How to Increase Happy Brain Chemicals to Feel Great
The most powerful ally on your quest to live a good life is feeling happy. But it has always been a matter of philosophical debate and personal preference what constitutes true happiness.
All the while, neuroscience has a clear answer: Happiness is the presence of certain chemicals in the brain that induce a positive mind frame.
So then, here is the task: how to increase happy brain chemicals?
Understanding the Evolutionary Function of Happy Brain Chemicals
Our brain’s structures that can record memories of behaviors that triggered pleasant and unpleasant experiences first appeared in small mammals some 150 million years ago.
These structures are the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus and are collectively known as the limbic system.
And as the limbic system judges what are agreeable and disagreeable experiences, it is responsible for what we call emotions in human beings.
The evolutionary function of the limbic system is to increase the possibility of our survival. Events that make survival more likely trigger happy chemicals. And things that decrease chances of survival set of unhappy chemicals.
These happy chemicals are scientifically known as neurotransmitters or the body’s chemical messengers. They are the molecules by which the nervous system transmits messages in between neurons or from neurons to muscles.
The body chemicals that induce positive emotions, aka happiness, are dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin, and serotonin. So whenever we sense something, the limbic system quickly assesses whether to spritz happy chemical into our system.
Now here is the crucial piece of information: While we inherited the limbic system from our ancestors, our brain does not automatically know when to spurt happy chemicals.
Rather, it is our learned experiences that condition what makes us happy and what doesn’t.
How? Repetitive experiences form and enhance our brain’s neural pathways, determining what makes us happy and what doesn’t.
Most neural pathways are built during childhood. That is why it can be hard to change our behavior when we are older.
Let’s say when you were a child, your mother treated you with sweets when you cried. The sweets probably calmed you down and made you feel better. If this happened repeatedly, a neurochemical connection was first built and strengthened. This way, your brain memorized that sweets make you feel better. And that’s why you now may have such a hard time not reaching out for some sweets when you feel down.
But the good news is that these neurochemical connections are programmable. And this programming best works within the evolutionary context of each neurochemical’s purpose.
So let’s look at each of the happy chemicals and how to trigger a healthy dose of their mood-enhancing effects naturally.
Set and Take Action on Goals for a Feelgood Dose of Dopamine
Whenever you approach a reward, the brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine to motivates you and make you persist in seeking it.
As the neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky describes in his enlightening bestseller ‘Behave: The Biology of Humans,’ the dopamine reward system spurs goal-directed behavior:
Dopamine itself, though, is not about pleasure. It is about the anticipation of pleasure. When our ancestors suspected a waterhole at a near distance, the expectation of a reward triggered a good feeling through dopamine. And this positive push provided the energy to reach that reward.
So dopamine arouses our awareness and energy to things that we feel meet our needs. But what we identify as our needs is due to our unique life journey.
The anticipation of drinking water for our ancestors was obviously a need, and the spurt of dopamine useful for survival.
But in our day and age, it perhaps was the cookie that your mother regularly treated you with that formed a strong neuronal connection in your brain that persists until today.
As a result, it is hard to keep that hand from reaching into the cookie jar when you feel down.
And this is precisely how the dopamine reward system can work against when we have reinforced the wrong neuronal connections that don’t get us ahead in life.
But while the occasional cookie is harmless unless you are struggling with obesity, the wrong dopamine pathways can potentially wreak havoc in our lives.
The drug, gambling, sex, social media, and consumption addicts have fallen prey to the wrong habits, fortified by the dopamine reward loop.
And if the reward we are seeking is uncertain, our brain releases even more dopamine. ‘Maybe’ is addictive like nothing else out there, explains Sapolsky.
This is why gambling and social media can be so addictive. Winning the jackpot is highly unlikely, and we never know many likes our next post will garner.
So the task is to avoid behaviors that hurt us and, instead, embrace goals that get us ahead in life.
Every time you step towards your goals, your brain will reward you with a happy dose of dopamine.
Working towards a new goal can be hard in the beginning. That’s why it is important to create lasting habits and take small steps towards your goals every day.
Repeating actions daily builds new dopamine pathways that over time strengthen until a new positive habit becomes automatic because you will crave the dopamine it provides you with.
The key is to replace detrimental habits with new, beneficial habits over time.
Stand Tall and Believe in Yourself to Increase the Happy Chemical Serotonin
Rule Nr.1 in Jordan Peterson’s bestseller ’12 Rules for Life – An Antidote to Chaos’ is ‘Stand up straight with your shoulders back.’
Drawing on analogies from the animal kingdom, Peterson describes how postures of lobsters that win in conflicts are more agile and upright. The reason: A higher level of serotonin in the dominant animal. Dominance promotes its genes in nature.
Likewise, in humans, feeling respected triggers serotonin. This doesn’t mean that you should turn yourself into a bully to demonstrate your superiority.
Rather, focus on your internal confidence in daily life. Don’t fully dismiss your natural urge for status, but try to make it as independent from others as possible.
Everybody sometimes loses in life. Focus on your wins. You can be super-successful in business, but you will depress your serotonin levels if you focus on your losses.
And when you hold your head high and assume the posture of a winner, your mood will follow with heightened levels of serotonin.
A point in case for serotonin’s important role are the commonly prescribed antidepressants called SSRIs – Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.
SSRIs can ease moderate to severe depression symptoms by increasing serotonin levels in the brain by blocking serotonin’s reuptake into neurons.
But before you resort to Prozac, the most widely known SSRI, why not try what works for lobsters too?
How to Increase Happy Brain Chemicals? Build Conscious Trust for a Good Dose of Oxytocin
Early humans inherited a mammalian brain that releases oxytocin when we stick to the tribe. Because it was in the tribe that we survived in a world full of natural dangers.
That is why being an outsider can be so hard, even if it offers surprising benefits. It is belonging, trust, the feeling that we are safe, that triggers oxytocin.
In today’s world of often lose and changing social ties, sometimes our trust is betrayed. Or at least we fell that way. Nonreciprocal trust is not good for our survival, let alone prosperity.
To protect us from trusting someone who is not trustworthy again in the future, our brain releases unhappy chemicals when we feel betrayed.
But if we then continuously hold back our trust, we forgo the happiness that oxytocin can provide us with.
So how to deal with this dilemma in a low-trust environment?
The answer lies in how to build trust. Build trust consciously and get your oxytocin flowing again that way.
Building trust consciously happens when both parties create and reconfirm realistic expectations towards each other.
And when expectations are met, your brain will resume to delight you with the release of oxytocin. Opting for continuous small steps consciously will rebuild your trust and keep your oxytocin flowing.
Push, Stretch and Laugh for Endorphin
Endorphins are the body’s natural pain killers. So, the body releases endorphin when we sense pain. It doesn’t sound enticing for a happy chemical.
Well, it is the release of endorphins that causes a ‘runner’s high.’
But you will only experience that moment of euphoria when you push past your limits, so the brain acts to cover up the pain with endorphin.
The evolutionary purpose of endorphins is to mobilize the last resources in the face of mortal danger. So endorphins helped our ancestors run when severely injured by a predator.
And as endorphin evolved for survival, it wouldn’t be a good idea to be high on these happy chemicals all the time. Otherwise, we would be prone to ignore injuries like a sprained ankle or extreme heat or cold.
Gladly, there are ways how to increase the happy chemical endorphins in safe ways. Next to the occasional runner’s high, there is stretching and a hearty laugh.
Both stretching and laughing exert moderate wear and tear on the body to tickle the flow of endorphins.
A great way to stretch thoroughly and develop your capacity for proper stretching in the first place is yoga. The serene feeling of bliss that many yogis experience and have them coming back regularly to their practice is due to the release of endorphins.
Similarly, laughing gently strains your innards and lifts your mood by releasing endorphins. Try laughter yoga for a thorough dose of endorphin, or next time you watch a movie, why not chose a comedy over a suspense thriller?
Survive, Reflect and Thrive for the Clearing Effects of Cortisol
Part of being happy is knowing unhappiness. Our culture tends to dismiss the necessity and lessons from the downside. Rather, society offers quick fixes in the form of alcohol, anti-depressants, and other stimulants.
But just like a crisis and a mistake are opportunities to grow from revision, the neurochemical cortisol alerts us to threats. Naturally, we don’t like this stress we feel under the influence of cortisol and want to avoid it.
Yet, feeling bad is a natural part of moving through life. And while happy chemicals steer us towards rewards, the unhappy chemical cortisol alerts us of threats and the need to change.
As a result, the better we become at observing ourselves and remain calm in unhappy periods induced by cortisol, the better we will understand how to increase happy brain chemicals.
So, embrace unhappy times as constituents for happy moments in life to come.
Building Habits to Continuously Increase Happy Chemicals
Your brain today is the result of all the experiences in your life to date. Through the customary release of neurochemicals, your neurons formed connections to wire the brain you have today.
While it is much easier to build neuronal connections in your brain when you are young, the ability to change your brain and how you can experience the various happy chemicals never stops.
But when you are older, it takes deliberate practice and repetition. The sooner you start a new habit that aids your overall well-being, the better. Changing behavior always requires willpower at first. But through prolonged repetition, they become automatic. This is how to how to increase happy brain chemicals over time.
References: For more scientific background on how to increase your happy brain chemicals, read the foundational Loretta Graziano Breuning – Meet Your Happy Chemicals.