Your Neurochemical Self

Getting real with a 200-million-year-old brain

Who’s Afraid of Unhappiness?

Unhappy chemicals won’t kill you, but it feels like they will
Eric Maisel, Ph.D.
This post is a response to Rethinking Depression by Eric R. Maisel, Ph.D.

This perspective is inspiring to me. 

Unhappiness feels threatening so we combat it with an arsenal of weapons. I think we would find it less threatening if we understood its evolutionary purpose.

Unhappy chemicals promote survival in the state of nature. If you are a hungry gazelle, you would rather be eating than running from a lion. Cortisol has to feel very bad to get you to do what it takes to save your life. It works! You can thank your cortisol for getting you to take action when necessary to meet your needs.

But cortisol didn't evolve for you to just sit there and be grateful for it. It evolved to give you the bad feeling that you will die if you don't "do something, now!" Your brain looks for ways to make the cortisol stop, and it chooses from the pathways it has. Your past successes at turning unhappy chemicals to happy chemicals carved pathways in your brain. Sometimes these pathways tempt you to mask your cortisol in ways that trigger even more cortisol. You would be better off doing nothing for a moment. But when you do nothing, it feel like you will die because your cortisol is doing the job it evolved for.

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Go ahead and do nothing anyway. It teaches your brain that unhappy chemicals will not kill you, even though it feels like it. Accepting unhappy chemicals is an extremely valuable skill. It starts to free you from any habit you may be using to mask unhappy chemicals. All it takes is to "do nothing."

Of course, I am not saying to be unhappy forever and do nothing about it. I am saying to be unhappy for at least a few minutes every time....you're unhappy. Don't rush to fix it too quickly. You may think you've already tried this, but it's possible that you haven't. It's possible that you rush into debating whose fault it is, and tallying up your miserable option. So the next time you're unhappy, there's something you can do about it. Try to truly, fully, absolutely do nothing.

Lots more on how we get wired for unhappiness in my books Meet Your Happy Chemicals and Beyond Cynical. Both offer a plan to re-wire yourself for more happiness. The plan in Meet Your Happy Chemicals shows how you can stimulate your natural dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphin. The plan in Beyond Cynical shows how we can PARE our natural negativity with Personal Agency and Realistic Expectations. Free resources are available on my PsychologyToday.com page under "Research Papers," and on my website, InnerMammalInstitute.org.  

Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is the author of Meet Your Happy Chemicals and founder of the Inner Mammal Institute.

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