Loretta Breuning is a professor at California State University East Bay who studies the brain chemistry of animals. The founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, she now lectures, researches, and teaches us about the core concepts of where our happiness comes from.
We’ve inherited four major happiness chemicals, you may have heard of them: oxytocin, serotonin, endorphin, and dopamine.
“We are all born with billions of neurons but very few connections between them and that’s what makes us unique. Animals are born more hard wired and were born more helpless and vulnerable and we connect our neurons by interacting with the world. So, our neurons connect and develop in a number of different ways. It’s very important to understand what you’ve already built. A pathway is built whenever a chemical is triggered. When you were young anything that triggered your happy chemicals or your unhappy chemicals built a neural pathway.“
“Our brain is designed to scan for opportunity and threats. So, were always looking for ways to meet unmet needs. People get so depressed and feel like they don’t even have a right to see things on the positive terms – like it’s their moral obligation to be depressed all the time, and so I challenge that.”
THE CHEMICAL BREAKDOWN:
Dopamine is the chemical that is released when you feel like you are about to meet a need. How you define meeting a need is based on the neural pathways you’ve built from past experiences. Most of these past experiences were established at age 2 and 7-years-old. The best example is training for a marathon, the expectation of the reward or completing a mission gives us a surge of dopamine happiness. Typically, this is what keeps us motivated to want to finish or accomplish something.
“Dopamine creates the expectation of a reward. So, whatever rewards we already have our brain habituates to it and that’s why we’re always looking to the next big thing. I think it’s very important for people to understand how they’re creating this and why it’s natural instead of blaming it on society because that’s what people do and then they just go around being bitter, “oh it’s not fair they’re trying to manipulate my brain,” well you have power over your brain and you shouldn’t give it up by blaming your responses instead you need to understand your responses.”
Serotonin is the brain chemical that makes you feel good when you have social power or social importance. When all of our other needs are met this is the thing that people obsess over. Out in nature, social dominance is imperative to survival, without assertiveness you don’t get what you want. Animals make careful decisions to know when it is safe to assert themselves. In the human world, we know of this as confidence, ego, pride, self-importance. Serotonin feels good when we can assert, control, and prevail.
Oxytocin is known as the cuddle chemical, it is stimulated by touch and trust. In the state of nature touch and trust go together because if I let you close enough to touch me, you could kill me. So, I will only let you do that if I trust you. We were not designed to cruise on the love boat all the time. It takes a long time to build trust and we desire to build trusting relationships. Once that trust is broken, there’s a gigantic surge of cortisol to the brain that actual builds a disappointment circuit in the realm of
Endorphin is a chemical only triggered by physical pain, in fact, it masks pain. If you constantly have to inflict pain on yourself to get that good feeling, it’s not a good survival strategy. We are not met to go around trying to trigger our endorphins. The only good news here is that you get a little bit from laughing and every time you get up and move. This is the same chemical as heroine or other addictive opioids release to the body but endorphins exist for emergencies not partying.
Cortisol is known as the stress chemical and in the state of nature it has a very valuable function. Cortisol creates a bad feeling and then there’s nothing I care about more than relieving the bad feeling. Hunger is also cortisol. What turns on your cortisol depends on the neural pathways you’ve built from past experiences. Anything that turned on your cortisol in the past paved a neural pathway because our brain is design to protect us from having to touch a hot stove twice.
“We have individual differences based on our early experiences. Whatever met your needs or avoided harm when you were under age 8 or during puberty is what built the super high waves in your brain and that’s why you have certain responses. I absolutely think happiness is meeting unmet needs. Your brain is defining unmet needs based on the neural pathways you have. We have a natural sense of insecurity that is almost never met, but we vary in how we learn to manage it. One person may have learned to ask someone politely for a cookie, another person may have learned to bully another person for their cookie and another may have to learned to bake a batch of cookies. We all want the cookie we don’t have. You can build new neural pathways but it takes repetition – it takes about 45 days of repeating a new behavior for it to feel natural and regular. It feels so unnatural in the beginning because the electricity has trouble flowing down an unknown pathway. Its good when you can build on the foundation on your early pathways. Variety and risk tolerance are the spices of life.”