeaway here is that we can directly influence our happiness from the inside out.  Through diet and lifestyle choices, science shows us we can create our own sustainable happiness. How cool is that?! Lifestyle is as important as diet when it comes to our happiness. In fact, Harvard did a study over 75 years on happiness.  The 3 main lessons learned from this study are all about relationships.  They found happiness is proportional to how socially connected you are, how many close connections you have, and how many meaningful relationships you have. We are wired for connection and community!

Happiness is about so much more than just your circumstances.  What you eat, your relationships, your gratitude, your mindset, and your connection with nature all play important roles.  I hope you look at happiness differently now that you know the science behind it. It comes down to diet and lifestyle choices.

My question to you is are you prioritizing relationships to increase happiness in your own life?

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In Health,
Kelly Calkins, BCHN®
holistic approach to recovering your health.

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