Have you ever wondered what makes you happy? What sparks those feel-good moments? And then what drives you to get more of those? This article will introduce to you some basic neuroscience elements that will explain at least part of the story. Enjoy!
As Loretta Graziano Breuning, Phd, mentions in her book ‘Habits of a Happy Brain’, my main source of information for this article, our brains are inherited from those ancestors who… survived. And given the enormous survival challenges of the past, it is indeed a miracle that our ancestors managed to keep their genes alive.
But that meant that their brains had to be wired for survival. And that translates today in our brains continuously scanning the environment for any dangers. And this is why, when we worry about being late for a meeting or having a bad hair day, our survival brain is activated because of the innate fear of social exclusion — this was a serious threat to survival, back in the days… you know, the saber tooth tiger days, when, if we were alone and with no group to offer us protection, we would have most probably ended up dead very fast.
While we might be conscious that being late or having a bad hair day is not a survival threat, our brains still see this as a threat to social exclusion. Thus, they reward us with a feel-good feeling when we do the ‘right thing’ for our genes — meaning, we take on an opportunity to continue our genetic lineage. They will also alarm us with a bad feeling when we lose such an opportunity. We don’t have to be conscious about the very human need of survival of the species for this to happen and it will be enough to go through a small social setback to trigger the natural alarm system in our brain.
However, while this set of responses is rooted in our brain’s focus on survival, they are not hard-wired. Meaning, in our childhood, based on all the things we experience, we’ll start building this wiring based on a simple rule:
- anything that made us feel good will build pathways to our happy chemicals, telling us that ‘this is good for me’, approach it.
- anything that made us feel bad built pathways saying ‘this is bad for me’, avoid it.
By the age of seven, we’ll have built our core circuits already, even if they won’t always match our survival needs.
Meet the four Happy Chemicals
What we call ‘happiness’ is a feeling induced by four special brain chemicals: serotonin, dopamine, endorphin and oxyt
They turn on when our brain sees something good for survival and then they turn off, and will be ready to activate again when something good comes around again.
But each of them gives us a different nuance of feeling good. . I’ll quote here from the ‘Habits of a happy brain’:
- Serotonin produces the feeling of being respected by others — pride; the security of social importance.
- Dopamine produces the joy of finding things that meet your needs — the ‘Eureka! I got it!’ feeling.
- Endorphin produces oblivion that masks pain — often called euphoria.
- Oxytocin produces the feeling of being safe with others — now called bonding.
Even if we don’t really think at happiness in these terms, once we start observing our behaviours, we can see how strong these motivators drive us to action.
How do the four Happy Chemicals work?
The four are controlled by the mammalian brain, known as the limbic system. The limbic system is surrounded by our cortex and they work intensively together to keep us alive and our species
The cortex will look for patterns in our current surroundings that match patterns we have connected in the past. The limbic system will release the neurochemicals to drive us towards or away from something by telling our body ‘this is good for you’ or ‘this is bad for you’. Our cortex can override some of these messages, so our body won’t always act on this impulse. As Loretta Breuning says, ‘Your cortex directs attention and sifts information, but your limbic brain sparks the action.’
To each their own
As mentioned before, our mammalian brain will reward us with a good feeling when we do something that helps our survival. Each of the four Happy Chemicals will be specialised in motivating a different type of survival behaviour:
- Serotonin motivates you to get respect, which expands your mating opportunities and protects your offspring => get respect from others
- Dopamine motivates you to get what you need, even when it takes a lot of effort => seek rewards
- Endorphin motivates you to ignore pain, so you can escape from harm when you’re injured => ignore physical pain
- Oxytocin motivates you to trust others, to find safety in companionship => build social alliances
In nature, there is no free happy chemical. We will only have good feelings when we do things that promote survival… Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Some examples of situations when we feel these Happy Chemicals:
- When we feel respected
- When we enjoy a competitive edge
- We present at an event and everyone listens to us and then claps for us
- When we see the finish line, if we’re a marathon runner
- When we are a football player and we score a goal
- When we’re hurt but only realise it after a few minutes
- When we feel good after a big physical effort
- After a belly laugh
- After a real cry
- When someone supports or protects us
- When we support or protect someone
- Someone we trust touches us
- Physical proximity of someone we trust
So, what I would like to propose to you is an exercise you can do over the next 3 or 4 days: be mindful and notice when you feel good/happy. In what category does that feeling enter?
For example, I’ll go on a 22km/14mi hike this weekend with three friends. I’m really excited about it and I know that by the end I will feel (extremely tired, but also) happy. And there will be two chemicals working hard behind the scenes: oxytocin — as I’ll be in a group I enjoy, with friends, bonding and catching up; and endorphin — as it will give me something similar with a ‘runners high’… I am not at my best physically right now so that 22km/14mi hike will be a difficult challenge…
Feel free to share your examples in the comment boxes below. I’d love to read your experiences.
Thank you for reading,
Loretta Graziano Breuning, Phd, ‘Habits of a happy brain. Retrain your brain to boost your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin and Edorphin levels’, Adams Media, 2016