Happy brain chemicals
Animals have the same happy brain chemicals that we have. Dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphin reward an animal with a good feeling when it meets a survival need. Animals don’t mask these impulses with words, so they help us understand the impulses we feel so powerfully.
Dopamine is released when a lion sees a gazelle it can catch. Dopamine creates the excitement you feel when you approach a reward.
Endorphin is released when a gazelle is bitten by a lion. Endorphin creates an oblivion that masks pain, which enables the gazelle to fight for its life.
Oxytocin is released when a gazelle enjoys the protection of a herd. Oxytocin creates the nice safe feeling of social support.
Serotonin is released when a lion sees that it’s in the one-up position in regard to food or mating opportunity. Serotonin creates the feeling of being “special.”
Impulses without words
These impulses can be hard to see in yourself because you don’t consciously think them in words, but you can easily see them in others. It would be nice if our happy brain chemicals just flowed all the time, but they evolved to do a specific job. They are only released in small squirts and you have to do more to get more. This is nature’s operating system.
The mammal brain rewards you with a positive feeling when you step toward meeting a need, and it alarms you with a bad feeling when you see a threat to meeting your needs. But it defines your “needs” in a quirky way. It cares about the survival of your genes, and it cares about anything that turned on your happy chemicals in youth. We mammals are not born hard-wired with the experience of our ancestors. We wire ourselves from life experience. Anything that triggered your happy brain chemicals in the past wired you to expect more good feelings in that way in the future. Whatever felt good during your myelin years (before eight and during puberty) built the superhighways of your brain. This is why a bad hair day can feel life-threatening, while a good hair day sparks positive chemistry that doesn’t match your conscious inner dialogue. It’s not easy being a mammal! We all end up with some pathways we could do without.
Happy chemical downsides
Each happy chemical has a down side.
– We habituate to dopamine quickly, leaving us with a been-there/done-that feeling unless we keep stepping toward a new goal.
– Endorphin is stimulated by real physical pain, but inflicting pain on one’s self to enjoy it is not a sustainable path.
– Oxytocin causes herd behavior, with consequences so familiar to us.
– Serotonin causes endless frustration about being special, even in lives that are safe and comfortable beyond the wildest imagining of our ancestors.
Like water in a storm
The electricity in your brain flows like water in a storm, finding the paths of least resistance. Your paths got built from accidents of experience, not from your conscious intent. Your electricity will flow into those old pathways until you build new ones. You can design a new happy habit to stimulate your happy chemicals in new ways, and wire it in to your neurons by repeating it for forty-five days. This is the subject of my book Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin levels.
Positive psychology offers many frameworks for enhancing good feelings. (For example, Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.56.3.2) Knowledge of the evolutionary origins of our positive emotions can support and strengthen these models.
About the Author: Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD is founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which helps people re-wire their brain chemistry naturally. InnerMammalInstitute.org She’s the author of Meet Your Happy Chemicals, Beyond Cynical, and I, Mammal. Dr. Breuning is Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay.