Podcast Episode 25. Listen Here.
Philosophers have been trying to answer the “What is Happiness?” question for millennia. It’s not a simple question.
Back in Episode 2 I looked at the experience of happiness and whether we experience it more through pleasure or more through meaning.
In this episode, I look at the brain chemicals associated with happiness to explore whether certain experiences are more likely to make us feel happier because of what’s happening in our brains.
There are 4 brain chemicals associated with happiness and they drive the brain and behaviour in different ways:
- Dopamine – drives reward and novelty seeking behaviour because the brain anticipates pleasure in these activities.
- Serotonin – most commonly associated with the experience of happiness. Many anti-depressants work by altering the way the brain interacts with serotonin.
- Oxytocin – fires as a result of physical connection between loved ones – plays a huge part in the bond between mother and baby.
- Endorphins – natural pain killers, these chemicals also feed back into the limbic system to produce dopamine, which is why it is possible to experience pleasure and pain simultaneously.
This neurotransmitter promotes goal-driven behaviour. It drives you to seek reward somehow. It is associated with novelty-seeking behaviour – not necessarily meaning that you seek to do new things all the time but rather that you seek to change activities regularly. For example, when your phone pings when you’re in the middle of an important task, dopamine fires and gets your brain excited about the new information you’re about to discover.
Dopamine pulls our attention from one thing to another, as novel and potentially pleasurable experiences present themselves. Thousands of years ago, having our attention directed towards new and interesting things might have had survival benefit but these experiences would not have been in constant supply as they are now. In a world where distractions are constant and endless, these dopamine ‘hits’ can be problematic as the brain becomes addicted to pleasure seeking and novelty.
In addition to that, Dopamine wears off quickly and and leaves no lasting effects so the ‘happiness’ you experience from it is a “one time only” deal and you have to go back again and again for more.
Back in Episode 2, I spoke about the “hedonic treadmill” – having pleasurable experience after pleasurable experience and never really feeling any happier. The neurotransmitter behind that experience is dopamine.
The effects of serotonin are much more subtle. It gives a longer lasting feelings of contentment in comparison hit of excitement offered by dopamine. With serotonin, the effects can last days or even weeks. Positive effects associated with serotonin include better quality sleep, improved memory functioning, balanced appetite and improvements in digestion and sexual function.
Lower levels of serotonin levels appear to be linked to depression although it is unclear at this stage whether depression is the effect of low serotonin levels or whether the levels drop because the person is depressed. For my money, it likely works both ways so it’s worth finding ways to keep serotonin levels topped up.
Although serotonin is typically recognised as a brain chemical, the majority of this neurotransmitter is produced in the digestive tract. If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “the gut is the second brain,” this is one of the reasons.
If serotonin levels are low, you can expect to experience cravings for sweet and starchy foods, trouble sleeping, reduced memory function, increased pain sensation and a variety of other symptoms.
NEXT WEEK: How to increase your levels of Serotonin without Medication
Starts to actually change the way that genes are expressed in cells so the effects might be felt for weeks, months or even years. Oxytocin is the chemical associated with building meaningful bonds and connections with infants, mates and other loved ones, which is why it is sometimes referred to as the ‘love hormone’ or ‘cuddle chemical’. Oxytocin is associated with the rush mothers experience when they experience early bonding with their newborn babies – both mother and baby experience the rush of this chemical as it bonds them.
That said, it’s not just mothers and babies. Any physical contact associated with genuine connection has the capacity to release Oxytocin. Even hugging friends can have an effect.
The main purpose of endorphins is to reduce pain but they also have an impact on the experience of pleasure. Endorphins are the chemicals associated with the pleasure of exercising – so when you hit a pain barrier and endorphins are released but they can feed back to generate a hit of dopamine as well – so you end up experiencing pleasure simultaneously. That’s partly why not everyone experiences ‘runner’s high – if the brain and body don’t experience a reason to release endorphins, it doesn’t happen and there is no loop back to pleasure either.
Understanding the basic effects of the various brain chemicals on our emotions, thoughts and behaviour helps us choose our habits more consciously. By making a deliberate effort to do things that will give us greater balance and longer lasting contentment, we’re likely to have a more stable experience of happiness instead of short spikes of excitement and pleasure followed by low periods of dissatisfaction.