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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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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