Your Neurochemical Self

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

Control the World or Control Yourself?

I wouldn’t need self-control if the world would just shape up

In a perfect world, ice cream would have no calories, I would win every tennis match I played, and everyone I loved would love me back. I wouldn't need self-control. I wouldn't need to practice. And unconditional love would follow me around.

Alas, the world is not perfect according to my definition. Should I try to change the world? That strategy may sound nice, but it ends in frustration. So I focus on controlling myself instead of trying to control the world.

You may be thinking “the world is flawed, so it should change, not me.”

But imagine changing ice cream so that it has no calories. You end up with vile-tasting goo. Change tennis partners so you always win and you lose the challenge. Demand change from people who don’t love you and you waste your energy.

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I would be fat, bitter and alone if I insisted on controlling the world. I learned to accept the world as it is, and control myself instead. I learned to eat a spoonful of rich ice cream and then stop. I learned to enjoy a challenge even when I lose. I learned to find the good in a world that often rejects me.

But many people around me are focused on fixing the world. I see how they enjoy this in the short run. They enjoy fighting and tell themselves they’re fighting for others. They enjoy the social solidarity that thrives on a common enemy. They enjoy the belief that they’re right and the world is wrong.

But in the long run, the world does not submit to their efforts to control it. The world stays flawed. They blame “our society” because they don’t know how the brain works. Each brain sees the world through the lens of its own needs. Each brain arrives at the awful truth that the world does not revolve around its individual needs. We adjust by learning to meet our own needs instead of waiting for the world to do it for us. But if you expect the world to meet your needs, you're left with the feeling that something is wrong with the world.

When your brain was young, it build connections every time you found a way to meet your needs. Rewards trigger happy chemicals that pave neural pathways. Ice cream is rewarding to the brain because rich foods are rare in the state of nature. Winning is rewarding to the brain because competition is pervasive in the state of nature. Love and acceptance are rewarding because your genes are inherited from individuals who succeeded at reproducing. Anything that promotes the survival of your genes triggers happy chemicals because the brain was built by natural selection.

But the brain only releases happy chemicals in brief spurts. You stimulate your happy chemicals for a short time, but all too soon they start to droop again. You may respond by looking around for a way to stimulate them again. In the state of nature, that kept people doing what it took to stay alive and keep their genes alive. But today, it can lead you to repeat behaviors that undermine your well-being in the long run. 

People repeat undermining behaviors because the happy chemicals mask their unhappy chemicals. You can never completely eliminate unhappy chemicals because they evolved to warn you of survival threats. Survival is threatened as long as you are alive, and your unhappy chemicals are there to help warn you of potential risks. But the moment your happy chemicals droop, the unhappy chemicals grab your attention and you wonder what's wrong. You may blame "our society." You may rush to stimulate more happy chemicals in any way you can. And you may not like the consequences.

You can escape from this loop in the next ten minutes by doing nothing. That's right. Simply free yourself from all distractions for the next ten minutes. This allows your core insecurities to bubble up and command your attention. You will feel bad, but you will do nothing instead of rushing to distract and divert and mask the feeling. That teaches your brain that bad feelings will not kill you. You can tolerate bad feelings instead of rushing to happy habits with bad consequences. 

Now you are free to choose behaviors that are truly in your own best interests. If you make new choices repeatedly, new neural pathways will build, and you'll have a new happy habit. You will still experience dips in your happy chemicals, leaving you painfully aware of the insecurity that comes with being alive. But you can control your response to those dips, whether or not the world “behaves” the way you want it to. More information on happy habits is available in my new book Meet Your Happy Chemicals.

Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is a Zoo Docent and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. 

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