Your Brain and Happiness – How to Make ‘Happy’ Happen

Your Brain and Happiness - How to Make ‘Happy' Happen

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

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.

Oxytocin

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

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

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

You can also find Debbie on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

3 Comments

Liz

Great article. Some really interesting new bits of information that I haven’t heard anywhere else. Thank you.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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