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Meet Your Happy Chemicals: Dopamine, Endorphin, Oxytocin, Serotonin

Loretta Graziano Breuning

Learn which chemicals make you


happy and what you can do to optimize
them.
Peruse the shelves of any book shop and you will find a multitude of titles telling
you how to be happy. Its no surprise that so many writers have tried to tackle
this: we all want to be happier.

But what is happiness and where does it come from? These blinks show you how
joyfulness (and its evil sibling unhappiness) are products of our brain more
specifically the chemicals of the brain. They explain how these chemicals work
and crucially how you can stimulate the right ones for yourself.

In these blinks you will learn

why dominating others makes us feel happy; and


why true happiness is only ever 45 days away.

We feel happy every time we see


something that is good for our survival.
Everybody wants to be happy. In fact, if we had our way, most of us
would always be happy. But what does being happy actually mean? And
what does happiness look like inside our brain?
Several structures in our brain, collectively called the limbic
system, manage
all of the chemicals responsible for our happiness. These happy
chemicals are brain chemicals dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin and
serotonin that are released each time we see something that is good for our
survival.
Whenever we sense something, the limbic makes a quick assessment to decide
whether or not something is worth a spurt of happy chemicals.

The limbic system developed a very long time ago in our evolutionary history,
and works today as it did in the past: things that increase the possibility of
survival trigger happy chemicals, and things that decrease our chances of
survival trigger unhappy chemicals.

Though we inherited the limbic system from our ancestors, our brain doesnt
automatically know when to release happy chemicals. Rather, its our
experiences and the neural pathways they form which determine what
makes us happy and what doesnt.
Neural pathways are mainly formed when we are young: Each time we
experienced something nice as a child, a neurochemical connection was built or
strengthened.

When you were hungry as a child, for example, that experience probably made
you feel bad. If your mom gave you a cookie to ease your hunger, however, you
probably felt better. If this happens a few times a connection between your
neurons is formed. Thats why you now reach out for a cookie whenever you feel
bad: your brain formed a connection between eating cookies and a happy
feeling.

Dopamine and endorphin reward us for


seeking our desires and let us combat
physical pain.
Our limbic systems decisions can be quite confusing sometimes. Its often
unclear why one thing can make us happy when others dont. Understanding the
limbic system requires you to first understand how your various happy
chemicals work.

The happy chemical dopamine is released whenever you expect a reward, and
its what motivates you to keep seeking it.
Unbeknownst to you, your subconscious mind is constantly looking for rewards
in your environment. When it finds one, dopamine motivates you to go for it,
and helps you manage the energy it takes to get it.

Imagine, for example, that one of your ancient ancestors was walking around
looking for food, i.e., a reward. Whenever something promising came into his
sight, his limbic system released dopamine, signaling that it was time to expend
his energy to reach the reward.
Another happy chemical, endorphin, is triggered by physical pain. Of course,
physical pain does not make us happy. Endorphin, however, does, and serves to
hide the pain to help you keep going.
If youre a runner youve likely experienced runners high that feeling you
get after pushing yourself beyond your own limit and running that extra mile.
With this rush of endorphin, you feel incredible instead of exhausted. Our
primeval ancestors used endorphins not for the feeling, but to help them
survive.

Imagine, for example, that a lion catches a gazelle, but then takes a quick break
to catch its breath. During the brief moment when the gazelle is no longer stuck
between the lions jaws, endorphins allow it to use all of its remaining energy to
sprint away, despite its terrible wound.

Pain is important for our survival, so its a good thing that endorphins dont last
forever!

Oxytocin lets us enjoy our social lives,


while serotonin rewards us for
dominating others.
If you had to pick three things that make you happy, one of them would
probably involve your friends, family or colleagues. But why is that? Here, too,
you can thank your happy chemicals.

The chemical oxytocin rewards you for building social alliances. The good
feeling you get because you trust another person is because of the oxytocin that
has been released in your brain. In fact, every experience of social belonging
triggers oxytocin, because belonging to a social group is good for our survival.
Indeed, without these social bonds, we could hardly survive at all, and oxytocin
plays a central role all throughout our social development.

When a child is born, oxytocin is released in its mothers brain, causing her to
feel good and motivating her to look after her newborn. Oxytocin also flows in
the childs brain, building the attachment between parent and child.

Young human children, much like other mammals, cling to their mothers
without knowing why. Oxytocin is the reason it just feels good.
Of course, our social relationships are highly varied. Certain kinds of
relationships trigger other chemical responses in the brain.
Specifically, serotonin is released when we assert our position in the social
hierarchy by dominating others.
Most people probably wouldnt immediately agree that dominating others
makes them feel good. Such an admission feels awkward considering the values
of our modern society. Nevertheless, our brain rewards us whenever others
respect our position in the social hierarchy.

The reason for this becomes clear when we look at the animal kingdom: Those
who dominate others have better access to food and more mating opportunities.
So despite our attempts to promote fairness and kindness in modern society, we
still feel good when we occupy positions of power and dominance.

Now that you understand how your happy chemicals work, the following blinks
will look at how happy and unhappy chemicals shape our lives.

Despite the great feeling that happy


chemicals bring, unhappy chemicals
are equally important.
Our unhappy chemicals are incredibly important to our survival. We might not
enjoy bad feelings, but the feelings themselves along with the chemicals that
promote them are as important as the positive emotions.

Cortisol is one such chemical. While happy chemicals help us to pursue


things that promote our survival, the unhappy chemical cortisol grabs our
attention whenever our survival is threatened.
For example, cortisol is released whenever youre hungry, motivating your brain
to look for ways to mollify this feeling. Here, the solution is easy just go to the
fridge and fix up a snack!

Often, however, its harder to work out why cortisol has been released. In fact,
every time happy chemicals fulfil their function, the brain follows them with a
spurt of cortisol. Even though youre in your normal state, things still dont
seem quite right, resulting in a feeling that you need to do something.
It is this release of cortisol that motivates you to reach for a chocolate bar even
when you arent hungry, simply to feel happy again.

The reason we get this do something feeling is that our brain is always looking
for potential threats.

The limbic system isnt solely responsible for our behavior. It gets help from
the cortex, which is responsible for rational analysis and assessing potential
danger. It also helps us to predict threats, and thus promotes our survival.
The cortex works round the clock, meaning that your brain is constantly
checking for the next potential threat and always releasing cortisol.

So if you are feeling nervous about going to the dentist, your nervousness wont
actually stop after your appointment. Your brain will simply find the next thing
to worry about: a work assignment, someones birthday, and so on.

The happiness strategies our brain


develops through past experience will
eventually disappoint us.
You could probably make a long list of things that make you feel good. But do
these things actually make you happy?

Our experience has taught us what makes us happy, but unfortunately even
those things will eventually disappoint us.

As weve seen previously, whenever we get the do-something feeling, our brain
tries to mollify it by following routines that it knows will trigger the release of
happy chemicals. Unfortunately, that behavior will become routine and
ordinary, and thus no longer trigger the release of happy chemicals. This
process is called habituation.
Some people and businesses, such as the French Laundry restaurant in
California, try to prevent habituation and maintain the effect of happy
chemicals. To accomplish this, the restaurant serves many tiny courses,
meaning that you dont have time to get used to a dish, and always have
something new to nibble on. This novelty allows for a continuous release of
dopamine and happy feelings.
However, in general, a repeated experience will never feel as good as the first
time you tried it. But your brain doesnt understand this, and keeps its
expectations high, causing you to feel disappointed when those expectations
arent met.

But there is a good reason for all this: habituation evolved because it promotes
our survival. Sitting around enjoying what we already have doesnt help us to
survive. Going out and looking for new ways to get those happy chemicals
flowing, such as finding new sources of food, does.

If we continue to use happiness strategies that lead to


disappointment, well eventually find ourselves in a vicious
cycle.
Your brain will follow strategies that its developed despite having already
been disappointed by them because these strategies have worked in the past.
This can have disastrous consequences.

Things like drugs, alcohol and junk food, for example, will make us happy, but
will ultimately lead to disappointment. The brain has a hard time figuring this
out, which makes us susceptible to addiction.

Neural circuits form because our


experiences make physical changes in
our brain.
Obviously, we dont want to become trapped in vicious cycles. Its important to
understand how these patterns develop and understand why its so much more
difficult to change them in our adult lives.

Experiences are critical in the formation of your neural circuitry. One way they
alter your brain is through myelination.
Myelin is a substance that coats the neurons that you use often. Neurons that
have a myelin coating are much more efficient than other neurons. Actions that
follow those pathways feel more natural than ones that dont.

For example, if youre learning a new language, speaking it feels awkward


because the neurons you use dont yet have a myelin coat.
Most myelination happens before you turn 15, which explains why its more
difficult to learn new things as an adult and why its difficult to change existing
habits.

But just because our experiences form our neural circuits doesnt mean were
powerless to change them. We still have our free will, and thus have the
opportunity to change neural circuits.

Neurochemicals are constantly swarming your brain and influencing your


actions. But your pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that lets you
decide where to place your attention, gives you the opportunity to ignore these
chemicals and abstain from any action they might be trying to motivate you to
do.
Imagine, for example, that youre in a meeting where a colleague introduces a
new project. You realize that his ideas are utter garbage. How should you react?

You have two options: State your opinion aloud and present your own ideas
instead (which will result in the release of serotonin) or inhibit yourself from
humiliating your colleague and instead talk to him alone afterward. In the end,
you wont miss out on any happy chemicals, as being nice to someone results in
the release of oxytocin!

We can rewire our brains in order to


enjoy things that are good for us.
The knowledge that changing the way you approach happiness will mean
changing your neuro-circuitry might make the whole process seem quite
daunting. However, all you need is a little patience, and youll soon have much
more control over your happiness.

In fact, it takes only 45 days to construct a new neural pathway to happiness.


When it comes to changing your habits, persistence is the most important thing:
If you manage to keep up your new habit for 45 days straight, then you will have
internalized it and it will feel natural.

At first it wont feel good to do something new instead of something you know
you love watching your favorite TV show has more appeal than studying. But
if you persist, your newly formed habit will rewire your brain so that it releases
happy chemicals whenever you do this new target action.
Using this 45-day strategy, you can increase the number of habitual activities in
your life that trigger the release of happy chemicals.

Laughing, for example, is a great way to trigger endorphin release. Take time
daily to find something that will really make you laugh. After 45 days you will
see that laughing, and the rush of endorphins that comes with it, has become a
totally natural part of your day one that you wont want to give up.

But persisting for 45 days isnt always easy. If you find yourself struggling to
integrate your target behavior into your daily life, it can be helpful
to mirror the behavior of those who have already incorporated positive habits
into their daily routine.
So if you want to incorporate laughter into your everyday life and know
someone whose laughter fills the halls at your office, pay close attention to them
during the day. By studying them and mirroring their behavior, youll soon
discover the ways in which they are able to find a little humor in each day.

By constantly making decisions, we are


responsible for our own happy
chemicals.
As useful as our complex neural structure is for our survival, it can also be a
burden. Being on the constant lookout for potential threats and problems comes
at the cost of ignoring the good things in life. However, we have the choice to
change that!

To live means to constantly choose whether its worth giving something up to


gain something else. Your brain is always looking for opportunities to improve
survival, but these opportunities always come with risks that might not bring
the desired outcome. But theres no way to avoid having to make these
decisions, so you might as well get used to the risk.

Dont be like those people who second guess every decision theyve made,
always looking back to find missed or squandered opportunities. This will only
trigger unhappy chemicals!

Ultimately, managing your own happiness means not letting others make
decisions for you. Some people believe that its best to let others take control.
This way, they never have to take the blame for any bad outcomes, and will
always have a scapegoat.

But when you let others choose for you, you wont experience the joy and sense
of accomplishment that comes with pursuing your goals. Not only that, but your
brain always wants what it doesnt have, no matter who is making the decisions!

Final summary
The key message in this book:

Happiness isnt arbitrary. Rather, its rooted in natural,


chemical processes in your brain processes that were
developed long before even the evolution of mankind! But
that doesnt mean you are powerless to determine your
own happiness.
Actionable advice:

Rejoice for your unhappy chemicals!


Its easy to lament the fact that we often feel less than jubilant, but the truth is
that we need to feel unhappy. In fact, without unhappiness, there would be no
happiness. Accept your unhappy chemicals and come to terms with their
influence on your life, because they arent going away anytime soon.
Suggested further reading: Why We Love by Helen Fisher
Helen Fishers Why We Love is not only a report on her latest astonishing
research but a sensitive description of the infinite facets of romantic love. This
book is a scientifically grounded examination of love that reveals how, why and
who we love.
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