Your experience of your journey through life boils down to the chemicals in your brain. Happy, sad, mad, anxious, you name it – can all be traced to what’s going on inside your head. Your brain produces a chemical soup which directs your behavior, always instinctually encouraging you to seek pleasure and avoid pain to ensure your survival. When you have success (whatever that means to your brain), you get rewarded with happy.
Rather than being in the passenger’s seat in this process, science has proven without a doubt that you can take control, affect the balance in your brain, and hack into your happy neurochemicals. By understanding how these chemicals originate and function, you can work experiences into your daily life to increase them which can up your happiness, productivity, and peace of mind.
Your Brain and Happiness
Dopamine motivates you to take action and encourages the persistence required to meet your needs, seek reward, or approach a goal – whether it’s a college degree, a sugar fix, the next level in a video game, or money to pay the bills. The anticipation of the reward is actually what triggers a dopamine good feeling in your brain causing it to release the energy you need to move towards the reward. Then, you get another pleasure hit when you successfully meet the need.
You can stimulate the good feeling of dopamine by embracing a new goal and breaking it down into achievable steps, rather than only allowing your brain to celebrate when you hit the finish line. The idea is to create a series of small successes which keeps the dopamine flowing in your brain. And it’s important to actually celebrate every accomplishment – buy that gadget you’ve been wanting or head to your favorite restaurant whenever you meet an interim goal.
To avoid letting your dopamine lag, set new goals before achieving your current one. The repetition of pursuing a good-for-you reward will build a new dopamine pathway in your brain until it’s robust enough to compete with a dopamine habit that you’re better off without.
You may be familiar with oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the cuddle neurochemical. Oxytocin is released through closeness with another person and helps to create intimacy and trust and build healthy relationships. Skin-to-skin contact releases oxytocin, for example a person gets a hit during orgasm and mothers do during childbirth and breastfeeding. The cultivation of oxytocin increases fidelity and is essential for creating and maintaining strong bonds and improved social interactions.
However, you can boost oxytocin in other ways besides cuddling – your coworkers might not appreciate that too much. The release of oxytocin can also be triggered through social bonding, like eye contact and attentiveness. A simple way to get an oxytocin surge is to give someone a hug. Also, research has shown that when someone receives a gift or just snuggles with their dog, oxytocin levels rise.
In today’s cyber world, when were often alone together on our digital devices, it’s more important than ever to get some face-to-face time and connect in-person within your community. Working out at a gym, attending social events, or having lunch with a friend is a great way to sustain these human bonds and release oxytocin.
When someone betrays your trust, your brain releases unhappy chemicals which pave neural pathways telling you to withhold trust and oxytocin in the future. You may have to build trust again with that person consciously to stimulate oxytocin by creating realistic expectations that both parties can meet. Each time the expectations are met, your brain rewards you with an oxytocin hit and rebuilds your oxytocin circuits.
Serotonin plays so many different roles in your body that it’s really tough to nail it down, but it can be thought of as the confidence molecule and flows when you feel significant or important and controls your overall mood. If you’re in a good mood, you’ve got serotonin to thank. If you’re in a bad mood, you’ve got serotonin to blame.
You enjoy the good feeling of serotonin when you feel respected by others, and your brain seeks more of that good feeling by repeating the behaviors that triggered it in your past. The respect you got in your youth paved neural pathways that tell your brain how to get respect today.
Sometimes that drives people to seek attention in not-so-healthy ways that undermine their well-being and happiness in the long run. The solution isn’t to try to totally rid yourself of your innate urge for status, because you need the serotonin. Instead, you can develop your belief in your own worth and focus on your wins to get the serotonin you need.
Loneliness and depression can appear when serotonin levels are low although the connection here is not fully understood, and popular antidepressants, called Serotonin-Specific Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), alter the serotonin system in the brain. They keep serotonin in the synaptic gap longer which was once thought to be a universal cure for depression. If that were true, these medications would work for everyone, which they don’t. Some people don’t respond to SSRIs, but they do have success with medications that act on other neurochemical systems.
Reflecting on past significant achievements allows your brain to re-live the experience. In your brain, there’s not much difference between real and imagined, and simply remembering a success produces serotonin. For this reason, gratitude and visualization practices work to actually change your brain for the better. If you need a serotonin boost during a stressful day, take a few moments to reflect on a past achievement or victory.
Also by getting some sunshine for 20 minutes, your skin absorbs UV rays, which promotes vitamin D and serotonin production. Interestingly, 80 percent of your serotonin exists in your gut and is believed to play a role in mood, mental illness, and disease.
Endorphins have a chemical structure similar to opiates, mask pain or discomfort, and are associated with the fight or flight response. Endorphins give you the oomph to help you power through any situation.
The word endorphin literally means “self-produced morphine,” and conversely to what you might think, pain actually causes endorphins to be released. Similar to morphine, they act as an analgesic and sedative, diminishing your perception of pain.
You’ve probably heard of an “endorphin high.” Well, a runner doesn’t get that feeling unless they push their body to the point of distress. Endorphins helped our ancestors survive in emergencies, for example they could still run away when injured, but if you were on an endorphin high all the time, you would touch a hot stove or walk on a broken leg.
Endorphins are produced during strenuous physical exertion, sexual intercourse and orgasm. Laughing and stretching also cause you to release endorphins because both of these agitate your insides, causing moderate wear and tear and moderate endorphin flow. Studies have shown that just the anticipation and expectation of laugher increases levels of endorphins. Researchers also report that acupuncture triggers endorphin production.
Oddly enough, smelling vanilla and lavender and eating chocolate and spicy foods has been linked with the production of endorphins.
Making Happy Happen In Your Brain
When you understand what’s going on in your brain, you can begin to influence it to your benefit. You can stimulate more happy chemicals when you know the job they evolved to do and what causes their release for you.
Your brain got wired from your individual past experiences, and the neurochemical patterns for every person are different. Each time your neurochemicals surged, your brain built connections and is wired now to turn on your brain chemicals in the same ways they were activated in the past.
When you’re young, your brain is very changeable or neuroplastic and neurons build new connections easily. As an adult, it’s not as easy to build new circuits to turn on in new ways and requires a lot of repetition and focus. But it can be done. Your brain is capable of neuroplastic change until the day you die. So pick a new happy habit and start implementing it with repetition and consistency, and you will start to shift the neurochemical balance in or brain. Over time, your new happy habits will feel as natural to you as your old ones.
Of course, depression, mood, and behavior are the products of more than just your neurochemicals, but understanding and consciously altering them is a step closer to a happier you and a better life.
About the Author: Debbie Hampton
Debbie Hampton recovered from depression, a suicide attempt, and resulting brain injury to become an inspirational writer. On her blog, The Best Brain Possible she tells about lifestyle, behavior and thought modifications, alternative therapies, and mental health practices she used to rebuild her brain and life to find joy and thrive and tells you how to do the same.
You can quickly learn the steps to a better you in her book, Beat Depression And Anxiety By Changing Your Brain, with simple practices easy to implement in your daily life. Debbie has also published an intimate, entertaining, inspiring, and educational memoir, Sex, Suicide and Serotonin: How These Thing Almost Killed And Healed Me.