By Loretta Graziano Breuning
A person’s brain produces four substances, or “happy chemicals,” that dictate how experiences make that person feel. These happy chemicals – dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin and serotonin -- create good feelings that cause people to build neural pathways, but when they repeat those pathways over and over the good feelings diminish. The key to sustained happiness is learning to form new pathways that will stimulate happy chemicals and create new good feelings.
Understanding the Human Brain
The human brain has a great deal in common with the brains of other mammals. In all mammalian brains, the four happy chemicals are controlled by the limbic system, which releases neurochemicals when something good happens. The other key happiness-inducing part of the brain, the cortex, is much larger in human brains than in those of other mammals, and that difference allows us to regulate our limbic systems and train ourselves to create new neural pathways. “Your big cortex makes you different from other animals,” Breuning writes. “You can keep building new neural pathways and thus keep fine-tuning your efforts to meet your needs. But man does not live by cortex alone. You need your limbic system to know what’s good for you.”
Each of the four happy chemicals has a “survival motive,” or a result that gives our brain good feelings from the release of that chemical. Dopamine is geared to seek rewards, endorphin is released by ignoring physical pain, oxytocin flows when we build social alliances and serotonin is triggered when we receive respect from others. Our brain is designed to store experiences, so when we repeat behaviors that stimulate happy chemicals those pathways, or neural trails, become well-worn, and we are less likely to develop new habits. Unfortunately, when we travel those brain pathways over and over the good feelings lessen. The secret to triggering happiness over a lifetime is developing the habit of creating new neural trails.
How To Create New Pathways
People are hardwired to fall back on the same old neural pathways, and if they give into this inertia they will find less and less happiness over time. With a proper understanding of brain chemistry and a commitment to building new habits, it is possible to continue to mine new sources of happiness with our own actions. For each happy chemical, Breuning recommends specific, practical behaviors that will stimulate the neurochemical to produce good feelings:
Dopamine — Because dopamine is triggered by rewards, celebrating small victories is a simple strategy to stimulate more dopamine in the brain. Other dopamine tactics are taking small steps toward a larger goal, dividing an unpleasant task into small parts and working to raise or lower the bar of your expectations so that accomplishments are possible, but not too easy, to attain. With any new happy brain habits, Breuning encourages people to continue the practices even when it feels uncomfortable and unnatural, working through the resistance that tries to keep our brain from developing new pathways.
Endorphin — Recommended strategies to boost endorphin sound simple, but making them a daily habit requires commitment and a willingness to think outside the box. To boost endorphins, people need to laugh more often, cry when it is necessary, vary their exercise routine, incorporate a daily stretching regimen and make exercise fun. Routine can be the enemy of endorphins, so mixing up the norm and looking for opportunities to air emotions can release the floodgates of this brain chemical.
Oxytocin — Because oxytocin is linked to strong social alliances, strategies to produce more of the chemical must be linked to our relationships with others. Recommendations to stimulate oxytocin include building on “proxy” trust with animals, large crowds and digital friendships, setting up small stepping stones of trust in a relationship, working to be trustworthy yourself, creating a trust verification system and getting a massage.
Serotonin — Like oxytocin, serotonin is connected to our relationships, but we experience the release of serotonin when we receive the respect of others. True respect must be earned, of course, but we can develop serotonin-friendly patterns by showing pride in accomplishments, embracing our social position in each moment, celebrating our influence on others and making peace with situations that are out of our control. An important part of relinquishing control is finding ways to lessen the grip of time by ignoring the clock for a while, or setting aside a day to unfold with no plans.
New Routes to Happiness in 45 Days
With such an extensive menu of potential new brain pathways, a person might be tempted to try several new activities or thought patterns right away. But Breuning encourages readers to start with one new habit that will stimulate one happy chemical and make a commitment to practice it for 45 days. Because the brain is resistant to new pathways and more comfortable traveling the well-worn trails, maintaining those new habits will probably be difficult at first. The key to creating new happy habits is to formulate a plan to stimulate one happy chemical, choose an activity and repeat that action every day, even when you don’t feel like it. Breuning recommends going back to Day One if you miss a day, with the certainty that the inconvenience of reverting to Day One will reinforce your brain to stick with the 45-day regimen the next time.
Those who understand their brain chemistry and commit themselves to developing new neural pathways to happiness learn that their emotions and their wellbeing are within their control. It isn’t selfish to take charge of your own happiness and learn the practical habits of increasing the release of your happy chemicals. No one is happy all the time, and brain training can’t necessarily change difficult circumstances, but a commitment to forging new neural trails can transform the way you think about moods and put you in the driver’s seat in the quest for a happier life.