As a writer, I'm fascinated by human behavior. As someone who almost became a psychologist and potentially even a psychiatrist, I'm even more fascinated by the scientific explanations behind why we think, act and feel certain ways. So, when I stumbled across a book called Meet Your Happy Chemicals, I was immediately intrigued. What most of us know about the neurochemicals linked to happiness is pretty limited—most antidepressants prescribed today deal with serotonin, and that's about the extent to which common knowledge reaches. After devouring the book, I was so blown away by the science behind what makes us happy and unhappy that I decided to test out its exercises—which purport to make you naturally happier if repeated for 45 days and give you a fair amount of control over your happiness moving forward—to see if this was just another smoke-and-mirrors self-help book or the real deal. Since everyone can use a positivity boost from time to time, I thought I'd share the results of my little experiment—keep reading to find out if my hard work paid off in happiness.
Meet Your Happy Chemicals
Before I dig in, please keep in mind that I am not a doctor! The purpose of this essay is just to relate my experience in testing out the exercises outlined in this book. (Full disclosure: I also used the Happify app, which utilizes a lot of the same science.)
According to Meet Your Happy Chemicals, there are four neurochemicals in our brains responsible for feelings of happiness. Each one exists, ultimately, for biological reasons that have historically enabled us to survive. The book argues that we can control their flow simply by knowing which behaviors trigger their release in the brain.
Let's start with dopamine. Dopamine helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers. It's this neurotransmitter that alerts us to our needs, and then gives us pleasure when we're able to meet them. (In nature, dopamine is released in a predator's brain when it so much as smells its prey, and then even more is released when the prey is captured.) These "needs" are defined by our biology, upbringing and environment. As dopamine is what causes us to strive and achieve, negative behaviors like procrastination, self-doubt and apathy are linked to low levels of it.
You don't have to achieve big in order to release dopamine and in fact, relying on reaching high-level goals will leave you with a pattern of emotional highs and lows. Instead, it's recommended you break larger goals down into smaller goals and celebrate each time a step in the process has been completed. Spending just 10 minutes per day working toward a big, overwhelming goal, the book posits, will boost dopamine levels in a sustainable way and motivate you to achieve what might have otherwise seemed unachievable.
Meet Your Happy Chemicals also recommends that you find at least one victory to celebrate each day, no matter how big or small. Write about it in your journal, and then call someone and tell them about it. It might seem silly, but it's science.
Next up is serotonin. Serotonin is mostly triggered by the respect you feel you're receiving from others. If you don't feel important, the result is depression.
To trigger the flow of serotonin, the book suggests taking note of the moments in which the people in your life follow your example, or where it's obvious you've had some influence. Did your co-worker go out and buy a dress similar to the one you wore, which she admired? Did your friend ask you for recommendations for her next trip because you're good at that sort of thing? These may feel like very small moments, but they're signals of respect that, if noticed, can trigger serotonin. Paying attention to them while they're happening is ideal, but you can also trigger serotonin by remembering times at which you were influential in the past. Doing this regularly will rewire your brain from, say, triggering serotonin only when you win an award to being able to release the chemical when someone so much as compliments your blouse.
The book also suggests focusing on the positive. If you're feeling demoralized at work, for example, one exercise is to note the pros of your position. For example, if you actually had your supervisor's job, what would that look like? It may promote greater respect from your colleagues, but you'd also have more responsibility and more stress. Whenever you're feeling bad about your status, take a moment to consider the big picture.
Oxytocin is pretty famous for being the cuddle hormone. It has to do with social bonding, trust and intimacy. You can get it through something as simple as a hug, and you can give it through something as simple as a small gift. There are other ways to increase oxytocin in your life, however. One is to honor a commitment you've made to someone. I tend to flake on plans constantly—as an introvert, I need a lot of time to recharge and therefore am often too depleted to do whatever I've committed to doing. However, according to the book, simply following through on my commitments, big or small, can trigger oxytocin. Who knew?
Another easy way to release oxytocin is to notice a situation in your life in which trust is evident—a friend calls to confide in you, for example—and tell yourself, "I made this." This thought process calls attention to the oxytocin-inducing relationships you've built in your life.
Endorphins are released to help us master pain. Moderate exercise, laughter and crying are three of the best ways to release endorphins that don’t involve, for example, running a marathon. This explains why my go-to feel-better activities are attending a Pop Physique class and/or watching old episodes of 30 Rock. When it comes to exercise, the book further suggests that you vary your workouts constantly. As humans, we habituate rather quickly, which means that the first day in a new exercise class is going to release a certain amount of endorphins, but the next day is going to release less even though you worked out just as hard. Investing in a ClassPass, then, might make sense in order to diversify your routine.
Meet Your Unhappy Chemical—Cortisol
When we feel our survival is threatened in any way—from actual danger to the perceived danger of losing a relationship, which can actually feel life-threatening to our brain—an unhappy chemical called cortisol floods our system. Cortisol has a bad rap, but it's nature's way of telling us to take action. When the threat is something as simple as hunger, and the remedy is something as simple as eating, this system works beautifully, as the anxiety caused by the cortisol will lessen as soon as we start to seek out food. Most triggers in modern life, however, are much more complex, which leaves you scanning your environment in a heightened state of anxiety, looking for a potential way to eliminate the cortisol ASAP. Many of the ways in which we know to do this are learned in childhood—whether they're actually effective in promoting our best interests or not—and it can be difficult to create new pathways in adulthood. In fact, many of the means we have developed for coping with cortisol actually lead to increased cortisol release in the long run (e.g., reaching for cocktails).
The book suggests you work hard to rewire in a way many will likely find difficult—I know I did. For 45 days, you have to commit to sitting through the surge. This means that rather than reaching for your crutch of choice—a glass of wine, Instagram, the boy you know is bad for you—you have to sit and do nothing and just feel bad. It's helpful in this short period to analyze what might be causing the cortisol. If you're in a fight with your friend, for example, your brain feels your social ties are threatened and fears for your survival outside the circle. Knowing this, what steps might you take to remedy the situation? The book suggests pondering this for a few moments then trying out a healthy activity that will release a happy chemical without negative long-term effects. A jog fits the bill here, as does my go-to five to 10 minutes on the Duolingo app (sounds silly but it works). If you do this repeatedly, your brain will actually rewire itself to crave the jog in times of stress instead of the cocktail.
The book also puts forth the idea that our brains, unlike the brains of most mammals, can imagine a world that is much better than the one in which we live. This causes us distress, because when we measure our present reality against our perceived better selves and circumstances, cortisol surges. For this reason, the book suggests a daily gratitude list to enable better feelings about the present and release happy chemicals.
The 45-Day Challenge
Unfortunately, our happy chemicals are not designed to flow in our brains in a steady stream. The very nature of how they're triggered means they'll always come and go in spurts. The idea behind incorporating the book's practices into your daily life is to lessen the highs and lows that come from not knowing how to trigger small doses consistently. If you only receive oxytocin when you're intimate with someone, for example, you'll constantly chase that high, like an addict. If you instead learn how to have some control over providing your brain with a fairly steady stream of oxytocin, you'll be happier more of the time, consistently, albeit at more moderate levels.
I tried to incorporate as many of the daily exercises into my life as possible for the 45 days prescribed. These included: journaling my gratitude daily, even for things as small as having hot water; exercising daily for any amount of time; stretching daily (I did this in the shower); working toward a big goal for 10 minutes each day; celebrating one victory per day; sharing that victory with one person each day (usually my mom); noticing daily demonstrations of trust from others, no matter how big or small, and saying "I made this"; honoring my commitments (this one was very difficult!); noting the benefits of my position at work (I once owned my own company. Now I am very much a cog in a wheel, but boy is it nice not to have the stress associated with all that responsibility I once had); noticing when people are following my example or otherwise noting my influence (you will be shocked at how often this happens in small ways); and choosing something I like to be in control of and consciously releasing control of it (this is another suggested tactic for enduring cortisol surges).
I absolutely loved the addition of every single one of these activities in my life. Whenever my brain started to go negative (or release cortisol), I'd pick one of the easier exercises and use it to activate a small burst of happy—celebrating a small victory, for example—and it always worked. As with any habit you're trying to build, I wasn’t 100% successful every single day. But I did the best I could and I saw, and continue to see, a marked difference. Whether you have a natural chemical deficiency or not, these easy tools can, from my experience, help you break the pattern of highs and lows to ensure a steady stream of good feelings in your life.
At the end of the 45 days, I can honestly say I'm happier than I've been in a long time, and yet nothing has changed in my life except for these small and sort of silly-seeming exercises. It's not as simple as "look on the bright side," and I don't want to perpetuate dangerous misconceptions about depression by saying you can eliminate it by "being positive," as that is absolutely not the case. However, I found that regular use of these exercises did have the intended effect. I wasn't artificially happier ("People are starving in Syria! You’re so lucky—just be happy!") but I genuinely felt moderately better on a consistent basis, and I now have some quick tricks up my sleeve to help me through tough times.
If you don't have time to read Meet Your Happy Chemicals but would like to easily add some of the exercises it recommends into your life, I do suggest checking out the Happify app, which uses science to create fun activities that, when done regularly, can increase your day-to-day happiness levels. As Sophocles said, "Happiness depends on wisdom all the way." Knowing how your brain chemistry works is a great step toward overcoming its unique handicaps and creating tools to see yourself through even the biggest of disappointments, failures and challenges life has to offer.