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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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