by Loretta Breuning, PhD, author of “Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels“
The brain chemicals that make us feel good are inherited from earlier mammals. They are not designed to be on all the time. They evolved to do a job, and when you understand their job, you can find sustainable ways to trigger them. Your brain rewards you with good feelings when you do something good for your survival, but it defines survival in a quirky way. That’s why we do quirky things to feel good.
Fortunately, you can replace unwanted habits with new habits by building new pathways in your brain. Here’s how!
1. Turn on your dopamine by taking a small step toward a goal, and then another.
Give yourself a long-term goal, a short-term goal and a middle-term goal. Then you can always shift to a different goal when one of them is blocked, so you will always be stepping ahead and stimulating dopamine.
2. Stimulate your oxytocin by taking small steps of social trust.
We mammals long for safety in numbers, but we get tired of following the herd. Oxytocin is stimulated by social trust, but trusting everyone everywhere does not promote survival. Misplaced trust can be a survival threat, so our brain learns to fear trusting where our trust was disappointed before. That fear can deprive you of oxytocin. To overcome it, offer trust in small steps, wait for reciprocal trust, and take another small step.
3. Enjoy serotonin by focusing on what you have instead of what others have.
Mammals make social comparisons because it helps them spread their genes. The mammal brain rewards you with serotonin when you see yourself in the position of strength. The good feeling of serotonin is soon metabolized and you want more, which is why we keep seeking social power. But the quest often leads to frustration. Instead, find small ways to feel good about yourself without putting others down.
4. Spark endorphin with laughter.
Endorphin masks pain with a good feeling. It evolved for emergencies only, but you get a little bit when you laugh because it jiggles your innards. Laughter is an important part of your life so you may just have to plan it in. Upload comedy so it’s ready in a moment of need, and avoid angry comedy. What your friends think is funny may not work for you, so make time for your own sense of humor.
5. Build a new happy-chemical pathway by feeding your brain a new experience repeatedly.
Your brain controls the happy chemicals with pathways built from past experience. Old pathways are never a perfect guide to happiness because they were built from the random experiences of youth. You can wire in new pathways by carefully designing a new behavior and repeating it for 45 days.
6. Save your energy for building new happy habits.
Blazing a new trail through your jungle of neurons is hard work. The electricity in your brain flows effortlessly into the old roads in your brain, but it doesn’t flow easily into new trails. And it’s scary to blaze a new trail because it’s not connected to your accumulated knowledge of pleasure and pain. We’re tempted to fall back on our old roads, even though they lead to bad habits. You need new habits to enjoy life, so save your energy for this challenge instead of squandering it elsewhere.
7. Take a break when your stress chemicals turn on.
Cortisol is your brain’s signal that you face an urgent survival threat. When your life is safe, it is triggered by small disappointments. Cortisol creates a full-body sensation of urgent danger even though you know you’re safe. Everything looks bad when your cortisol turns on. Fortunately, most of it is metabolized and excreted in an hour — unless you trigger more. So take a break and do something unthreatening.
No one has happy chemicals all the time. We all struggle to feel good with a brain that saves good feelings for survival action. We all strive to meet our needs with a brain wired by past experience. Nothing is wrong with you! Nothing is wrong with “our society.” We’re big-brained mammals! And we have the power to update our wiring in small steps.
Find a complete step-by-step plan to rewire your happy chemicals in: Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin levels.
Loretta Breuning, PhD, is Founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which offers resources that help people rewire their mammalian brain chemistry to live happier, healthier lives. As Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay, her work has been featured in Forbes, Time, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today, Men’s Health, The Dr. Oz Show, and many more nationally-recognized outlets. She is author of “Habits of a Happy Brain” and “Tame Your Anxiety: Rewiring Your Brain for Happiness“.