The feeling we call “happiness” comes from four special brain chemicals: dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin and serotonin. These “happy chemicals” spurt when your brain sees something good for your survival. Then they turn off, so they’re ready to spurt again when something good crosses your path. Each happy chemical triggers a different good feeling. Dopamine produces the joy of finding what you seek– the “Eureka! I got it!” feeling. Endorphin produces the oblivion that masks pain– often called “euphoria.” Oxytocin produces the feeling of being safe with others– now called “bonding.” And serotonin produces the feeling of being respected by others–“pride.”
“I don’t see happiness this way,” you may say. You don’t think this in words because neurochemicals work without words. But you can easily see these motivations in your fellow man. And research shows that animals have these same basic neurochemicals doing the same basic jobs. As for yourself, it’s easy to believe that your verbal inner voice is your whole thought process, and ignore your neurochemical self.
Four Happy Chemicals:
Dopamine — the joy of finding what you seek
Endorphin — the oblivion that masks pain
Oxytocin — the safety of social bonds
Serotonin — the security of social dominance
Each of the happy chemicals motivates a different type of survival behavior. Dopamine motivates you to get what you need, even when it takes lots of effort. Endorphin motivates you to ignore pain so you can escape from harm when you’re injured. Oxytocin motivates you to trust others, to find safety in companionship. And serotonin motivates you to get respect, which expands your mating opportunities and protects your offspring.
The mammal brain motivates a body to go toward things that trigger happy chemicals, and avoid things that trigger unhappy chemicals. You can restrain yourself from acting on a neurochemical impulse, but then your brain generates another impulse. You are always using neurochemicals to decide what is good for you and what to avoid.
A hungry lion is happy when he sees prey. It’s not philosophical happiness. His happy chemicals cause a state of arousal that releases energy for the hunt. Lion often fail in their hunts, and they choose their targets carefully to avoid running out of energy before they get to eat. So a lion is thrilled when he sees a gazelle close at hand. His dopamine surges, which revs up his motor to pounce.
A thirsty elephant is happy when he finds water. The good feeling of quenching his thirst triggers dopamine, which makes permanent connections in his neurons. That helps him find water again in the future. He need not “try” to learn where water is. Dopamine simply paves a neural pathway. The next time he sees any sign of a water hole, electricity zips down the path to his happy chemicals. The good feeling tells him “here is what you need.” Without effort or intent, happy chemicals promote survival.
But happy chemicals don’t flow constantly. The lion only gets more happy chemical when he finds more prey, and the elephant only spurts when he meets a survival need. In nature, there is no free happy chemical. Good feelings evolved because they get us to keep doing things that promote survival.
Your feelings are unique. You have unique ways to turn on your happy chemicals because you built neural pathways from your unique life experience. When something made you feel good as a child, the happy chemicals built connections. When something felt bad, your unhappy chemicals seared that information, too. Over time, some of your neural pathways developed into superhighways because you activated them a lot. Your existing neural highway system makes it easy for you to like some things and dislike other things.
Often, we find ourselves liking things that are not especially good for us, and fearing things that are good for us. Why would a brain that evolved for survival build such quirky pathways? Because the brain builds on the pathways it already has. We evolved to store experience, not to delete it. Most of the time, experience holds important lessons. It helps us go toward things that helped us in the past and avoid things that endangered us. But a huge surge of happy chemical builds a huge pathway. A big surge of unhappy chemical builds a big circuit that lasts even when the threat is gone.
You built circuits effortlessly when you were young. Building new circuits in adulthood is like trying to slash a new trail through dense rainforest. Every step requires a huge effort, and the new trail disappears into the undergrowth if you don’t use it again soon. Such trail-blazing feels inefficient and downright unsafe when a nice superhighway is nearby. That’s why people tend to stick with the pathways they have.
You can build new trails through your jungle of neurons, which can turn on your happy chemicals in new ways. The electricity in your brain flows like water. It finds the path of least resistance. Electricity doesn’t flow easily along neurons you’ve never activated before. Each time a neural pathway is activated, electricity flows more easily. Repetition develops a neural trail slowly, the way a dirt path hardens from years of use. But neurochemicals develop a neural trail instantly, the way asphalt paves a dirt road. Your neural network grew from things you experienced repeatedly and things you experience neurochemically.
Once you’ve built highways to your happy chemicals, you use them, because it feels like you’re promoting survival.
Unhappy chemicals feel bad because that works. It gets your attention, fast. It’s comforting to know that bad feelings have a purpose. When a hungry gazelle smells a lion, bad feelings motivate it to run rather than keep eating. The gazelle survives because the smell of a lion triggers a feeling much worse than ordinary hunger. Once the gazelle escapes from the lion, the bad feeling of hunger gets its attention again.
Bad feelings are produced by cortisol. Your response to cortisol depends on what it’s paired with, be it low blood sugar, the scent of a predator, social exclusion, or myriad other danger signals. When your cortisol flows, it links the neurons active in your brain at that moment.
When you feel a cortisol alert, your brain looks for a way to make it stop. Sometimes the solution is obvious, like pulling your hand off a hot stove. But bad feelings don’t always have obvious causes. And they don’t always have obvious cures. Such feelings keep commanding your attention with the sense that you must “do something.” Your brain keeps scanning the world for a way to make bad feelings stop.
That “do something” feeling promotes survival, but it also causes trouble. It motivates us to do anything that stops the cortisol. Consciously, you know the donut doesn’t solve the problem. But when something changes unhappy chemicals to happy chemicals, your brain learns from the experience. When donuts trigger happy chemicals, a neural pathway is paved. The next time you have that “do something” feeling, this pathway – eating a donut — is “something” you “know.” You may not act on it, because you also know the consequences, and you’ve built other “do something” pathways. But it remains in your brain’s arsenal of survival strategies. Each brain has a network of connections built from experiences that felt good in the past. These connections represent simple things like donuts and complex things like social trust and practical skills.
When you succeed at triggering happy chemicals, the spurt is soon over. To get more, you have to do more. That is how a brain keeps prodding a body to do what it takes to keep its DNA alive. Happy chemicals get re-absorbed and your awareness of survival threats resumes. You get that “do something” feeling, and you ponder your options by sending electricity down the pathways you have.
The brain’s quest for happy chemicals often leads to a vicious cycle because of the side effects. Vicious cycles are everywhere. Some of the most familiar ones are alcohol, junk food, compulsive spending, and drugs. Other well-known vicious cycles are risk-taking, getting angry, falling in love, and rescuing others. Each of these behaviors can make you feel good in a moment when you were feeling bad. The good feeling means happy chemicals are building connections, making it easier to trigger good feelings in that way in the future. Over time, a neural superhighway develops. Now your brain activates that behavior effortlessly. But too much of a good thing triggers unhappy chemicals, which let you know that it’s time to stop. It’s hard to stop, however, because your brain seeks happy chemicals. So the same behavior can trigger both happy and unhappy feelings at once, like driving with one foot on the accelerator and one on brake.
You can stop this vicious cycle in one instant. Just resist that “do something” feeling and live with the cortisol.
This is not easy because cortisol screams for your attention. It did not evolve for you to sit around and accept it. But you can build the skill of doing nothing during a cortisol alert, despite that urge to make it go away in any way possible. That frees you to activate an alternative happy circuit instead of the old-familiar one. A virtuous circle starts in that moment. If you learn to accept your cortisol, you will be free from the rush to mask it in ways that don’t serve you. You will make better decisions and end up with more happy chemicals.
But what if you don’t have an alternative circuit at the ready? That’s where the exercises below come in, from my book Meet Your Happy Chemicals by Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD. It shows how new highways to your happy chemicals can be built. That may feel awkward because we rely so heavily on circuits that built themselves. We’ve all built circuits with conscious effort, like the ones that do long division and define vocabulary words. But the circuits that tell you what’s good and bad for you are built from lived experience. You have to feed your brain new experiences for it to learn new ways of feeling good. And you have to keep doing it until the new circuit is big enough to compete with the ones you’ve already built by accident.
Your brain likes your old circuits, even when they lead you astray. That’s because electricity zipping down a well-worn pathway gives you the feeling that you know what’s going on. When you refuse to use your old pathways, you may feel lost. You may even feel like you’re threatening your own survival, though you’re doing precisely the opposite.
The bad feeling of resisting a habit eases once a new habit forms. You can do that in 45 days. Repeating a brief thought or action each day for 45 days builds a new superhighway, which relieves dependence on an old vicious cycle. If you repeat a new thought or behavior every day without fail, in 45 days a new pathway will invite electricity away from the old path. The new choice will not make you happy on Day 1, and it may not make you happy on Day 40. Even on Day 45, your new circuit cannot trigger happy chemicals constantly. But it can trigger enough to free you from a vicious cycle. On Day 46, you’ll be ready to start building another new circuit. Over time, you can build many new ways to trigger happy chemicals, as long as you’re willing to repeat a behavior for 45 even if it doesn’t feel good.
Love triggers huge neurochemical ups and downs because it plays a huge role in the survival of your genes. Each happy chemical rewards love in a different way. When you know how each one is linked to reproductive success, the frustrations of life make sense.
Dopamine is stimulated by the “chase” aspect of love. It’s also triggered when a baby hears his mother’s footsteps. Dopamine alerts us that our needs are about to be met. Female chimpanzees are known to be partial to males who share their meat after a hunt. Females reproduction depends heavily on protein, which is scarce in the rainforest. So opportunities to meet this need trigger lots of dopamine. For humans, finding “the one” makes you high on dopamine because a longer quest to meet a need stimulates a longer surge.
Oxytocin is stimulated by touch, and by social trust. In animals, touch and trust go together. Apes only allow trusted companions to touch them because they know from experience that violence can erupt in an instant. In humans, oxytocin is stimulated by everything from holding hands to feeling supported to orgasm. Holding hands stimulates a small amount of oxytocin, but when repeated over time, as in the case of an elderly couple, it builds up a circuit that easily triggers social trust. Sex triggers a lot of oxytocin at once, yielding lots of social trust for a very short time. Childbirth triggers a huge oxytocin spurt, both in mother and child. Nurturing other people’s children can stimulate it too, as can nurturing adults, depending on the circuits one has built. Friendship bonds stimulate oxytocin, and in the monkey and ape world, research shows that individuals with more social alliances have more reproductive success.
Serotonin is stimulated by the status aspect of love – the pride of associating with a person of a certain stature. You may not think of your own love in this way, but you can easily see it in others. Animals with higher status in their social groups have more “reproductive success,” and natural selection created a brain that seeks status by rewarding it with serotonin. This may be hard to believe, but research on huge range of species shows tremendous energy invested in the pursuit of status. Social dominance leads to more mating opportunity and more surviving offspring– and it feels good. We no longer try to survive by having as many offspring as possible, but when you receive the affection of a desirable individual, it triggers lots of serotonin, though you hate to admit it. And when you are the desired individual, receiving admiration from others, that triggers serotonin too. It feels so good that people tend to seek it again and again.
Endorphin is stimulated by physical pain. Crying also stimulates endorphin. If a loved one causes you pain, the endorphin that’s released paves neural pathways, wiring you to expect a good feeling from pain in the future. People may tolerate painful relationships because their brain learned to associate it with the good feeling of endorphin. Confusing love and pain is obviously a bad survival strategy. Roller-coaster relationships are easier to transcend when you understand endorphin.
Losing love triggers a huge surge of unhappy chemical. That actually promotes genetic survival because the pain you associate with the old attachment leaves you available for a new attachment. The brain has trouble ending attachments because the oxytocin pathway is still there. But if you can’t break an attachment, your genes are doomed. The pain of lost love re-wires your brain so you can move on.
Repeating a brief thought or action each day for 45 days builds a new superhighway, which relieves dependence on an old vicious cycle. Alternatives for dopamine happiness, endorphin happiness, oxytocin happiness, and serotonin happiness are suggested as a starting point.
Cortisol especially grabs your attention when it’s not being masked by happy chemicals. You might have a sudden bad feeling when your happy chemicals dip, even though there’s no predator at your door. If you can’t get comfortable with that, you might rush to mask it with any happy-chemical stimulant you’re familiar with. Your well-being will suffer. You will lose the information the cortisol is trying to give you, and your happy habit will have side effects. More cortisol will flow, thus increasing the temptation to over-stimulate your happy chemicals. This vicious cycle can be avoided if you learn to accept the bad feeling you get when a happy chemical surge is over. It doesn’t mean something is wrong. Cortisol is part of your mammalian steering mechanism, which motivates an organism to approach rewards and avoid threats. You need unhappy chemicals to warn you of potential harm as much as you need happy chemicals to alert you to potential rewards. If you learn to accept your cortisol, you will be free from the rush to mask it in ways that don’t serve you. You will make better decisions and end up with more happy chemicals.
Here is How to Boost Your Natural Feel Good Chemicals
- Trust and belonging: oxytocin
Oxytocin is the ‘bonding’ chemical. If your trust has been betrayed, you’ll hold back, which can leave you feeling like you don’t belong. Build more trust by:
— Being trustworthy. If others know they can trust you, you’re more likely to feel you can trust them.
— Finding a proxy. Trust takes time to build, so you could get a pet that will be loyal, join a group where you won’t be judged, or play a sport where you can share ups and downs.
— Having a massage. Taking time to apply body lotion or face cream can also make a difference to feelings of well¬being. As touch stimulates oxytocin, be more ‘cuddly’ with your partner, friends or family, too.
— Counting your change. Verify your trust. This helps you to become able to build trust with strangers rather than staying with who you know.
- Euphoria and determination: endorphin
Endorphin is nature’s pain relief – it’s stimulated by pain. It evolved for survival; we need it to switch on and off so we don’t end up walking on a broken leg, for example. Find the right amount to push you through pain and promote wellbeing.
— Laugh. A true belly laugh will ‘shake up’ your insides in a good way. Genuine laughing (which makes your face ache) is thought to release fear.
— Cry. Holding back tears can build up tension, whereas if you let it go when you need to, it’s a physical relief from tension generally in the body, and especially in the diaphragm.
— Exercise. But change it around, as working the same muscles leads to wear and tear or injury. Feeling uncoordinated is the point – ‘new’ movement is how you get the endorphin rush. Make it fun, so that you laugh at the same time.
— Stretch. It’s a great way to boost circulation. Try a yoga or Pilates class, which will go even deeper. The idea is to stretch those muscles you never even knew you had.
- Motivation: dopamine
Dopamine helps us release the energy we need to get the rewards we want. In survival terms that usually means food and water, but we can benefit from it in other ways:
— Take baby steps. The idea of breaking down a tough task you have to get done makes it feel more do-able. Your brain will reward you with dopamine each time, helping you achieve the goal.
— Do a victory dance. Congratulating yourself on any little achievement will make you feel good. It might not give you the huge surge a marathon runner gets crossing the finishing line, but it feels much better than one-upmanship.
— Raise the bar slowly. No matter how much you want to, it’s hard to go from not cooking to often hosting a big dinner party. Make your goal realistic to begin with, and build from there.
— Act. Set aside 10 minutes a day to work on concrete actions and dopamine will help you generate the energy to do so.
- Safety and respect: seratonin
In a mammal, serotonin is released when it sees it’s bigger or stronger than another; having the advantage creates a feeling of safety. Social recognition can be fleeting and unpredictable, but you can find good routes to self-respect:
— Enjoy where you are. It’s not always best to be in the driving seat, so know when to be happy to be the passenger. Status goes up and down.
— Notice your influence. Without being controlling or arrogant, you can see when people have taken your lead. Don’t expect credit, just take time to appreciate your good effect on others.
— Surrender control. Much of the time we can’t control what’s happening and that can be a big source of frustration. Choose one control ‘habit’ you have and try to let it go. So, no checking the weather or looking at the clock.
— Take pride. Make up your mind to say ‘look what I’ve done’ without being too tied up with the reaction – accept that it may not always be the one you want.
Meet Your Happy Chemicals by Loretta Breuning is out now. http://meetyourhappychemicals.com/