What is happiness and where does it come from? The answer is simple: happiness is a product of our brain.
To be specific, it is a product of four happy brain chemicals – dopamine, serotonin, endorphin, and oxytocin.
These are the four brain chemicals responsible for our happiness and occasionally, unhappiness.
In this article, we will try to demystify these four chemicals by understanding how each brain chemical works and more importantly, explore the steps you can take to be a happier person.
What Makes Us Happy?
Everybody wants to be happy.
In fact, if we had our way, we would be happy all the time. But what does “happiness” really mean and what does it look like in our brain? A set of of complex structures in our brain, called the limbic system, manage all the four happy brain chemicals.
These happy chemicals are dopamine, serotonin, endorphin, and oxytocin. These chemicals are released each time we see or sense something that is good for our survival.
Things that increase the possibility of survival trigger happy chemicals and things that decrease our possibility of survival trigger unhappy chemicals.
Though the limbic system developed over years of evolutionary process, our brain doesn’t automatically know when to release the happy chemicals.
What, then, determines our happiness? The answer is our experiences and the neural pathways these experiences form.
How Are Neural Pathways Formed?
Our neural pathways are mainly formed when we are young.
Each time we experienced something nice as a child, a neurochemical connection was built. For example, the experience of being hungry probably made you feel bad. If your mom gave you a cookie to ease your hunger, then you most definitely felt better. If this happens a few times, then a connection between eating cookies and happiness is built, and hence eating cookies now makes you feel happy.
Understanding how the limbic system works and how neural pathways are formed, we must first understand the role of our four happy brain chemicals.
Exploring the Four Happy Brain Chemicals
Dopamine is a happy chemical which is released whenever you expect a reward. The expectation of a reward is what makes you keep seeking it. Without your knowledge, your subconscious mind is always seeking rewards in your environment. When it finds one, the dopamine motivates you to go for it, and helps you manage the energy it takes to get it.
Endorphin is a happy brain chemical which is triggered by physical pain. You must be wondering – how can physical pain make us happy? Endorphin, however, serves to hide the pain to help you keep going. If you workout regularly regularly, then you must have experienced that euphoric feeling you get after pushing yourself beyond your own limit. With this rush of endorphin, you feel incredible instead of exhaustion. The painkiller morphine essentially imitates the release of endorphins in the brain.
The brain chemical Oxytocin rewards us for building social connections. The good feeling you get because you trust another person is because of the oxytocin that has been triggered in your brain. Every experience of social belonging releases oxytocin because belonging to a certain social group is good for our survival. Oxytocin plays a major role in our social development. Young children cling to their mothers without knowing why. This is because of Oxytocin – it just feels so good.
Now we come to the last happy brain chemical, serotonin. Serotonin is triggered in the brain when we assert our position in the social hierarchy by dominating others. This may seem preposterous considering the structure and values of our modern society. Nevertheless, our brain tends to rewards us whenever others respect our position in the social hierarchy. While attempts to promote fairness and kindness in our society releases oxytocin, holding positions of power and dominance in the society releases serotonin. Antidepressants (SSRIs) such as Prozac and Zoloft increase serotonin levels in the brain.
The Role of Unhappy Chemicals in Our Happiness
If you’ve seen the Pixar movie, Inside Out, you know how important our unhappy chemicals are to our survival. Cortisol is one such unhappy chemical. Cortisol is triggered whenever our survival is threatened. Cortisol still remains a complex brain chemical and still leaves the medical field perplexed as to why and when it’s released by the brain. Every time our happy chemicals fulfil their function, the brain releases a spurt of cortisol. Even though you are in your happy or normal state, things still don’t seem quite right, resulting in a feeling that you need to ‘fix something’. This is the reason why we reach for an ice-cream or chocolate even when we are not hungry, simply to feel happy or normal again.
The reason we feel like “doing something” is that our brain is always looking for potential threats. So if you’re nervous about answering a tough exam tomorrow, the nervousness will remain even after the exam is over. Your brain will simply find the next thing to worry about: the results, your future plans, etc. So how do you tackle this problem? The answer is by getting used to the risk. Your brain will always look for opportunities to improve survival but at the same time, these opportunities may come with risks which are not desirable. Ultimately, managing your happiness involves taking risks and constantly making decisions. Don’t be like those people who doubt every decision that they’ve made and keep lamenting about squandered opportunities.
The 45-Day Strategy to More Happiness
Now that we know how our brain works, we can focus on building habits that make us happy.
We can rewire our brains in order to enjoy things that are good for us: Did you know it just takes 45 days to construct a new neural pathway to happiness? Persistence is key when you developing a new habit. Using this 45-day strategy, you can inculcate a new habitual activity in your life that triggers the release of happy brain chemicals.
For example, exercise is a great way to trigger endorphin. You know you need to exercise regularly to stay fit and healthy. The first few days will definitely not feel easy. The temptation to binge-watching your favorite show on Netflix may be a lot more comforting and enjoyable to you now! Resist that temptation and carry on with your new habit for at least 45 days. Your persistence with the new habit will rewire your brain so that it releases happy chemicals whenever you exercise.
We can’t be happy all the time. The truth of life is that we need to fell unhappy from time to time to appreciate happiness. So instead of blaming unhappy chemicals next time you are sad, just embrace them and accept them to be an influential part of your life.
Suggested Reading: Meet Your Happy Chemicals by Loretta Graziano Breuning