We all have ups and downs because our brain is designed to work that way. Our happy brain chemicals are not meant to be on all the time. They evolved to reward survival behaviors by spurting when you see a way to meet a need. The spurt is soon over and you have to do more to get more. That drove your ancestors to do what it takes to keep their genes alive, over and over. Your ups and downs are easier to accept when you understand the brain you’ve inherited from your ancestors. You can turn on your happy chemicals in new ways when you understand the pathways that control them.
Join us as we interview Dr. Loretta Breuning to discuss her book and her ground breaking work on the Habits of a Happy Brain
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Questions and Answers from Dr. Loretta Breuning:
What makes people happy?
Four brain chemicals we’ve inherited from earlier mammals: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphin. I am not saying we should act on our animal impulses. I’m saying we can manage them better if we understand them. We don’t think them consciously in words so it’s easy to deny or rationalize them. But our verbal brain doesn’t control the happy chemicals so it helps to know how they work.
So why are people unhappy?
Our happy chemicals are not designed to be on all the time. They do their job by turning on when you see a way to meet a need, and then turning off. You have to do more to get more. Our brain evolved to meet needs and avoid harm. We are pretty good at scanning for potential signs of harm in order to avoid it. Whenever your happy chemicals dip, threat signals get your attention. That’s why people get into the habit of rushing to trigger happy chemicals in ways that hurt them in the long run. We are better off accepting the ups and downs that are natural for our brain. It’s not really a down: it’s a resetting to neutral that clears your decks for the next opportunity.
What stimulates our dopamine?
Dopamine produces a good feeling when you approach something you expect to meet your needs; but once you get it your dopamine dips and you have to do more to get more. For example it surges when a lion sees a gazelle it can catch or an elephant seeks water. It droops once you meet the need, but in the state of nature you always have another need to meet.
What stimulates our oxytocin?
Oxytocin makes you feel good when you have the safety of social support. If you strike out on your own, you may meet your needs but your oxytocin dips and you feel threatened. It motivates animals to seek safety in numbers.
What stimulates our serotonin?
Serotonin makes you feel good when you get respect. We don’t like to admit we care about this, but in the animal world, respect promotes your genes so you seek it with any energy you have when your other needs are met. But it’s soon metabolized so your brain is always looking for more.
What stimulates our endorphin?
Endorphin causes an oblivion that masks pain; it is only triggered by physical pain and it evolved for emergencies only.
Any tips for stressed-out moments?
Dopamine: always have a short-term goal, a long-term goal, and a medium-term goal. Then when you’re not making progress on one you can switch to another, so you can always be triggering that dopamine joy of approaching a reward. Give yourself a wide variety of rewards so you don’t over-do any one of them. For example, only have coffee every other day. Find other things to enjoy on the non-coffee days and you’ll enjoy your coffee even more on your coffee days. Same for beer, donuts, etc etc.
Serotonin: Your inner mammal wants to be in the one-up position because that promoted survival for your mammalian ancestors. There’s no pleasing your mammal brain – as soon as you are special, it wants you to be more special. It keeps comparing you to others and driving you nuts about it. It’s easy to deny this thought process in yourself and blame others for trying to one-up you. Instead, accept that you are creating this thought process inside yourself. Accept that it’s natural. Nothing is wrong. Accept your threatened feelings as your inner mammal trying to protect you. Tell your inner mammal that you have all the specialness you need to survive so you are safe whether or not you gained that last social advantage.
Oxytocin: If you were a gazelle running with the herd, you would rather find greener pasture than struggle over the same brown scrub as the rest of the herd. But the minute you wander off, you start feeling unsafe because your oxytocin dips. Your brain is constantly weighing the costs and benefits of striking out on your own vs. safety in numbers. As soon as you have one, you miss the other. So instead of getting frustrated, tell yourself that nothing is wrong – this is just the mammal brain constantly weighing the evidence to make the best choice in each moment. Celebrate your mammalian operating system instead of expecting some optimal choice that will make you happy every minute.
Endorphin: Laughing and exercise stimulate a little. Runners do not get runners high every time they run. They only get it when they run to the point of pain. In the long run you end up with pain if you insist on chasing euphoria. We’re better off accepting a happy chemicals dip; it’s just re-setting your brain to neutral so you’re ready to respond to your environment. Get comfortable with neutral.
How did you start focusing on the brain chemistry of animals?
I was driven to know more about human motivations when I had frustrations with my students and my kids. I read and researched a lot, and found many references to mammalian brain chemistry. But no one had connected the dots because it conflicts with our idealized view of nature.
The parallels between animal impulses and ours is obvious when you think about how each chemical works in animals. Dopamine produces a good feeling that motivates an animal to keep foraging. Oxytocin produces a good feeling that motivates an animal to find safety in numbers.
Serotonin rewards you with a good feeling when you assert yourself successfully. Endorphin masks pain so you can run for your life when injured.
How do you apply this to your own life?
Dopamine makes you feel excited when you are looking forward to something, but then you feel let down shortly after. So I have learned to take the ups and downs with a grain of salt; whether I feel super-excited, or suddenly disappointed, I know it’s not real information; it’s just my inner mammal’s constant impulse to forage to survive.
Oxytocin makes you feel great when you “belong,” but we all know that brings trade-offs. So when my inner mammal gives me a threatened feeling because I don’t have a herd, I remind myself that it’s natural for a mammal to seek safety in numbers, but I am actually safe whether or not I run with a herd.
Serotonin produces the great feeling of being “special.” We don’t like to admit that we care about being special even though we can easily see it in others. When my hopes for being special are disappointed, I remind myself that this is a survival threat in the animal world, but my survival is not threatened at this minute. But our survival is threatened as long as we’re alive, so our mammal brain feels constantly urgency about our legacy.
Endorphin is there for emergencies. I do not focus on chasing a high. But I look for opportunities to laugh. I spend time watching shows that make me laugh and avoid bitter comedy that is not funny to me even if other people like it.
Dr. Loretta Breuning is Founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and author of Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin. She started researching the roots of human motivation when she was frustrated by her efforts as a teacher and mom. She learned about the brain chemistry we share with earlier mammals, and everything made sense, so she began creating resources to help people manage their inner mammal.