How to be happy not just plan happy - Louise Mercieca


Three people sit around a table.  Two are talking and look happy. The third woman is smiling, but looks contemplative.  

Happiness – the word conjures up many images and different scenarios for each of us.  When you hear the word happiness what are the first three images that you conjure up?  Are they linked with feelings in the present moment or are they to do with specific ‘ideals’ or ‘events? For example, does happiness to you mean holidays or shopping for a special item?  Or do you think about being safe at home, drinking a cup of tea, reading a book or walking in nature? You could argue that these are examples of true happiness. 


Learning to be happy now rather than planning for happiness when circumstances permit is the key to being happy (or at least content) in most situations.  Many of us plan to be happy i.e. 


“I’ll be happy when….”  


“I’ll be happy when I’ve lost a bit of weight”. 

“I’ll be happy when I can get back to normal”. 


For those living in the future it will feel increasingly difficult to find peace in the current climate, with so many restrictions on our normal way of life we are having to adapt to a situation beyond our control and how we respond to that can have a big impact on our physical and mental well-being.  

It can feel at times (especially now) that there is not much to feel very happy about and this is especially true for those who tend to ‘plan happiness’ rather than ‘live happy’. 


To be happy right now may seem like a big ask, particularly in the current climate, but for the sake of our physical and mental health, the ability to live in the moment and see happiness in everyday situations is crucial. I don’t mean that I expect everyone to go around smiling inappropriately in sad or stressful situations, but that I believe that happiness can be found even in the darkest or most stressful times. 


Happiness does not come to you it comes from you and we can influence this if we consider the science of happiness because there is, in fact, a biological link and, if you're wondering what all of this has to do with food (I am a nutritional therapist, after all) we're about to jump right in to some food science. 


The stress response 


People who are more optimistic have a faster cortisol response, meaning that they recover more rapidly after a stressful situation.  It doesn’t make them any less susceptible to stress, but if you witness any group of people in a stressful situation some will be calmer and recover faster than others.  On a biological level this is healthier as the stress hormone cortisol is lowered and hormone levels return to normal more quickly.  For those who don’t recover as quickly or who dwell on the stressful situation, cortisol levels remain elevated, and the body remains in a heightened state of anxiety.  Over time this depletes the immune function and overall physical and mental health of the individual.  


Nutritional Influences 


Of course, as a nutritional therapist, I’ll always tell you that one of the ways we can support our biology to promote internal happiness is via the foods we eat.  Nutrition should never be underestimated in terms of its’ influence on our overall physical and mental health.  The foods we eat go on a ‘journey’ where they alter our body at a cellular level and impact on every single decision, movement and emotion we have.  By eating the right food, we can create ‘happy molecules’.   


Serotonin is one of these ‘happy molecules’ and I often talk about it in relation to happiness.  Serotonin, also sometimes referred to as 5-HT,. is a neurotransmitter that alters our mood, and, whilst it is linked with happiness, it also enables us to feel calm and content. After all, if we can’t feel content, how can we feel happy? 


We manufacture Serotonin in our gut so ensuring that we have a healthy and diverse gut microbiome is essential. With that in mind, here are some top tips for boosting your gut health: - 


  • Avoid an excess of sugar, artificial sweeteners and processed foods 
  • Aim to eat live yogurt each day 
  • Swap fizzy sugar/sweetener filled drinks for a sparking Kefir or Kombucha  
  • Eat plenty of fibre (wholegrain foods) 
  • Try to ‘eat a rainbow’ every day, the different naturally coloured foods support the diversity of cultures in your gut 


Whilst we manufacture up to 90% of our serotonin in our gut, we need to eat tryptophan - an amino acid - to kick-start the process.  Tryptophan is considered one of the essential amino acids, and we need to get this from food as our body cannot produce it itself.  Luckily though, it is abundantly available in every-day foods such as: - 


Fish, Chicken Eggs, Turkey, Tofu, Beans, Oats, Milk, Cheese, Banana, Spinach, Chickpeas Quinoa, Potatoes, Rice, Spirulina  


To help tryptophan convert to serotonin we also need to ensure that we eat the right type of carbohydrates. Choosing wholegrain or ‘complex carbohydrates ensures a slow release of sugar from the carbs and this increases the amount of serotonin your body can produce.  So, to create more happy molecules – increase your intake of tryptophan foods, eat them with a complex carbohydrate and top up the health of your gut microbiome. 


Comfort foods 


We often associate certain foods with happiness and this can be referred to as a ‘treat’ or as comfort or emotional eating.  The types of food that are usually associated with this do not biologically help to create the happy molecules.  They do however have an impact on the body’s dopamine response and can temporarily make us feel ‘high’ or even happier. (Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward) However, this is very short lived and is usually followed by both a metabolic and neurological dip in blood sugar and mood. Sugary foods may feel like a treat, but they will not keep you happy for long (not biologically anyway!).   


Sugar activates the pleasure and reward centre of your brain, meaning that when you eat something sugary you release dopamine.  This gives you a temporary ‘pleasure response’ but because it is also the centre of the brain associated with addiction you may find sugary foods addictive - meaning that once the initial ‘hit’ has worn off you crave some more.  As you eat more sugary foods you don’t get the same pleasurable feeling. For example, if you had one biscuit initially the second time you may need two biscuits to get the same dopamine response, meaning that you need to eat more and more sugar to get the same feeling.  Sugar acts in the same way as drugs - the more sugar you have the less dopamine is released, so you end up needing more to get the same ‘hit’.  You can see that this is not the same biological response to ‘creating happiness’. 


As we have seen in previous articles, high sugar and high fat will cause impairments in the dopamine pathways which leads to increased reward seeking.  So how can you naturally increase your dopamine? 


Similar to the amino acid tryptophan converting to serotonin, there is also an amino acid that will convert to dopamine. This amino acid is called tyrosine and once again, you can get this from every day foods including: 


Eggs, dairy, lean meats, seeds, wholegrains, fish, cottage cheese, seaweed (spirulina), soy protein.  


We are all living through a particularly challenging and stressful time. The global situation affects us all but does not necessarily affect us all in the same way and to the same extent.  But it is worth remembering that how we cope with this situation will impact on our physical and mental health both during and post pandemic.  


Remember to try each day to include natural foods that help your body to make those ‘happy molecules’ and allow yourself to relax so that you can sleep well, as sleep is crucial to our overall health and well-being and, importantly, being tired impacts on our food choices! 


Louise Mercieca is an award-winning Nutritional Therapist, Author and Presenter with her own food channel for Early Years nutrition, which you can more about here; She’s passionate about formative nutrition and also works with adults on preventative nutrition. You can find out more about Louise and her way of working by reading her introductory article for CACHE Alumni here;