Your Neurochemical Self

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

Five Ways to Boost Your Natural Happy Chemicals

You can trigger more happy chemicals naturally. Here's how.

You can stimulate more happy chemicals with fewer side effects when you understand the job your happy chemicals evolved to do. Here's a natural way to stimulate each, and to avoid unhappy chemicals.

 #1 Dopamine (Embrace a new goal)
Approaching a reward triggers dopamine. When a lion approaches a gazelle, her dopamine surges and the energy she needs for the hunt is released. Your ancestors released dopamine when they found a water hole. The good feeling surged before they actually sipped the water. Just seeing signs of a water-hole turned on the dopamine. Just smelling a gazelle turns on dopamine. The expectation of a reward triggers a good feeling in the mammal brain, and releases the energy you need to reach the reward.

Dopamine alerts your attention to things that meet your needs. How you define your needs depends on your unique life experience. Each time dopamine flowed in your youth, it connected neurons in your brain. Now you’re wired you to meet your needs in ways that felt good in your past.

Dopamine motivates you to seek, whether you’re seeking a medical degree or a parking spot near the donut shop. Dopamine motivates persistence in the pursuit of things that meet your needs, whether it’s a bar that’s open late, the next level in a video game, or a way to feed children. You can stimulate the good feeling of dopamine without behaviors that hurt your best interests. Embrace a new goal and take small steps toward it every day. Your brain will reward you with dopamine each time you take a step. The repetition will build a new dopamine pathway until it’s big enough to compete with the dopamine habit that you’re better off without.

#2 Serotonin (Believe in yourself)
Confidence triggers serotonin. Monkeys try to one-up each other because it stimulates their serotonin. People often do the same. This brain we’ve inherited rewards social dominance because that promotes your genes in the state of nature. As much as you may dislike this, you enjoy the good feeling of serotonin when you feel respected by others. Your brain seeks more of that feeling by repeating 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 people seek it in ways that undermine their long-term well-being. The solution is not to dismiss your natural urge for status, because you need the serotonin. Instead, you can develop your belief in your own worth. People are probably respecting you behind your back right now. Focus on that instead of scanning for disrespect. Everyone has wins and losses. If you focus on your losses you will depress your serotonin, even if you’re a rock star or a CEO. You can build the habit of focusing on your wins. You may think it’s cocky or risky or lame, but your serotonin will suffer if you don’t.

#3 Oxytocin (Build trust consciously)
Trust triggers oxytocin. Mammals stick with a herd because they inherited a brain that releases oxytocin when they do. Reptiles cannot stand the company of other reptiles, so it’s not surprising that they only release oxytocin during sex. Social bonds help mammals protect their young from predators, and natural selection built a brain that rewards us with a good feeling when we strengthen those bonds. Sometimes your trust is betrayed. Trusting someone who is not trustworthy is bad for your survival. Your brain releases unhappy chemicals when your trust is betrayed. That paves neural pathways which tell you when to withhold trust in the future. But if you withhold trust all the time, you deprive yourself of oxytocin. You can stimulate it by building trust consciously. Create realistic expectations that both parties can meet. Each time your expectations are met, your brain rewards you with a good feeling. Continual small steps will build your oxytocin circuits. Trust, verify, and repeat. You will grow to trust yourself as well as others.

#4 Endorphin (Make time to stretch and laugh)
Pain causes endorphin. That’s not what you expect when you hear about the “endorphin high.” But runners don’t get that high unless they push past their limits to the point of distress. Endorphin causes a brief euphoria that masks pain. In the state of nature, it helps an injured animal escape from a predator. It helped our ancestors run for help when injured. Endorphin evolved for survival, not for partying. If you were high on endorphin all the time, you would touch hot stoves and walk on broken legs. Endorphin was meant for emergencies. Inflicting harm on yourself to stimulate endorphin is a bad survival strategy. Fortunately, there are better ways: laughing and stretching. Both of these jiggle your innards in irregular ways, causing moderate wear and tear and moderate endorphin flow. This strategy has its limits. A genuine laugh cannot be produced on demand. A genuine stretch requires a little skill. But when you believe in the power of laughing and stretching, you create opportunities to trigger your endorphin in these ways.

#5 Cortisol (Survive, then thrive)
Cortisol feels bad. It alerts animals to urgent survival threats. Our big brain alerts us to subtle threats as well as urgent ones. The bad feeling of cortisol will always be part of life because your survival is threatened as long as you’re alive. Cortisol especially grabs your attention when it’s not being masked by happy chemicals. You might have a sudden bad feeling when your happy chemicals dip, even though there’s no predator at your door. If you can’t get comfortable with that, you might rush to mask it with any happy-chemical stimulant you’re familiar with. Your well-being will suffer. You will lose the information the cortisol is trying to give you, and your happy habit will have side effects. More cortisol will flow, thus increasing the temptation to over-stimulate your happy chemicals. This vicious cycle can be avoided if you learn to accept the bad feeling you get when a happy chemical surge is over. It doesn’t mean something is wrong. Cortisol is part of your mammalian steering mechanism, which motivates an organism to approach rewards and avoid threats. You need unhappy chemicals to warn you of potential harm as much as you need happy chemicals to alert you to potential rewards. If you learn to accept your cortisol, you will be free from the rush to mask it in ways that don’t serve you. You will make better decisions and end up with more happy chemicals.

Building New Happy Habits
Your brain got wired from past experience. Each time your neurochemicals surged, your neurons built connections. Experience wired you to turn on your brain chemicals in the ways they turned on in the past.

When you're young, your neurons build new connections easily. After eighteen, it's not easy to build new circuits to turn on in new ways. It takes a lot of repetition. So pick a new happy habit and start repeating it. Over time, your new happy habits will feel as natural as your old ones, and you won't have the unfortunate side effects.

Lots more on rewiring your happy chemical circuits in my new book, Meet Your Happy Chemicals. Free downloads on your happy chemicals at Inner Mammal Institute.org (just below the books), and on my Psychology Today bio page under "Research Papers."

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

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