The Chemistry of Happiness - How Hormones Influence Your Mind
I’ve been covering the emotional and mental development in my previous articles which was mainly about dealing with consciousness, with psychology. Today I’d like to focus on the biological basis of feelings, because at the end of the day, everything that is psychological, is also biological. And knowing the biological mechanisms can give you some insight into why we behave the way we do. Your body chemicals affect your work-life balance and also how you build and destroy your relationships. Let’s look at the chemistry of feelings.
Whatever happens in our consciousness, also happens in our body in form of chemicals. I’d like to focus on feelings today. Inside our body there are chemicals that try to make us do things that are in our self-interest. All the feelings of happiness we have are produced predominantly by 4 chemicals. These are ENDORPHINS, DOPAMINE, SEROTONIN, and OXYTOCIN. These chemicals have to do with different forms of human happiness. Let’s examine those one by one.
The first two chemicals, endorphins and dopamine, are selfish. You don’t need anybody’s help to get them. They make you effective, but give you no feeling of fulfilment and trust.
Endorphins mask physical pain. That’s it. You experience endorphins e.g. after strenuous physical activities, like running or working out. When you push your body to the limits, you really feel kind of high and fantastic. Only after a while you experience pain when the endorphins wear off. The reason why laughing feels so good is because of endorphins. Laughing convulses your internal organs, which is actually painful, but you don’t experience it because you feel great due to the release of endorphins. The pain comes only after a while.
Endorphins ensure endurance. It’s a system made for the survival of our ancestors. With the release of endorphins hunting must have felt really great.
The next selfish chemical is dopamine. Dopamine is the feeling you have after you find or accomplish something that you intended to do. Its purpose is to make sure that stuff gets done. Crossing out a to-do list gives you a rush of dopamine. Also eating releases dopamine. That’s why we eat because it’s pleasure, not just because we’re hungry. Most of us don’t even know what it feels like to be really and truly hungry.
Dopamine makes you focus on what you want to get. For that you have to have a tangible goal, because we are visual beings. That’s why writing your personal goals is so important from a biological point of view. A goal, a vision has to be easy to imagine. A vision is something you have to be able to see.
Every time you achieve a goal, a metric, a milestone, it makes you feel that you’re making progress. And that releases dopamine. The problem with dopamine is that it’s highly addictive. All addiction is because of dopamine. That’s why you shouldn’t be surprised if I told you that also alcohol, nikotin, gambling and cellphones release dopamine. If the first thing you crave in the morning is alcohol, you might be addicted. In the same way, if the first thing you crave in the morning is checking your cell phone messages or social media, you might be addicted. And it’s dopamine that causes it.
Dopamine is dangerous if it’s not controlled and unbalanced. Then you can get addicted to nearly anything, even to performance and success. And with addicts you can presume they would often do anything to get their dopamine high, sometimes even by sacrificing their own relationships and resources. The feeling of wanting more and more and more all the time comes from that addiction to dopamine rushes.
I repeat: dopamine is dangerous if not used in moderation, and your addiction to your cellphone and social media can be a certain manifestation of that danger.
Okay, that was the selfish chemicals. Now let’s move on to the selfless chemicals: the serotonin and oxytocin. These two give you a feeling of fulfilment and trust. They are what makes the human character great. They are the feelings of belonging, of unity. They should actually control the two selfish chemicals.
Serotonin is responsible for the feelings of pride and status. People are social beings, and we all need recognition of some kind for our actions. That’s where the desire of recognition and ceremonies comes from. Serotonin reinforces the relationship between different people. It makes you want to make your people proud, proud of you and proud of themselves. It’s a mutual group thing. Serotonin also makes you look after others so that they can achieve the same result, the same pride in their achievements.
As you can see, this chemical has to do with status and recognition. However, serotonin can be tricked. You can make your body release it even without establishing meaningful relationships. Whenever you buy and wear expensive clothes and feel your status elevated, or whenever you accumulate materialistic goods, that also triggers serotonin in your body. You feel that your status is great, although you didn’t establish any great relationships with other people. That’s the trick of releasing serotonin for selfish reasons instead of doing it for the sake of mutual recognition.
The last chemical is the best one - the amazing and beautiful master chemical. It’s oxytocin. Oxytocin is the feeling of love, trust and friendships, all those fuzzy great feelings that make the best out of humanity. Oxytocin builds up slowly in the body and it stays there. You can’t get addicted to that. In fact, the presence of this love chemical reduces your susceptibility to addiction. It’s a feeling of safety, of knowing that someone’s always got your back.
Oxytocin is released by physical contact, e.g. by hugging someone. The mother-child bond is also established by oxytocin. Acts of human generosity release oxytocin. This chemical is about genuine human bonds. Money doesn’t work here. You get a rush of oxytocin whenever you give your time and energy to someone, by doing nice things. Not only do you get the hit of oxytocin, also the others who are helped by you get the rush of oxytocin. It’s a chemical that bonds people at the same time for the same action of generosity. Any thoughts of transactional self-interest or agenda thinking don’t work on this chemical. It’s all about pure relationship-building.
There’s even more: oxytocin inhibits dopamine, so it prevents addictions. And it boosts your immune system, meaning that it makes you healthier. Yes, it’s true: unselfish, happy people live longer.
So here’s the 4 main chemicals of our feelings: the selfish endorphins to mask pain, the selfish and addictive dopamine to make you achieve things, the serotonin for social status and recognition, and the unselfish oxytocin to make you feel loved and selfless. I hope from this you could gain some understanding why people behave the way we do. What’s the conclusion from all this?
The conclusion is that all the things about our feelings have a real, historical, evolutionary, biological basis in reality. We strived to survive among dangers as primitive people, so our bodies had to mask pain and make us efficient so that we could survive by finding food and shelter. And then the evolution moved further away from mere survival and towards social cohesion and unity that culminates in love and selfless deeds of generosity. The lesson from this is that in all circumstances of life we need to strive to become generous, selfless, caring and loving people, because this makes us experience the highest and best feelings that are based on oxytocin, the chemical of love, remember? It means that we need to strive after higher and nobler feelings if we want to develop emotionally. It means we should use our lower feelings that are based on endorphins and dopamine to be effective, but use our higher feelings as guides in our life. The feelings of unity and mutual social cohesion should be the guiding force in our life, and anything else should be used as tools to achieve that goal and vision of a harmonious and flourishing society.
So on this note I’d like to say: lots of love to you and your families. Peace.