Everyone wants to be happy. It is what we seek out and aim to achieve in all spheres of our life. Many books explain how to find your happiness or to pursue the things that make you happy. However, how much do you know about how happiness is formed?
To be honest, happiness is a product of the brain and the chemicals that influence it. With a little bit of practice, you can get these chemicals regularly flowing through your body and brain, making you happy. Want to find out more?
In this book summary readers will discover:
- Why we feel happy
- The four happy chemicals
- Unhappy chemicals are important too
- The bad thing about happiness strategies
- The brain and our happiness
Key lesson one: Why we feel happy
Of course, we would all choose to be happy all the time if we had a choice in the matter. But, what would that translate into in our brains? The brain’s limbic system is in charge of all the chemicals responsible for happiness. The limbic system developed hundreds of years ago, and still works in much the same way. Things that increase the chance of survival trigger happy chemicals and things that decrease the chance of survival release unhappy chemicals. The limbic system has to make a quick decision when senses are relayed to the brain. Thus, it decides whether the stimulus is worth release the chemicals.
However, even though the limbic system functions the same as it does in our ancestors, the brain does not necessarily identify the things that increase our survival. Those cues actually come from learned experiences and the neural pathways which form as a result. The neural pathways mainly form when we are quite young and the neurochemical connections are strengthened as you get older. For example, when you were sad when you were a kid and your mom gave you cookies, it probably made you feel better. If this happens a few times as you got older, the neurochemical connections would have been strengthened. Now, as an adult, if you feel sad you would reach for a cookie to make you feel better.
Key lesson two: The four happy chemicals
The four happy chemicals are dopamine, endorphin, serotonin and oxytocin. The way these four chemicals work determines how the limbic system decides what makes us happy and what does not.
Dopamine, for example, is released whenever a reward is expected. It is also what causes you to keep seeking it. Our minds scan our surroundings looking for rewards whether we are aware of them or not. When it locates a reward, dopamine is released which in turn motivates you to claim the reward. It has worked this way since our ancestors, who were hunter-gatherers, went in search of food. When something was identified as a food source, dopamine was released and gave them the energy they needed to move toward it and claim it.
The next happy chemical is endorphin which is triggered by physical pain. Yes, you heard right, pain. Even though pain does not make us happy, endorphin works to mask the pain so that you can continue despite it. This is what happens when runners experience runners high. Despite their exhaustion, endorphin allows them to push through and continue farther. Historically, our ancestors used endorphin to help them survive as pain is important for survival. Imagine being brutally attacked and lying on the ground waiting to be killed by your opponent. Your opponent stops to catch their breath and endorphins give you the energy you need to escape death. You are able to push through despite the pain.
Oxytocin, on the other hand, is a chemical that rewards you for having and building social connections. The happiness that you experience when you are with trusted family and friends is because of oxytocin. Belonging to a social group was and still is essential for survival. This is especially evident when a baby is born. Oxytocin is released in a mother’s brain which encourages her attachment to her newborn child. Likewise, oxytocin is also present in the baby’s brain-building the bond between mother and child. This is also why children are attached to their mothers unknowingly. Oxytocin makes it a feel-good situation.
The last happiness chemical is serotonin which is released when we dominate others. This may seem like a weird association and introverts everywhere might be cringing at the thought – but asserting oneself as head of the social hierarchy does actually bring some happiness. Our brains reward us for being able to gain respect from others. This, once again, comes from our evolutionary path where the strongest and most dominant among us had the best mating options and food. So even though in today’s world we promote equality and fairness, our brains still make us feel good when we have positions of power.
Key lesson three: Unhappy chemicals are important too
So, just like there are happy chemicals, unhappy chemicals also exist. Cortisol is an example of an unhappy chemical and it is in charge of letting us know when something threatens or decreases our chance of survival. It is often released when we are hungry and tells our brain that we need to get rid of this feeling. Hence, we eat something.
But hunger is a very straightforward trigger. It is sometimes difficult to identify why cortisol is released. Especially when happy chemicals complete their intended actions, the brain then follows with a release of cortisol. It’s the reason why we feel the need to do something to feel happy again. In reality, the do something feeling is a result of scanning for potential threats. The limbic system works together with the cortex of the brain which is responsible for assessing threats and rational thinking thus promoting survival. Since the cortex is always working, there is always cortisol present in the brain. This is why we are never happy all the time. The happiness and unhappiness chemicals work in such a way that we are constantly worried about something we have to do. We may forget it in moments of happiness, but it returns soon after due to the release of cortisol.
Key lesson four: The bad thing about happiness strategies
Due to the way happiness and unhappiness chemicals work, we are constantly in search of things that make us happy to retain the feeling. Once we identify things that make us happy, we will continue doing it. However, eventually, this strategy will become routine and begin to bore us, no longer leading to feelings of happiness. This is called habituation.
Some businesses are clever and utilise this fact for their and our benefit. Take The French Laundry restaurant for example. They prevent habituation by serving multiple, small courses at the restaurant. This means that you will never get used to the dish and dopamine is continually released as you try each new dish. But, no matter what you do, a repeated experience will never feel as good as it does the first time. Our brains cannot comprehend this and therefore has high expectations every time. This is the main reason why we often feel disappointed when those expectations are not met. As much as this explains why we feel the way we do most of the time, habituation evolved because it promotes survival. You cannot get comfortable in a routine, you have to go in search of new things and new experiences to promote adaptation, survival and happiness.
But if your brain follows the strategies it has developed to find happiness even though it leads to disappointment, this can lead to addiction. It is because of this pursuit of happiness that comes from alcohol, drugs and even junk food that actions are repeated in a vicious cycle.
Key lesson five: The brain and our happiness
To further understand happiness, unhappiness and addiction, we must first understand how these patterns develop and why they are hard to step away from. Everything that we experience is stored in our brains. They form your neural circuitry with the connections they make within your brain. An example of this is the process of myelination. Neurons that are used often are coated in myelin and it is this coating that makes these neurons extremely efficient. Say for example that you are learning a new skill, the neurons that you will be using will not yet have the myelin coating. This is why it takes a longer time before it begins to feel natural.
However, most myelination occurs before humans turn 15. This explains why it is harder to learn something new or get rid of habits when you are older. But, it does not mean it is altogether impossible. The pre-frontal cortex of the brain is the part that determines what holds our attention. This means that it is possible to ignore neurochemicals and any action you might want to take. To put this in an example, if your friend is pitching ideas during a meeting and you strongly disagree with them you could react and tell them the flaws in their ideas in front of everyone or you could speak to them in private later. The former produces a release of serotonin because you would be asserting dominance and the latter would provide a release of oxytocin as it is promoting social relationships. In choosing your reaction, you are exerting your free will and ignoring any influence that your neurochemicals may have had. In other words, the way you approach happiness will change your neural circuitry.
Scientifically speaking, it takes 45 days to construct a new pathway to happiness. It may seem like a long time, but persistence does pay off. If you keep the habit for 45 days, it will become natural thereafter.
Another remarkable thing that our brain does is that it is constantly surveying our environment for things that increase our survival and potential threats. In doing so, our decisions are heavily influenced by this balance of survival and threat and ultimately by the balance of chemicals associated with it. This could lead to you second-guessing every decision you make as you weigh the pros and cons or, it could lead you to give up the decision making to someone else because you don’t want the burden and possible disappointment. However, this means that you miss out on the chemicals. You will miss out on the happiness of good decisions and you will miss the experience of learning from the bad ones. Your brain needs this experience, so making your own decisions are the best option.
The key takeaway from Meet Your Happy Chemicals are:
The happiness chemicals dopamine, endorphin, serotonin and oxytocin along with the unhappiness chemical, cortisol, play important roles in the way our brains perceive happiness. These chemicals and their release are a part of our evolutionary journey as they play as much a part in our survival as they do in our happiness. Understanding the way in which these chemicals work can give you great insight into the way our brains work. Accepting that unhappiness is just a part of the cycle will also allow you to embrace the cycles that occur and truly enjoy happiness in a healthy manner.
How can I implement the lessons learned in Meet Your Happy Chemicals:
It takes 45 days to change your habits and approach to happiness. It is not easy, but perseverance is key. If you find it difficult to change your habits daily, maybe try to mirror the behaviour of someone else who already has the habit. This will reinforce your motivation for wanting to make the change in the first place and inspire you to keep going.