Have you ever woken up in the morning in a bad mood?
The kind of mood that you feel like you can’t shake, no matter what you do?
This can be frustrating and even more so when you look around and have so much to be “happy” about.
Once you’re out of your funk, it’s easy to not think much of it.
However, once you understand the brain chemistry behind it, it will be a whole lot easier to deal with the next time it happens.
Understanding the 4 brain chemicals that make you happy will help you to create more happiness in your life and also help you to look at your low days with more compassion.
I recently read Habits of a Happy Brain by Loretta Breuning and now have a whole new outlook on happiness.
This book breaks down happiness in a scientific way and helped me to understand WHY I feel the way I do when I’m happy.
To understand the way chemicals work within your body to make you feel happiness is going to help you create more happiness. It also will help you to not be so hard on yourself when you’re not happy.
Everyone wants to be happy.
I want you to be happy.
I want to help you understand these 4 chemicals that make you happy so that you can better understand yourself.
Before I go into those chemicals though, it helps to know where your brain came from.
If you want to listen instead of read, here’s the podcast episode that goes along with this post — Increasing Your Happiness With Brain Chemicals.
A Brief History Of Your Mammal Brain
Let’s start by talking more about your primitive brain.
This is something I teach in Grow You and it helps immensely to learn more about why you think the way you do and how to optimize that thinking.
Personal development is all about creating the growth that you want for yourself.
Well, your brain is at the center of that growth, and when you understand it better and know why it’s wired the way it is, it helps you create better results.
You inherited a survival brain from your ancestors.
This is incredible when you think about it because your brain was inherited from people who survived some incredible challenges.
The kind of challenges like where to get your next meal, or how to defeat predators.
Even though you may not be focused on survival in your daily life, your primitive brain is.
This incredible organ is always scanning for potential threats because its most important task is protecting you.
Think about the last time you may have been excluded from something or a time you didn’t get an invite that you wanted.
Consciously, you know you’re not going to die from being excluded from the group or not being invited, but your primitive brain thinks that you are.
This scenario was a real threat throughout evolution and now it has carried over into modern times.
It wasn’t easy to survive back then so your brain is always interpreting everything you do in your life as safe or dangerous.
Your brain rewards you with happy chemicals when you do something that promotes your survival.
This happened because of natural selection — each feeling has a job.
When you do something that jeopardizes it, you get a hit of painful chemicals (but we’re not going to talk about those here).
When you do something good for your survival, you are rewarded.
These happy chemicals that you’re rewarded with live in your mammal brain.
Technically they live in the limbic system, which is surrounded by the prefrontal cortex.
The limbic system and cortex work together, along with many other parts of your brain, but for now to keep it simple I like to break them into two parts.
The prefrontal cortex is where you’re setting goals, thinking clearly, and you’re very rational. It looks for patterns in the present that connect with patterns in the past.
Your limbic system tries to get you to move toward pleasure and avoid pain by releasing chemicals. Essentially, it looks for ways to keep you alive — kind of like a bribe, but with chemicals.
Just like choosing not to follow a bribe, your body doesn’t always choose to act on the chemical messages it’s receiving.
This happens because you have the power to override them just by how you talk to yourself.
You talk to yourself in your prefrontal cortex and by knowing that, you can redirect thoughts and create new ones. By creating new thoughts, you’ll create new feelings that spark the action.
(This is the scientific version of what I teach about when creating your future from your future and it helps to understand the science behind it!)
When it comes to following through with the action, you can restrain yourself from doing so. Your brain is always seeking pleasure, so if you restrain yourself from it, you’ll want to move toward something else that feels good so you don’t redirect it towards something not so good for you.
A prime example of this is when you’re so used to having a glass of wine at night to unwind and you try to stop this habit without having something else to replace it.
Your brain is going to look for something that gives the same amount of happy chemicals in return, like cookies!
This process is rooted in your brains desire to survive, but don’t worry, it’s not hardwired.
This is great news because it means that you can change and rewire your brain!
How To Rewire Your Brain
What you say to yourself and how you create new thoughts from your prefrontal cortex is at the heart of creating new pathways and a new future.
Understanding the chemistry behind your primitive brain will help you see WHY you’re choosing the thoughts you’re choosing.
When you understand your thoughts from this perspective, it will help you be less hard on yourself, knowing this is just your animal brain and it’s totally fine.
You’re born with neurons that aren’t really connected. Your life experiences are what will create the pathways and connect neurons wired in your brain.
It’s crazy, but your main core circuits were built by age 7!
You still build wiring on a daily basis, but it’s not on such a grand scale as it was when you were born through age 7.
In order to build new wiring, you have to prove your old pathways untrue.
I do this on a daily basis and I’m used to it being hard, but once you understand the process, you know that it’s possible and worth it.
Yes, a child might be able to learn a new language a little easier than you, but as long as you are experiencing something, repeating that experience and creating the right emotions with intention, a new pathway is in your future!
You must experience, repeat, and feel to rewire your brain. The more you do this, the stronger the wiring becomes.
Wiring can deteriorate if you don’t do this often. In other words, if you don’t use it, you lose it!
So, to sum up how to rewire your brain, it takes experience, repetition, and emotion.
Understanding what it takes to rewire your brain makes creating more happiness in your life easier for you to do.
To make it even more clear, it helps to understand the specific chemicals that create happiness.
Brain Chemicals That Make You Happy
When I talk about happiness here, I don’t mean philosophical happiness.
I’m talking about the chemical reactions happening in your brain.
These neurochemicals are working within you without your consciousness even realizing. You can probably see this in the people around you more than you can see it in yourself.
The four brain chemicals that produce happiness are dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins.
When you do something that promotes your survival, these chemicals go to work and “turn on.” Each one produces a slightly different good feeling.
To better understand how they differ is to understand how each one comes about.
Your body produces dopamine when you find things that meet your needs.
When you reach a goal or a new level in your life, your body enjoys the “I did it!” feeling in the form of this chemical.
This feeling is what motivates you to get what you need, even when it takes a lot of effort. Dopamine is your cheerleader, encouraging you to seek and achieve new rewards.
Looking for a concrete way to get more dopamine? Set more concrete goals. I highly suggest listening to my podcast on how to set goals.
When you reach a new goal, your body is already on to seeking the next thing to create more dopamine.
It’s funny because you pursue something that you want really badly, and then when you finally get it you feel like you’re already over it.
When you get used to satisfaction, it becomes your new normal and then you’re no longer creating this happiness chemical. It needs the next bigger and better reward in order to keep the flow going.
This good feeling causes people to seek out false pleasure instead of goals and reaching new levels. These false pleasures come in the form of drugs, alcohol, or food.
When you stop seeking false pleasure, it leaves a lot more room for dopamine to be focused on rewards with a net positive. These rewards matter and are way more meaningful to your life.
So a valuable lesson when it comes to dopamine is to direct it towards goals that help you reach further and not into false pleasure such as the next glass of wine.
Your body produces oxytocin when you feel safe with others and start a bond with them.
Oxytocin makes you want to be part of the group and motivates you to trust others. That trust often means safety in companionship.
Back when your ancestors were focused on survival, isolation often meant death.
They were more vulnerable outside of a group, but when involved and inside the group, their bodies were being rewarded with oxytocin.
Nowadays, you know you’re not going to die when you spend some time alone. 🙂
Still, it’s easy to fall into groupthink and peer pressure because this chemical is important to us.
We strive to create common threads to connect on and even bond over a common enemy (where toxic gossip comes from).
Do you ever do something because you know your family would be proud of you for it, but it doesn’t exactly line up with your values?
It’s no coincidence this is happening — it’s your body’s natural tendency to want to boost your oxytocin levels. We all want those feel good hormones running though our bodies.
I suggest taking inventory where oxytocin might be leading you astray.
Notice wherever you may be going against where you actually want to go in life to feel this chemical.
By understanding that it’s your brain doing this, it’ll allow you to use your prefrontal cortex to direct your brain in the RIGHT direction and be more courageous.
Your body produces serotonin when you feel respected by others or have the feeling of pride.
As much as you might not like to admit it, your primitive brain sees security in social importance.
This chemical is what motivates you to get respect because it believes that with it comes more mating opportunities and protection for your offspring.
Don’t worry though, all mammals are like this — it’s unavoidable because this idea of status and social rivalry is built into your brain. It’s constantly taking inventory of who’s in charge and who’s winning.
You may feel this in your daily life because we strive to feel special and can’t help but to compare ourselves.
When we fight, we want to win to get that hit of serotonin.
Being a loser or feeling inferior means a depletion of this chemical.
Being a winner, feeling special or being heard means your body gets a steady flow of serotonin.
Sometimes the quest for this chemical can make people feel guilty because it means they want to compete and win. Often times people give up at this point.
I suggest to not be hard on yourself because of this. Don’t be arrogant about it, but notice when your brain is feeling good and know that it’s okay to feel this way when you win or influence others.
It’s easier to chemically understand a bully or someone who is overly competitive. This comes from social programming and still happens within political circles of adults. It’s why you may be sitting in a meeting rolling your eyes at a coworker who only ever tries to “get ahead.”
The social justice fights are also about serotonin. Groups coming together to effect change and for a good cause. It’s an attractive and easy draw to create bounds of serotonin.
Your body produces endorphins when your body feels like it needs to protect you from the feeling of pain. Essentially, this chemical masks pain.
When your body produces endorphins, it’s motivating you to ignore pain so that you can escape harm.
A great example of this is when you read about a mom lifting a car to save her baby. Her body is pumped full of endorphins for a temporary experience and she is, for a fleeting moment, superwoman.
Another example would be someone who has a runner’s high but is in pain say for example while running a marathon. The endorphins they’re getting from running is masking any kind of pain that running could be causing. They’re just thinking about crossing that finish line.
This is also the chemical that is released after extreme exercise. It’s that high you feel after a great workout and is likely one reason why you may go back for more.
Now that you understand each of the four happiness chemicals, I want to give you habits to introduce into your life that will help you increase your happiness in a real, practical way.
9 Easy Habits You Can Start Today That Will Increase Your Happiness
Habits take time and, if positive, can produce great results long term.
Do one or two habits for at least 30 days so that you can really see the results of it — 45 days if you’re feeling ambitious.
You likely won’t see results right away, which is why I suggest doing the habit for the full 45 days.
You can use all of these habits to help increase your happiness, but if you’re feeling like you’re not producing enough of a specific chemical, focus on incorporating habits from that specific area. Both hormones and neurotransmitters will influence your thoughts, motivation, and ability to learn. Learning and doing new things can be a challenge, but remember, you can think and do anything.
Here are the habits you can start right now to increase your dopamine.
- FIRST: Celebrate your small wins once per day.
Not every celebration has to come from something BIG. Say “I did it” and linger on your wins instead of on your losses.
Celebrating small steps will trigger more dopamine. This may feel fake or forced at first if you’re not used to doing this.
Keep doing it and enjoy the happy chemicals!
- SECOND: Work on your goal for 10-15 minutes per day.
Actually take action during this time.
By doing this, it will give you a small daily investment into your future, help you to reduce regret of not moving forward, and will trigger dopamine.
You’ll be very future focused during this time. (Understanding how to create your future from your future will help you to create a list of goals that line up with your ideal future to start working on today!)
Here are habits you can incorporate to increase oxytocin.
- THIRD: Take very small steps to rebuild trust with someone.
By small steps, I mean extremely small.
Don’t take a leap of faith into anything or start any fights. You may still want to limit your trust with this person, but you’ll be more comfortable.
I suggest texting an old friend that you may have fallen out with and asking them if they’d be willing to chat for a few minutes. Start there and slowly rebuild trust with them.
- FOURTH: Practice being trustworthy by honoring your commitments and following through with your word.
When you do, take the time to appreciate the fact that you honored your commitments. The more you create opportunities for people to trust you, the more oxytocin you will enjoy.
Tread lightly with this practice at first and don’t rescue or try to save anyone.
Below are the habits you can do to increase serotonin.
- FIFTH: Tell someone about something great you did.
Just tell one person something you’re proud of and do this every day.
This will bring about social respect and it will help you to take pride in your accomplishments. Of course, some people may not give you the positive reaction you want.
Don’t worry, you’ll learn, it won’t kill you, and you’ll wire in the feeling of social respect anyway. Not to mention, you’ll get a much needed lesson in accepting appreciation.
So many people don’t do this, but it’s nice to be able to accept a compliment — you deserve it!
- SIXTH: Notice your influence on others.
You influence people in a positive way and probably don’t even realize it. Take a moment and pay attention to it.
Don’t do this in an arrogant way (i.e. thinking, “I’m better than you”), do it in an appreciative way (i.e.: thinking, “I’m grateful to influence someone else’s life”).
You’ll feel good about your social importance and ability to influence the world.
- SEVENTH: Learn to feel safe when you’re not in control.
Learn to feel safe when you’re not in control. You know what makes you feel comfortable so I want you to do the opposite of that.
An example of this might be if you’re someone who keeps your home completely neat, take 30-45 days off from cleaning and let junk pile up.
If you’re the opposite and more on the chaotic side of things, put things away and tidy up. You will feel awful at first but don’t be alarmed — after one month or so, you’ll feel safe.
You’ll rewire your brain to see that you’re okay even when the outside world is out of your control.
Here are the habits you can integrate to increase your endorphins.
- EIGHT: Find something to laugh about every day.
A really big laugh triggers endorphins. For me, I LOVE carpool karaoke — especially the episode with Migos.
I could watch that once a day and laugh really hard. Find what makes you laugh and make time for this every day.
- NINTH: Vary your exercise routine.
If you create moderate exertion with a variety of exercises instead of doing the same thing over and over, you’ll create endorphins.
Try a really hard workout once or twice a week.
Here are resources I highly recommend for more reading on this topic…
- Habits of a Happy Brain by Loretta Breuning
- Personal Development Free Course
A Final Note!
Happiness no longer has to be this destination in your head.
It can be something that you have on a daily basis.
Understanding dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins will help you to understand how happiness is chemically created in your brain.
With that knowledge, you can create more happiness, as well as not be so hard on yourself when you’re not happy.
Rewire your brain with experiences, repetition, and emotion and enjoy happier memories in return.