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Experts say enjoying simple activities again can release the hormone dopamine in our brain. Nina Westervelt/Bloomberg via Getty Images
  • Experts say the happiness people are feeling as they venture out into the world is real, as the COVID-19 pandemic eases in the United States.
  • They say, among other reasons, the return to even simple things such as dinner parties and grocery shopping releases the hormone dopamine, producing a joyful feeling.
  • Experts do warn, however, not to rush into activities and to be aware that not everyone around may be feeling the same euphoria as you.

For Keith Wexelblatt of Massachusetts, it was walking into a full-capacity playoff ice hockey game for his beloved Boston Bruins.

For Eileen Fetterolf of New Jersey, it was smiling at strangers and seeing their whole face smile back.

For Katie Black of California, it was seeing her medical specialists in person.

For many of us, feelings of euphoria are coming quickly as we move back into the things we could do before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

That feeling of joy is chemically based, experts say.

Is it good for us? Like many scientific questions, the answer reads like this: yes, no, or maybe.

“There was a layer placed between us and pleasure,” Dr. Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill-Cornell Medical College, told Healthline.

“The absence of pain is pleasure,” she said. “And so many people have been constrained (the basis for much of the pain). The removal of that limitation — the unpleasant stimulus — is pleasure.”

Which means, she said, as we all re-enter normal life, you don’t have to summit Mount Everest on your first venture out in the world to feel that joy. With the way we’ve been locked down and layered away from the world, she said, just about anything triggers joy right now.

“For some people, food shopping is pleasure,” she said. “Looking at the fruits and vegetables set out for us, touching them without worry, when you can do it unrestricted, it is a pleasure for many.”

What happens chemically?

Saltz said that the body releases dopamine, which she calls the “reward hormone,” when it senses a new and pleasurable experience.

This often requires something relatively exciting.

Often in couples counseling, Saltz advises couples to share a new activity or experience for just that reason. Dopamine can trigger that euphoric vibe, something that can help them enjoy one another’s company again.

Dopamine can also pump through the body when a long-time pleasurable experience, simple or grand, is withheld from a person for some time.

The joy we feel is probably intense, too, from the setup we may have experienced over the pandemic year leading up to the experience.

“We don’t fully realize the toll the loss has taken on us. There is a residue that has built up over the last year,” Karen Doll, PsyD, a licensed psychologist in Minnesota, told Healthline.

“Lack of stimulation and lack of variety of inputs creates a fog in the brain,” she said. “As humans, we have a strong need to connect with people in person.”

That’s why, beyond dopamine, we may also have more good hormones pumping, and we may feel excited to see just about anyone we know in real life.

“The isolation and loneliness have been significant,” Doll said. “Reconnecting with individuals is having a powerful impact on people and relationships. The increase in oxytocin (love hormone) that occurs when we are connected with people is so important for well-being.”

It’s not all dopamine and hugs, though.

First, said Saltz, it’s important we all amp up our compassion mode in real time.

Why? Because, she said, not everyone is at a place of joy.

“It’s very individual,” she said. “How close is someone to loss? What psychology did they have heading into this?”

She points out that “loss” has many incarnations. There’s the loss of lives, of jobs, of income, of financial security, and more. Top that off, she said, with the non-pandemic concerns such as racial inequality, and you can see that many may still be having a difficult time.

Realizing and owning that is not only crucial, she said, it’s humane.

The person you may see who isn’t joyful like you, she said, “can feel really bad, thinking something is wrong with them (when everyone else seems so happy).”

Her advice? As much as you may want to dance through the market aisle hugging everyone you pass, “Give yourself and others a lot of space. If you’re not feeling it and everyone around you seems to be going ‘woo hoo!’ it can seem pretty awful.”

We could also, said Doll, take the joy vibe too far.

“There are risks to ‘letting loose’ after operating with such restrictions in our environment,” Doll said.

She points out that over the pandemic year, our social skills were not put into practice as much and may be languishing a bit.

“I heard someone describe it as letting a bunch of caged animals out can be dangerous,” she said.

“So, we may not be as accurately in tune with our senses and cues that will tell us when we are on the verge of poor choices. It’s like our social judgments in public haven’t been exercised or utilized, so are likely out of tune,” Doll said.

What to do? She suggests we remember to take a pause and check in with ourselves, to ensure that we don’t overdo it or lose sight of the risks and impact of our behaviors.

It could also, Doll said, lead to letdown.

To avoid a post-joy crash, she said, “It can also be helpful to increase our emotional awareness and literacy. Being aware of what we are feeling, how intensely, and what are the triggers can be useful for healthy emotional regulation.”

The message? As we savor those hormone highs, we should also take time to adjust.

“Coming out of this is going to take time,” Saltz said. “The idea that we are just flipping a switch is not correct. Set smaller goals.”

And if you don’t feel a shift toward joy over time? Take action.

The good news? We all, for the most part, should get to joy in time.

“These are treatable conditions,” she said.

For now, many are savoring the joy of even the most basic.

“It’s making me so happy to smile at strangers and friends,” said Fetterolf.

She works with first graders and has realized a new joy there as well.

“I did not realize how much I missed toothless grins and wiggly teeth,” she said.

Wexelblatt marvels at how something as joyful all his life as a Bruins playoff game could feel even better. But, he said, it did and it does.

“There was an unreal pent-up energy that exploded with fans,” he said. “A huge sense of almost normalcy. Immense joy.”

And for Erin Duggan of Massachusetts, total joy joins with wearing makeup once more.

“I can wear lipstick and not just leave it on my mask now,” she said. “It’s the simple things.”