Meet Your Happy Chemicals: Dopamine, Endorphin, Oxytocin, Serotonin

Loretta Graziano Breuning

Learn which chemicals make you
happy and what you can do to optimize
Peruse the shelves of any book shop and you will find a multitude of titles telling
you how to be happy. It’s no surprise that so many writers have tried to tackle
this: we all want to be happier.

But what is happiness and where does it come from? These blinks show you how
joyfulness (and its evil sibling unhappiness) are products of our brain – more
specifically the chemicals of the brain. They explain how these chemicals work
and crucially how you can stimulate the right ones for yourself.

In these blinks you will learn

 why dominating others makes us feel happy; and
 why true happiness is only ever 45 days away.

We feel happy every time we see
something that is good for our survival.
Everybody wants to be happy. In fact, if we had our way, most of us
would always be happy. But what does “being happy” actually mean? And
what does happiness look like inside our brain?
Several structures in our brain, collectively called the limbic
system, manage
all of the chemicals responsible for our happiness. These happy
chemicals are brain chemicals – dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin and
serotonin – that are released each time we see something that is good for our
Whenever we sense something, the limbic makes a quick assessment to “decide”
whether or not something is worth a spurt of happy chemicals.

The limbic system developed a very long time ago in our evolutionary history,
and works today as it did in the past: things that increase the possibility of

Though we inherited the limbic system from our ancestors.. Whenever something promising came into his sight. a neurochemical connection was built or strengthened. signaling that it was time to expend his energy to reach the reward. his limbic system released dopamine. The happy chemical dopamine is released whenever you expect a reward. Our limbic system’s “decisions” can be quite confusing sometimes. for example. Dopamine and endorphin reward us for seeking our desires and let us combat physical pain. and it’s what motivates you to keep seeking it. If this happens a few times a connection between your neurons is formed. Unbeknownst to you. When you were hungry as a child. . our brain doesn’t automatically know when to release happy chemicals. It’s often unclear why one thing can make us happy when others don’t. Understanding the limbic system requires you to first understand how your various happy chemicals work. dopamine motivates you to go for it. Rather. that one of your ancient ancestors was walking around looking for food.e. however. and helps you manage the energy it takes to get it. i. you probably felt better. it’s our experiences and the neural pathways they form which determine what makes us happy and what doesn’t. If your mom gave you a cookie to ease your hunger. that experience probably made you feel bad. and things that decrease our chances of survival trigger unhappy chemicals. for example. When it finds one. a reward. That’s why you now reach out for a cookie whenever you feel bad: your brain formed a connection between eating cookies and a happy feeling.survival trigger happy chemicals. Imagine. your subconscious mind is constantly looking for rewards in your environment. Neural pathways are mainly formed when we are young: Each time we experienced something nice as a child.

so it’s a good thing that endorphins don’t last forever! Oxytocin lets us enjoy our social lives. because belonging to a social group is good for our survival. we could hardly survive at all. causing her to feel good and motivating her to look after her newborn. is triggered by physical pain. In fact. The chemical oxytocin rewards you for building social alliances. family or colleagues. but to help them survive. Endorphin. however. Imagine. one of them would probably involve your friends. cling to their mothers without knowing why. Indeed. but then takes a quick break to catch its breath. During the brief moment when the gazelle is no longer stuck between the lion’s jaws. When a child is born. too. does. without these social bonds. Young human children. building the attachment between parent and child. physical pain does not make us happy. despite its terrible wound. and serves to hide the pain to help you keep going. oxytocin is released in its mother’s brain. But why is that? Here. for example. If you had to pick three things that make you happy. while serotonin rewards us for dominating others. Oxytocin is the reason – it just feels good. Our primeval ancestors used endorphins not for the feeling. every experience of social belonging triggers oxytocin. With this rush of endorphin. you feel incredible instead of exhausted. that a lion catches a gazelle. If you’re a runner you’ve likely experienced “runner’s high” – that feeling you get after pushing yourself beyond your own limit and running that extra mile. you can thank your happy chemicals. . The good feeling you get because you trust another person is because of the oxytocin that has been released in your brain.Another happy chemical. and oxytocin plays a central role all throughout our social development. Oxytocin also flows in the child’s brain. Of course. Pain is important for our survival. endorphin. much like other mammals. endorphins allow it to use all of its remaining energy to sprint away.

Certain kinds of relationships trigger other chemical responses in the brain. the following blinks will look at how happy and unhappy chemicals shape our lives. serotonin is released when we assert our position in the social hierarchy by dominating others. Despite the great feeling that happy chemicals bring. our brain rewards us whenever others respect our position in the social hierarchy. the brain follows them with a spurt of cortisol. Here. the solution is easy – just go to the fridge and fix up a snack! Often. unhappy chemicals are equally important. however. In fact. cortisol is released whenever you’re hungry. While happy chemicals help us to pursue things that promote our survival. Cortisol is one such chemical. resulting in a feeling that you need to “do something. Now that you understand how your happy chemicals work. For example. but the feelings themselves – along with the chemicals that promote them – are as important as the positive emotions. it’s harder to work out why cortisol has been released.” . We might not enjoy bad feelings. motivating your brain to look for ways to mollify this feeling. Such an admission feels awkward considering the values of our modern society. every time happy chemicals fulfil their function. Nevertheless. things still don’t seem quite right. Even though you’re in your “normal” state. The reason for this becomes clear when we look at the animal kingdom: Those who dominate others have better access to food and more mating opportunities. Most people probably wouldn’t immediately agree that dominating others makes them feel good. Our unhappy chemicals are incredibly important to our survival. the unhappy chemical cortisol grabs our attention whenever our survival is threatened. So despite our attempts to promote fairness and kindness in modern society. our social relationships are highly varied.Of course. we still feel good when we occupy positions of power and dominance. Specifically.

Some people and businesses. and thus promotes our survival. and so on. meaning that you don’t have time to get used to a dish. our brain tries to mollify it by following routines that it knows will trigger the release of happy chemicals. It also helps us to predict threats. The limbic system isn’t solely responsible for our behavior. The happiness strategies our brain develops through past experience will eventually disappoint us. such as the French Laundry restaurant in California. . the restaurant serves many tiny courses. your nervousness won’t actually stop after your appointment. whenever we get the “do-something” feeling. and thus no longer trigger the release of happy chemicals. This novelty allows for a continuous release of dopamine – and happy feelings.It is this release of cortisol that motivates you to reach for a chocolate bar even when you aren’t hungry. meaning that your brain is constantly checking for the next potential threat and always releasing cortisol. that behavior will become routine and ordinary. simply to feel happy again. but unfortunately even those things will eventually disappoint us. which is responsible for rational analysis and assessing potential danger. You could probably make a long list of things that make you feel good. This process is called habituation. someone’s birthday. The reason we get this “do something” feeling is that our brain is always looking for potential threats. As we’ve seen previously. So if you are feeling nervous about going to the dentist. But do these things actually make you happy? Our experience has taught us what makes us happy. try to prevent habituation and maintain the effect of happy chemicals. It gets help from the cortex. Unfortunately. To accomplish this. The cortex works round the clock. Your brain will simply find the next thing to worry about: a work assignment. and always have something new to nibble on.

But your brain doesn’t understand this. for example. a repeated experience will never feel as good as the first time you tried it. which makes us susceptible to addiction. but will ultimately lead to disappointment. Your brain will follow strategies that it’s developed – despite having already been disappointed by them – because these strategies have worked in the past. The brain has a hard time figuring this out. we’ll eventually find ourselves in a vicious cycle. Things like drugs. Myelin is a substance that coats the neurons that you use often. we don’t want to become trapped in vicious cycles. One way they alter your brain is through myelination. It’s important to understand how these patterns develop and understand why it’s so much more difficult to change them in our adult lives. speaking it feels awkward because the neurons you use don’t yet have a myelin coat.However. If we continue to use happiness strategies that lead to disappointment. But there is a good reason for all this: habituation evolved because it promotes our survival. Sitting around enjoying what we already have doesn’t help us to survive. This can have disastrous consequences. Actions that follow those pathways feel more natural than ones that don’t. Experiences are critical in the formation of your neural circuitry. does. will make us happy. causing you to feel disappointed when those expectations aren’t met. Neurons that have a myelin coating are much more efficient than other neurons. Going out and looking for new ways to get those happy chemicals flowing. and keeps its expectations high. such as finding new sources of food. Obviously. if you’re learning a new language. in general. Neural circuits form because our experiences make physical changes in our brain. . For example. alcohol and junk food.

as being nice to someone results in the release of oxytocin! We can rewire our brains in order to enjoy things that are good for us. that you’re in a meeting where a colleague introduces a new project. for example. But your pre-frontal cortex. In fact. Imagine. the part of the brain that lets you decide where to place your attention. which explains why it’s more difficult to learn new things as an adult and why it’s difficult to change existing habits. then you will have internalized it and it will feel natural. and thus have the opportunity to change neural circuits. However. gives you the opportunity to ignore these chemicals and abstain from any action they might be trying to motivate you to do. You realize that his ideas are utter garbage. you won’t miss out on any happy chemicals. . all you need is a little patience.Most myelination happens before you turn 15. How should you react? You have two options: State your opinion aloud and present your own ideas instead (which will result in the release of serotonin) or inhibit yourself from humiliating your colleague and instead talk to him alone afterward. it takes only 45 days to construct a new neural pathway to happiness. We still have our free will. The knowledge that changing the way you approach happiness will mean changing your neuro-circuitry might make the whole process seem quite daunting. Neurochemicals are constantly swarming your brain and influencing your actions. But just because our experiences form our neural circuits doesn’t mean we’re powerless to change them. When it comes to changing your habits. and you’ll soon have much more control over your happiness. At first it won’t feel good to do something new instead of something you know you love – watching your favorite TV show has more appeal than studying. your newly formed habit will rewire your brain so that it releases happy chemicals whenever you do this new target action. persistence is the most important thing: If you manage to keep up your new habit for 45 days straight. But if you persist. In the end.

This will only trigger unhappy chemicals! Ultimately. Laughing. you’ll soon discover the ways in which they are able to find a little humor in each day. you can increase the number of habitual activities in your life that trigger the release of happy chemicals. always looking back to find missed or squandered opportunities. But there’s no way to avoid having to make these decisions. However. we have the choice to change that! To live means to constantly choose whether it’s worth giving something up to gain something else. Some people believe that it’s best to let others take control. is a great way to trigger endorphin release. it can be helpful to mirror the behavior of those who have already incorporated positive habits into their daily routine. it can also be a burden. Don’t be like those people who second guess every decision they’ve made. Your brain is always looking for opportunities to improve survival. and the rush of endorphins that comes with it. As useful as our complex neural structure is for our survival. Take time daily to find something that will really make you laugh. pay close attention to them during the day. After 45 days you will see that laughing. managing your own happiness means not letting others make decisions for you. has become a totally natural part of your day – one that you won’t want to give up. So if you want to incorporate laughter into your everyday life and know someone whose laughter fills the halls at your office. If you find yourself struggling to integrate your target behavior into your daily life. so you might as well get used to the risk. we are responsible for our own happy chemicals. but these opportunities always come with risks that might not bring the desired outcome. But persisting for 45 days isn’t always easy. By studying them and mirroring their behavior. for example. .Using this 45-day strategy. By constantly making decisions. Being on the constant lookout for potential threats and problems comes at the cost of ignoring the good things in life.

Rather. there would be no with the title of this book as the subject line and share your thoughts! . Actionable advice: Rejoice for your unhappy chemicals! It’s easy to lament the fact that we often feel less than jubilant. but your brain always wants what it doesn’t have. they never have to take the blame for any bad outcomes. But when you let others choose for you. because they aren’t going away anytime soon. you won’t experience the joy and sense of accomplishment that comes with pursuing your goals. without unhappiness. Accept your unhappy chemicals and come to terms with their influence on your life. why and who we love. no matter who is making the decisions! Final summary The key message in this book: Happiness isn’t arbitrary. it’s rooted in natural. Not only that. chemical processes in your brain – processes that were developed long before even the evolution of mankind! But that doesn’t mean you are powerless to determine your own happiness. This book is a scientifically grounded examination of love that reveals how. In fact.This way. Suggested further reading: Why We Love by Helen Fisher Helen Fisher’s Why We Love is not only a report on her latest astonishing research but a sensitive description of the infinite facets of romantic love. but the truth is that we need to feel unhappy. Got feedback? We’d sure love to hear what you think about our content! Just drop an email to remember@blinkist. and will always have a scapegoat.