This is a guest post by Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD
Happiness is often viewed as our natural default state, so it seems like something is wrong if you’re not happy— wrong with the world or wrong with you.
This is simply false. Our brain evolved to promote survival, not to make you happy all the time.
It releases the happy brain chemicals when you find a way to promote the survival of your genes. This is not what you think with your conscious brain, but your dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphin reward you with a good feeling when you take a step that meets a survival need. They are not designed to flow for no reason.
You may object. “I am not focused on mere survival!”
And why would a survival-focused brain do things that are bad for survival? You have learned to blame your frustrations on “our society” instead of on your mammalian operating system. I felt that way until I learned that animals have dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphin.
They control these chemicals with brain structures that are eerily similar to the human limbic system (the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, pituitary, etc.)
In animals, the job of each happy chemical is easy to understand because animals don’t disguise their impulses with fancy talk. They don’t have enough neurons to do that.
You have enough neurons to construct beliefs about what should make you happy. But beneath your big cortex you have an operating system that turns on good and bad feelings for reasons that can be baffling. But when you know what turns them on in animals, life suddenly makes sense.
Dopamine rewards you with excitement when you see a way to meet an unmet need. Oxytocin rewards you with a nice safe feeling when you find the safety of social trust. Serotonin rewards you with a confident feeling when you compare yourself favorably to others. And endorphin creates a euphoria that masks physical pain.
It would be nice to have an effortless flow of these chemicals but they couldn’t do their job if they were always on. They turn on in short spurts that are soon metabolized, so you always have to do more to get more. This is frustrating, but it kept our ancestors alive over millions of years.
You may say “This is NOT AT ALL what I’m thinking!” You have been taught that self-interest is evil so you come up with lofty explanations for your emotions. What you tell yourself in words doesn’t match your impulses because our two brains are not on speaking terms.
The mammal brain cannot process language so it cannot tell you in words why it turns on the happy chemicals. When you talk to yourself, it’s all in your cortex. But if you want to enjoy more dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, you have to make peace with your mammal brain.
Sometimes your mammal brain rewards you in the short run for things your cortex knows are bad for you in the long run. Other times, your mammal brain fears in the short run what your cortex wants for the long run. How can you make peace between your two brains?
You can build new neural pathways to stimulate your happy chemicals in new ways. This seems hard. You don’t know how you built your old neural pathways so how do you go about building new ones? Let’s take a closer look.
We are all born with billions of neurons but very few connections between them. We build our connections from life experience, and they shape our responses. Big experiences build big pathways for big responses. Emotions are your brain’s signal that something is important to your survival. And emotions are like paving on your neural pathways. They build circuits that help you get more of whatever feels good and avoid whatever feels bad.
Each of us navigates the world with circuits built by the accidents of our past experience.
The superhighways of your brain are built in youth thanks to a chemical called myelin. Myelin coats neurons the way insulation coats a wire, making a neuron super efficient. Whatever you do with your myelinated neurons feels natural and easy. Myelin is abundant before age eight and during puberty, so our strong motivations come from the circuits we built in those years.
When your myelin years are over, you can still build new pathways, but it’s harder. It takes a lot of repetition, and you only get a trail rather than a superhighway. But you can turn on your happy chemicals in new ways if you design a new choice and repeat it again and again. Connections will slowly develop and your new choice will start to feel normal. You will give the electricity in your brain a new place to flow!
Will you do it?
It’s hard to repeat a new choice before it feels good. It’s hard to resist the old neural pathways that you flow into effortlessly. It’s hard to take charge of your brain when no one you know is doing that, and experts promise to fix your brain for you. It’s easier to blame your frustrations on “our society.”
But you have power over your brain. You can start blazing new trails to your happy chemicals by designing healthy new ways to meet needs and repeating them.