By Ganteng Boy
Caveat: I am not a medical doctor and am not qualified to validate that the following is 100% accurate. I am publishing this post based on my personal curiosity and from what I have gathered online, in pursuit of my personal happiness.
After seeing a Ted Talk by Helen Fisher, I wondered if in someway my perception of happiness could possibly be a balance or imbalance of brain chemicals. Fisher’s presentation challenged the question whether technology influenced the way that we love. TLDR: it doesn’t. In her talk, Fisher explains that we have multiple brain systems that are buried beneath the most primitive parts of our brain. And these brain systems are responsible for governing our internal energy, motivation, focus, wanting, craving and drive. People are naturally drawn to other people with similar dominant brain systems. People who have a strong dopamine system tend to be creative, energetic, curious, spontaneous. People who have a strong serotonin system tend to be traditional, conventional, they follow the rules, they respect authority, they tend to be religious.
I took my curiosity a step further and wanted to understand the different brain chemicals that contribute to my perception of happiness. I also shared some practical exercises on how to balance each one:
1. Dopamine. Dopamine is the driver, the motivator, the feeling that surges through your body when you have achieved your goal. On the flip side, low levels of dopamine might be present when you start to see behaviors of procrastination, self-doubt and lack of enthusiasm. Google search studies on lab rats and dopamine, and you might stumble upon articles with findings on rats with low levels of dopamine opted for the easier option and often received a smaller reward, while rats with higher levels of dopamine exerted the need to double the amount of food.
How to apply this principle in my life? I have a big goal to run a full marathon. A full marathon is 26 miles. If I never have ran a marathon before, this is daunting. What I can do instead is to break down the big goal into smaller goals. Every day, I aim to run 2-4 miles as my short runs [small goal, achievable], and aim to run 6-18 miles, one day each week, as my long run [bigger goal, might be achievable]. I reward myself after I finish each run. What I found was that each successful run fueled my ambition to finish my goal – to run a full marathon.
2. Serotonin. Whenever you feel important, “high and mighty”, or proud, chances are you have serotonin flowing through your body. Absence of serotonin may contribute to feelings of loneliness and depression. Unhealthy attention-seeking behaviors are also a cry for serotonin (see Exhibit B below)
How to apply this principle in my life? In my last post, I noted the importance of meditation. Meditate on your past achievements and things that you are thankful for having in your life. Since your brain does not understand what is real and what is not real, this exercise facilitates the flow of serotonin. The moment when my younger brother was inducted into my fraternity was the highest achievement of my undergraduate greek life career. I felt a similar rush when he adopted a little bro into our greek life family. And though it has been several years since that time, through meditation, I can teleport myself to a time when I felt a peak of significance.
3. Oxytocin. Releasing oxytocin creates intimacy, trust and strengthens relationship. This is released by men and women during organs, and mothers during childbirth and breastfeeding. Oxytocin is the glue that binds healthy relationships together.
How to apply this principle in my life? If your faith frowns upon pre-marital sex and you are single, it might not be a good idea to just “do it” with a stranger that has a mutual sexual interest in you. Instead, aim to hug 8 people a day. Dr. Paul Zak explains that inter-personal touch not only raises oxytocin, but reduces cardiovascular stress and improves the immune system. Next time, go for the hug instead of the hand shake. Hang on dude, what if I am not a big hugger. Ok, fine, then give someone a gift. Gift giving can also contribute to oxytocin surges.
4. Endorphin. This brain chemical is released as a response to pain or stress. As an avid runner, I crave the euphoric feeling also known as “runners high”. There are drugs, such as morphine and THC, which act as a sedative and diminish your perception of pain.
How to apply this principle in my life? If you are a gangster, then have at it – go for your drug of choice. But beware, each drug has their own repercussion. Who said alcohol was not a drug? For us normal folk, laughter is an easy way to initiate the release of endorphins. You can: tell a friend a joke; go to a comedy club with that said friend (hopefully you both share the same humor); or, take a few sips of wine, tell your friend a joke and comment how ridiculous his bow tie looks (see photo below). One thing is certain, my friend’s dopamine level (in the photo below) was off the charts that day.