“Everybody gets twitterpated in the springtime. You begin to get weak in the knees. Your head’s in a whirl. And then you feel light as a feather; and before you know it, you’re walking on air …  You’re knocked for a loop, and you completely lose your head!”  Friend Owl, “Bambi.”

Every Valentine’s Day, a tidal wave of flowers, candy, fancy dinners and marriage proposals leaves a surge of loopy lovers in its wake – their hearts and heads aflutter.  As Friend Owl explained it, they are “twitterpated.”

But fervent sweethearts are not the only ones who like to feel light as a feather. Anyone can experience a pleasant lover’s bliss, because bliss comes not from the heart but the brain – which releases intoxicating hormones that help propel us through various stages of romance and mating.  

We can trick our brains into releasing those hormones, whether or not Cupid’s arrow has struck.  

“Falling in love causes our body to release a flood of feel-good chemicals that trigger specific physical reactions,” says Pat Mumby, a professor of psychiatry at Loyola University in Chicago. “This internal elixir of love is responsible for making our cheeks flush, our palms sweat, and our hearts race.”  

The crazy twitterpated sensation comes from dopamine, adrenaline and norepinephrine – neurochemicals which make us feel giddy, power our sex drive, and keep us awake all night thinking about our new crush. “When you fall madly in love with somebody, dopamine goes up,” explains Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University. “It gives you the elation, the focus, the energy, the possessiveness, the motivation, and the drive to win life’s greatest prize.”  

And it is all in our head, because dopamine, explains Dr. Fisher, is released from the ventral tegmental area – part of the brain’s reward system, which also drives thirst, hunger, pleasure, and addiction. That love-struck rush feels good, so we seek it out again and again, which may explain why songs often compare love to drugs (and why people become addicted to both). As relationships progress, sanity and serenity are restored when serotonin, oxytocin, and vasopressin take over to calm things down and encourage the bonding needed for a longer-term union.

Certain activities, foods, and mental exercises can spark similar neurochemical responses, without all the anxiety of going on a first date. It may not be quite the same as falling in love, but knowing that couples are not the only ones feeling giddy might make Valentine’s Day more fun.

To make the most of Valentine’s Day, Do something new. Unique experiences drive up dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, says Dr. Fisher, so try a new restaurant, sign up for an interesting class, arrange a trip to an unfamiliar destination.

Feel the magic of touch. Physical contact and muscle relaxation trigger the pleasurable release of oxytocin, so hug your friends and loved ones, or treat yourself to a massage.

Have a giggle.  Laughing releases dopamine and lowers the stress hormone cortisol. Even just smiling is beneficial, says Ronald E. Riggio, a professor of psychology at Claremont McKenna College in California. “The feel good neurotransmitters dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin are all released when a smile flashes across your face,” explains Dr. Riggio.

Eat chocolate.  A 2009 Australian study confirmed that cocoa polyphenols increased “calmness and contentedness” in study participants, who drank the equivalent of 1.5 oz. of dark chocolate daily.  
To maximize its benefits, choose chocolate with a high concentration of cacao (that is not a typo) – at least 70 percent.

Do not like chocolate?  Foods high in the amino acid L-Tyrosine can encourage
dopamine production. They include proteins such as eggs, turkey, fish, and cheese, as well as apples, bananas, blueberries, almonds, kale, spinach, avocados, lentils, and chickpeas, to name just a few.

Get moving. Low intensity exercise releases those good neurochemicals, so go for a walk, bike ride, or a nature preserve hike, or turn on some energetic music and dance. (Just listening to favorite tunes can raise dopamine levels, too.)

Give to others.  Donating to a favorite charity or volunteering time can evoke “giver’s glow,” according to Stephen G. Post, of Stony Brook University in New York. Helping others “doles out several different happiness chemicals,” Dr. Post explains, “including dopamine, endorphins that give people a sense of euphoria and oxytocin, which is associated with tranquility, serenity, or inner peace.”

Talk to the animals.  Petting and playing with animals lowers stress by elevating serotonin and dopamine levels. Double the feel-good benefit by volunteering at an animal shelter.

Play video games.  Yep, playing video games can activate the brain’s reward center and release dopamine. So game on (but not too much).

Meg Evans has written science stories for the Evanston RoundTable since 2015, covering topics ranging from local crayfish, coyotes and cicadas to gravitational waves, medical cannabis, invasive garden...