ReThink Your Happy Brain Chemicals: Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin

Nov 11, 2021
Loretta G. Breuning, PhD
Culture

 

 

You have been taught to expect your happy chemicals to flow all the time. You think others enjoy this, so you must have you have a disorder if you don’t. You think a professional can fix your brain the way a mechanic fixes a car.

Let’s rethink this.

The chemicals that make us feel good are inherited from earlier mammals. Dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphin evolved to do a job, not to flow all the time for no reason. Our happy chemicals are controlled by brain structures that all mammals have in common, like the the amygdala, hippocampus, and other structures collectively known as the limbic system.

The animal part of your brain cannot process language, so it cannot tell you in words why it releases a chemical. The verbal brain struggles to explain these ups and downs. But our fancy talk can’t trigger happy chemical in healthy ways.

Lets see what triggers these chemicals in monkeys. Then we can get understand the real job of each chemical because monkeys don’t mask their impulses with sophisticated theories.

Dopamine rewards a monkey when it finds food. The good feeling stops as soon as the monkey gets the food. But soon it’s hungry again, and dopamine will motivate it took look for new rewards. The good feeling is released when a monkey sees a way to meet a need and steps toward it. You have inherited a brain that constantly seeks strives to meet needs because dopamine makes it feel good. When you see a new opportunity to meet a need and approach it, your brain rewards you with the joy of dopamine.

Oxytocin rewards a monkey when it finds social support. A monkey troop has lots of conflict so a critter wants to keep its distance sometimes. But an isolated mammal is easily picked off by predators, so the brain rewards a mammal with the nice face feeling of oxytocin when it returns to the herd.

Serotonin rewards a monkey when it gains the one-up position. A monkey gets bitten if it grabs food or mating opportunity in the presence of a bigger monkey. It has to find a position of strength in order to meet its needs. So it compares itself to others constantly. Stress chemicals are released when it sees itself in the position of weakness and that motivates it to pull back. Serotonin is released when a mammal sees itself in the position of strength and the good feeling motivates it to assert itself. We have inherited a brain that constantly compares itself to others and looks for ways to stimulate the calm confidence of serotonin. We don’t like to see this in ourselves, but we easily see it in others.

Neurons connect when happy chemicals flow, and that wires you to repeat behaviors that stimulated them in your unique individual past. Old pathways have power because the electricity in your brain flows like water in a storm, finding the paths of least resistance. This is why we repeat old behaviors without consciously intending to. Our verbal brain is not consciously aware of our old pathways, so it’s hard to understand why we do the things we do.

Our brain evolved to promote survival, not to make you happy. Any happy chemical you manage to trigger is quickly metabolized, so you always have to do more to get more. This is how our brain works. Don’t believe that other people have endless happy chemicals because they do not.

Fortunately, you can blaze a new trail through your jungle of neurons. Unfortunately, it’s hard. It takes a lot of repetition after the peak neuroplasticity of adolescence. 

To complicate life further, unhappy chemicals pave extra-large pathways in your brain. Cortisol is released when you see a threat or obstacle to meeting your survival needs. That wires you to release cortisol faster the next time you see something similar. Small obstacles feels like big survival threats when you are safe from actual predators because we’ve inherited a brain that scans constantly for potential threats. A monkey only thinks about predators when it senses one, but the human cortex is big enough to imagine threats when they’re not present. We end up with a lot of cortisol! 

Nothing is wrong with you! Nothing is wrong with us! We are mammals with extra neurons. You can rebuild your neural pathways to respond to the world without constant stress. But no one can do it for you, and you cannot do it for someone else.

You have power over your happy brain chemicals. You can rethink the way you use that power.

All the information you need to do that is at the Inner Mammal Institute. You’ll find books, videos, postcasts, slideshows, and even a training program. You can make peace with your inner mammal!

 

 

By Contributor:

Loretta G. Breuning, PhD

is Founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. She is the author of many personal development books, including Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin and Endorphin Levels. As a teacher and a parent, Loretta was not convinced by prevailing theories of human motivation. Then she learned about the brain chemistry we share with earlier mammals and everything made sense. She began creating resources that have helped thousands of people make peace with their inner mammal. Dr. Breuning's work has been translated into eight languages and is cited in major media. Before teaching, she worked for the United Nations in Africa. Loretta gives zoo tours on animals behavior, after serving as a Docent at the Oakland Zoo. She is a graduate of Cornell University and Tufts. The Inner Mammal Institute offers videos, podcasts, books, blogs, multimedia, a training program, and a free five-day happy-chemical jumpstart. Details are available at InnerMammalInstitute.org.

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