Everyone rides the neurochemical roller coaster as they go about their days – just doing the things they normally do — ranging from happy to sad and everything in between. However, we all tend to have a happiness baseline that we hover around and come back to.
If your norm is more of a “glass-half-empty” point of view, there are good reasons for that. Your brain acclimates to anything that once made it feel good — even over-the-moon ecstatic initially. We’ve all heard about the lottery winner who is forlorn a year after winning millions of dollars. While gaining a million Twitter followers might get you pretty pumped when you hit six zeros, the feat will lose its thrill as the days go by.
On top of that, your brain has a natural negativity bias. It’s always on the lookout, ready to sound the alarm. This trait helped keep your ancestors alive, but hair-trigger reactivity doesn’t do you any favors today. Negativity bias causes your brain to look for, spot, react more strongly to, and remember negative more than positive which means your brain is wired to worry, overthink, and have a pessimistic slant.
Life is full of enough scary and terrible things. We don’t need our brains to make it any worse.
But they do.
They way you counteract your brain’s natural negative slant is to intentionally keep the happy chemicals flowing. In the book, Habits Of A Happy Brain, Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD outlines simple habits to do that.
In How Happy Happens in Your Brain, I write:
Dopamine motivates you to take action and encourages the persistence required to meet your needs, seek reward, or approach a goal – whether it’s a college degree, a sugar fix, the next level in a video game, or money to pay the bills. The anticipation of the reward is actually what triggers a dopamine good feeling in your brain causing it to release the energy you need to move towards the reward. Then, you get another pleasure hit when you successfully meet the need.”
A surge in dopamine gives you a good feeling – kind of like that first cup of coffee in the morning. Science shows that too little dopamine can result in a variety of symptoms, including depression, anxiety, fatigue, apathy, slowed thinking, memory impairment, the inability to feel enthusiastic about anything, lack of motivation, excessive sleep, tremors, and more. Low levels could be involved in ADD/ADHD.
Dopamine is responsible for reward-seeking behavior and is the primary neurotransmitter behind drug addiction. (Read more: The Link Between Dopamine And Depression (and how to make more))
Celebrate the small victories
While you don’t bring home a new car or hit your goals at work every day, there are lots of little wins throughout your regular days. You have to notice them. What if you gave the good as much mind time as you do the bad? For instance, maybe you paid an extra $50 on the credit card bill this month. Maybe you bypassed the doughnut and opted for a piece of fruit instead.
Adjusting your expectations is an inherent part of celebrating daily achievements. Rather than criticizing yourself for not exercising every day last week, be pleased that you managed to exercise three times. Try to find a victory in every day.
Take small steps towards a new goal
You can move a mountain one stone at a time. Even a little bit of progress towards a goal is progress. Taking small steps in the right direction will help you feel unstuck and keep the dopamine flowing.
Commit to working towards a goal for just ten minutes a day, or more if you can. In ten minutes, you can plan, research, make a phone call, or take other actions. Small increments of progress are better than waiting for the huge leaps which may never happen.
Keep adjusting the bar
If a goal is too low, you won’t get pleasure from achieving it. If it’s too high, you’ll get frustrated, disappointed, and quit. Lower the bar where you have set impossibly high goals for yourself and raise it where the goals are too easy. Keep assessing along the way and readjusting.
In How Happy Happens in Your Brain, I explain:
Endorphins have a chemical structure similar to opiates, mask pain or discomfort, and are associated with the fight or flight response. Endorphins give you the oomph to help you power through any situation.”
Laughing causes your brain to release endorphins. It takes a big laugh-out-loud guffaw that shakes your insides to get endorphins going. A little snigger won’t do the job. A good laugh can elevate your mood, reduce pain, anxiety, stress, and depression, and even boost your immune system. The use of humor has proven effective in formal therapies for several mental conditions.
Instead of thinking of laughing and having fun as just goofing off, think of it as serious business for your mental health. Figure out what gives you the giggles and commit to laughing daily.
Emotional tears cause the release of leucine-enkephalin, an endorphin that reduces pain and helps improve your mood. Cortisol is also excreted through tears. This detox reduces stress immediately. Like the old saying goes, you really will feel better after a good cry.
The author clarifies that making crying a daily habit is not the goal. The objective is to notice the tension between your need to cry and your “don’t-be-a-crybaby” reflex. You’ll want to make a habit of accepting your feelings and working through them rather than avoiding them.
You’ve probably heard of the “runner’s high” which is caused by endorphins. In fact, any exercise can stimulate endorphin release. It’s the strain on muscles that triggers the hormone. But, if you do the same exercise all the time working the same muscles, you’ll have to work harder and harder to reach a higher level of exertion to get the same endorphin surge. If you vary your workouts, moderate intensity can stimulate endorphins. Even just stretching and yoga releases endorphins.
In How Happy Happens in Your Brain, I say:
You may be familiar with oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the cuddle neurochemical. Oxytocin is released through closeness with another person and helps to create intimacy and trust and build healthy relationships. Skin-to-skin contact releases oxytocin, for example a person gets a hit during orgasm and mothers do during childbirth and breastfeeding. The cultivation of oxytocin increases fidelity and is essential for creating and maintaining strong bonds and improved social interactions.
The positive effects of upping oxytocin are most likely because oxytocin supports serotonin. Many serotonin-producing neurons also have oxytocin receptors; when oxytocin is released, serotonin gets a boost too. Plus, oxytocin also calms the reactivity of the amygdala, the fear center of your brain, and strengthens its communication with brain circuits that help you control emotions.
Build up “proxy” trust
One way to strengthen your social bonds and increase oxytocin is through what the author calls proxy trusts. Animals, crowds, and online friends are safe ways to build feelings of bonding and belonging. Proxy trusts are usually comfortable and uncomplicated with less chance of disappointment. Animals adore you unconditionally, crowds don’t judge you, and digital friends are plentiful and available at all times.
If you’ve been hurt or betrayed in past interpersonal interactions, it can be hard to trust again. Your brain’s alarms go off having learned from experience. However, if you become a hermit, your brain misses out on oxytocin. The answer is to start strengthening your brain’s feelings of connectedness in small ways.
Be trustworthy yourself
Oxytocin works both ways. When someone trusts you, whether or not you trust them, your oxytocin increases. You can enjoy more oxytocin by creating opportunities for people to trust you and then, by actually being trustworthy. Don’t confuse this with seeking the approval of others. It simply means to honor your commitments, pause, and internalize the good feeling of accomplishing that.
Physical contact with another human being stimulates oxytocin production. A 20-second hug, ten minutes of holding hands, or having sex can boost your levels of the love hormone and reduce cortisol, the stress hormone. Getting a massage is an excellent way to boost oxytocin. Even just hanging out with friends or being around other people, such as at a coffee shop or the gym, can up oxytocin.
Serotonin is a neurochemical that does so many different things in your body that it’s really tough to nail down its function precisely. Your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which primarily controls your personality and executive functioning, relies heavily on serotonin. Your overall mood is greatly influenced by this neurochemical …”
Many studies have found higher levels of serotonin associated with positive moods and decreased levels correlated to lower moods. One theory, still widely believed, blames depression on too little serotonin. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
You can also think of serotonin as the confidence neurochemical, flowing freely when you feel significant or important. You’re enjoying the effects of it when you feel respected by others, and your brain will seek more of the same by repeating behaviors that triggered its release in your past. Sometimes, that can drive people to seek attention in not-so-healthy ways.
The solution isn’t to try to rid yourself of your innate urge for status because your brain needs the serotonin. Instead, you can develop your belief in your own worth and focus on your wins.
Think happy thoughts
Seriously. It may seem too simple, but studies show that positive self-reflection, recalling happy memories, and affirmative thoughts boost serotonin activity in your prefrontal cortex. Reflecting on past significant achievements allows your brain to re-live the experience. In your brain, there’s not much difference between real and imagined, and remembering a success produces serotonin.
Take pride in your own accomplishments
Getting recognition from others is always nice and will give you a serotonin boost, but you can’t count on that consistently. Rather than seeking the approval of others, allow yourself to feel good about your own achievements. You don’t have to be a jerk about it, but simply make a point of recognizing two or three accomplishments daily will help. If you share your “atta boy” with someone else, even better!
Appreciate the advantages of your social position at each moment
You may be the boss at home and a subordinate at work. Each role has distinct advantages and disadvantages. When you aren’t in the dominant position, someone else has the responsibility. When you’re in charge, revel in the freedom and respect that comes with the position. Learn to focus on the positives of each while you’re in them, rather than the frustrations.
You can find out more ways to increase serotonin here.
In Habits Of A Happy Brain, Breuning suggests that you concentrate on increasing one happy chemical at a time. Over time, with repetition and because of neuroplasticity, the new behaviors will actually form pathways and patterns of operating in your brain to help alter your outlook.
Maybe you can be a “glass-half-full” person after all. 🙂