(Trigger Warning: Self-harm, Eating disorders)
Dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins: terms we might’ve heard of before, but how do they actually affect us and our happiness? I attended the Action for Happiness event ‘Happy Brain Habits’, hosted by Prof Loretta Breuning and learned about how our brain chemicals work!
Prof Breuning stated that it’s a challenge to understand our own wiring, but attempting to understand what goes on behind the scenes can actually help us to understand ourselves and others better. Let’s begin with the four main brain chemicals that are associated with happiness, and how they’re triggered:
- Dopamine – fuelled by the expectation of a reward (production of this stops when the reward is met).
- Serotonin – triggered with success, or a ‘one-up’ moment of feeling better than someone else.
- Oxytocin – released with physical contact, such as hugging.
- Endorphins – the body’s natural painkiller (masks pain to help us survive, e.g. the few seconds after you’ve fallen and aren’t actually sure if you’ve hurt yourself).
If these different ‘happy’ chemicals exist, why do we not feel happiness all the time? As an evolutionary biologist, Prof Breuning explained that these ‘happy’ brain chemicals aren’t actually designed to flow all of the time – for example, tracing our evolution back, the chemical dopamine is triggered in animals to seek reward, to seek food! As human beings, we all have an ‘inner mammal’ that displays activities similar to behaviours in animals that we can compare to. The brain is always looking for something to fulfil, whether that’s our physical or emotional needs, and is focused on the unmet. This is probably where the famous quote originated:
‘Happiness is often in the journey, not the reward’.
Our expectations of rewards are often influenced by past experience, but sometimes what our brain expects isn’t realistic or achievable – Breuning used the example of getting excited and wanting ice cream everyday as a child (an unrealistic expectation). Most of the time, we are able to link the things we’re excited about back to an early experience that built a ‘dopamine pathway’, as neuroplasticity (networks in the brain changing) is highest through the ages of 2 – 8 years old (as well as a surge during adolescence) – understanding where pathways are rooted can begin to help us control our urges and expectations. We can work to trigger dopamine by curating and structuring our own reward system, breaking down goals into small manageable steps instead of setting inaccessible long-term goals that we can’t visualise the steps towards; these small goals could be as simple as getting through the work day, finishing a paragraph, or a sentence!
The release of serotonin might initially sound quite selfish (gaining a one-up against someone), however, natural selection built a brain to reward you for social recognition – our brain is constantly comparing against others and this originates from the complexities of the food chain and hierarchies in the animal kingdom. So, how can we boost serotonin without becoming an arrogant person? Accepting that it’s natural to feel happiness when succeeding against others is the first step, followed by rewarding yourself rather than expecting validation from others, alongside speaking authentically to yourself – this approach will take practice, especially when stepping away from the ‘people-pleaser’ mindset.
Similar to the way ‘dopamine pathways’ are frequently founded during our early years, past experiences have the ability to create particular ‘oxytocin pathways’. These pathways control moments when you keep up or let down your guard – if you find that you’re often protecting yourself with a guard up against people, this may be due to a negative past experience, so tracing that back and gaining an understanding of its roots can help you to look for opportunities to lower your guard and forge the pathway of building positive trust with people! Attempting to ‘build half a bridge towards people’ is an action where you can’t necessarily predict or control the reciprocation, but the positive action behind this action triggers oxytocin.
The release of endorphins is related to responses of physical experiences – endorphins act as an effective distractor, and are easily addictive in a positive way, including the constant pushing of physical extremes (working out), but can also manifest negatively in some instances, such as self-harm, or eating disorders. Practicing healthy stimulation of endorphins is as simple as making an effort to laugh more; laughing activates stomach muscles, therefore triggering endorphin release in the brain!
Prof Loretta Breuning explained that we have limited power over these ‘happy’ chemicals, but we can actively practice small steps to increase their production:
“The point is not about condemning your old self, but broadening your pathways”.
We can ‘rewire’ our brain with these small steps often, similar to the process of learning a new language – each time we try, it gets a little easier!