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The Science behind Happiness

Applying to medical school will undoubtedly be one of the most stressful times of your life. The pressure that you feel internally from yourself and externally from friends, family and teachers to get and achieve your offers can sometimes feel overwhelming.

It is important to take time to look out for yourself during this period. After all, you are so much more than your achievements.

The Aspiring Medics, using our own personal experiences, are here to help you navigate through the application period.



Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter*, which is released by our brain when we accomplish a goal that we have set for ourselves. It is known as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter. Our ancestors would have felt the joy of dopamine when discovering a new berry patch when they were hungry. Due to dopamine connecting neurons, their brain would then adapt to release dopamine when they next saw signs of a berry patch.

Understanding why dopamine is released, highlights the importance of short term and long term goal setting. By setting small goals and accomplishing them it is possible to manipulate your dopamine levels. This is one reason that people benefit from to-do lists: The satisfaction of ticking off each task will release a surge of dopamine. Each time your brain releases this neurotransmitter, it will want to repeat the associated behaviour. Creating lots of short term goals can therefore motivate you to be able to achieve a long-term goal.

Cocaine is a dangerous class A drug. It directly induces the release of dopamine both by binding to the dopamine receptor and also by blocking its re-uptake. Using cocaine can damage the way that the dopamine system works and cause the compulsion to keep taking it.

*Neurotransmitter = A chemical substance made by the body, which is used by the nervous system to send messages between nerve cells


Serotonin is a neurotransmitter and hormone* that improves our mood, feelings of happiness and overall well-being. It is released when we feel confident and important. Higher confidence in turn gives you the drive to do the things that build self-esteem. It is thought that our brains equate attention to survival based on the fact that we are born helpless.

Studies have also shown that serotonin levels are higher in summer than in winter. Our knowledge of seasonal affective disorder also supports how light can affect mood. Spending time outside in the sun or investing in a light box can help boost serotonin levels.

Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRI's), such as fluoxetine, are commonly prescribed antidepressants. SSRI’s stop the body from reabsorbing serotonin, leaving higher levels in the circulation. The link between serotonin and depression remains unclear, but many people find that SSRIs relieve their symptoms.

*Hormone = A chemical messenger that travels to target organs in the blood


Oxytocin is a hormone that promotes the good feeling that you feel when you are with someone that you trust. Trust can be built by meeting each other's expectations. Social trust feels good because social alliances promote survival. It is sometimes also known as the ‘cuddle’ hormone as it is released due to positive physical contact.

Oxytocin has a role in female reproductive functions. Stimulation of the nipples triggers its release when breast feeding and it also increases in sexual activity and childbirth. Oxytocin has been linked to the parent-child bond in both men and women.


Endorphins are chemicals released in the body to mask physical pain. Endorphins helped our ancestors seek help when they were injured. Overall, creating pain to enjoy the endorphin is a poor survival strategy.

Endorphins are responsible for the well-known ‘runner’s high’. The ‘runner's high’ only occurs when the runner has exceeded their limits and is in physical pain. It is recommended to vary your exercise routine to stimulate endorphins without causing harm to yourself.


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