My love affair with Happy Chemicals started four years ago. It was around my birthday and I was in a celebratory mood. I was with friends that I love and trust, and we decided to take MDMA and have an adventure. I had never tried this drug before, but was feeling open and excited to have an experience that I had never had before. MDMA acts as a serotonin-norepinephrine-dopamine releasing agent and reuptake inhibitor. This means that not only does it release these happy chemicals that produce a feeling of euphoria and extreme empathy, but also blocks the reuptake so your system is flooded. (In no way am I attempting to glorify this drug but rather am offering this as my anecdotal experience. This is still a drug and not something to take lightly).
A few hours in, I found myself walking through downtown Vancouver on my own, smiling and feeling connected to everyone I passed by and dialing up one friend after another to tell them how much I loved them. I felt superb, elated, free, detached from stress or worry, excited about whatever my future holds, and so in tune with the present moment. This realization compounded into a revelation……I have felt like this before. When I eat well, sleep well, exercise consistently, push outside my comfort zone, engage with inspiring and empowering people, create art and projects that light me up, and am actively supporting people around me…..I feel high on life.
That was the pivotal moment that took me on a journey for the next three years. I was determined to understand my mind and body, and what it takes to create that natural high on a daily basis in a real, healthy, and sustainable way. I explored, researched, conversed with experts, and practiced tools and knowledge that would allow me to own my courage and my fears, until I had a several steps and systems that released me from my negative habit loops and brought consistent happiness into my daily life. After three years, I took the leap from my Full-Time job to create dope(a)me coaching so I could spread my passion and share my tools with others.
Knowing about these Happy Chemicals, how to create them, how to keep them in balance, and how to recognize when time and attention needs to be spent to elevate them, has been life changing for me and my clients. This is one tool and one piece of knowledge within the dope(a)me strategy. When we actively engage in activities that boost our happy chemicals on a daily basis, along with a few other strategies to let-go of habits, 'stories', and beliefs that hold us back, and create a Mindset for growth, we can increase our Happiness Baseline.
Jonathan Haidt, in The Happiness Hypothesis, speaks of the Happiness Baseline as your set-point, based on your experience, your biology, and your mindset. When something amazing happens, i.e. win the lottery, meet the man/woman of your dreams, get that promotion you’ve been working your ass off for, etc. we have a few days, weeks, or months of increased happiness, but eventually, you dip back down to your Happiness Baseline. And conversely, if the worst happens, I.e. you lose a loved one, you lose a limb, your marriage falls apart, etc., you dive down into the depths of despair, but again, given some time, you find your way back to that Happiness Baseline.
When I learned about the Happiness Baseline, I realized I was not happy with where my baseline sat. I wanted more from my life. I knew the words I used when I talked to myself, the things I focused on, and some of the habits I had, were not conducive to raising my baseline. So I needed to shift a lot in order to increase my overall happiness.
In comes Happy Chemicals. To be the change you want to see in yourself and in the world, you need the motivation, the tools, the path, and the support. Once you are clear on your Core Values, Goals, and the daily and incremental steps to align yourself with who you truly want to be, getting those Happy Chemicals pumping daily will make the journey so much smoother, and a lot more fun.
Loretta G. Breuning, PHD, in her book Meet Your Happy Chemicals, says,
“The feeling we call “happiness” comes from four special brain chemicals: dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin, and serotonin. These “happy chemicals” spurt when your brain sees something good for your survival. Then they turn off, so they’re ready to spurt again when something good crosses your path.”
Here are some basics to get to know your Happy Chemicals…..
From an evolutionary perspective, as hunter and gatherers, life was strenuous and required the exertion of a lot of energy to find the basics for living life. Dopamine is the happy chemical that spurts when you are seeking or working towards something, or when you find something that is good for your survival.
It feels like motivation, energy, and pleasure. It Aids in sleep, memory, being in action, mood, and overall cognitive ability; like learning, attention, and building new habits by forming new neural connections. You can produce this naturally by getting a sweat going daily, setting goals and taking incremental steps to get there, creating a to-do list and checking things off as you go, mindful movement with intentional and focused breath, and creating a constant reason to seek as you collect experiences, resources, knowledge, etc.
This chemical doesn’t play as big of a role in happiness, but rather supports survival by spurting when we step outside our comfort zone to the point of pain. This chemical masks pain and releases a euphoric and blissful feeling, giving you energy to push to a new level of physical exertion.
Evolutionarily speaking, this was what helped our ancestors escape from predators when injured or in need of a burst of energy to move or think quickly. We get spurts of this chemical when we push through the “wall” in physical exercise and has been equated to the “runners high”, or the ability to move large and heavy items in the face of extreme danger that we would normally not be able to budge.
Our ancestors learned quickly that we are stronger and capable of much more when we work together as a unit or tribe. Serotonin is the happy chemical that would spurt when you did something that furthered your integral role within your group. It is the desire for social dominance, respect, and status.
It feels like safety, balance, and confidence. It aids in mood balancing, bowel regulation, and cognitive ability. You can produce it naturally by acknowledging what you are proud of on a daily basis and by acknowledging that your status will continually go up and down and that it is important to focus on the advantages of wherever you are now. Also by engaging in Mindful Movement and aerobic exercise, getting sunshine and fresh air, working on a hobby you are passionate about, actively let go of comparisons, and try something new to continue building skills and open yourself to new opportunities.
This is the “love” chemical. We have survived because we reproduce. This chemical promotes survival with the desire for social bond, loving relationships, and healthy interactions.
It feels like safety, trust, love, and connection. It is an amnestic hormone, which means it has the ability to wipe out previous neural pathways that lead to past lovers, as well as to forget the pain of child birth. You can create this naturally by listening to soothing music, engaging in meditative breath, laughter, sex, a 20 second hug, connecting with friends or family that you love and admire, or working up a sweat while laughing and connecting with your peers.
These chemicals are all complicated and there is a lot more to know about them than what I have shared. Research is still teaching us lots about how these chemicals work and the various differences that arise within each individual, but what we do know is awe-inspiring and can significantly change the way you live your life if you are mindful of engaging in activities daily to produce them.
Despite their differences they have a lot in common with each other as well. You can produce a combination of them when you engage in the act of gratitude, when you work up a sweat, when you slow down and connect with your breath through Mindful Movement, or when you get fresh air and feel sunshine on your face. When you actively pursue balance and eat foods rich with vitamins and anti-oxidants. The foods we eat are our source of fuel. Eat whole foods and a balanced diet, avoid processed foods and sugars. A good "rule of thumb" that I follow is to ensure that at least 80% of food bought is chosen from the 4 wall perimeter the grocery store.
And then there is Novelty. You can’t get the same beautiful and delicious spurt of happy chemicals by doing the same thing every day. You need to try new things, stay open to new opportunities, learning and growth.
Knowing all of this is one thing, but actually changing habits and retraining your brain to let go of neural pathways that have been there for years, to make way for new pathways that serve you better, takes patience, time, and persistence.
Loretta G. Breuning, PHD, explains,
“Building new circuits in adulthood is like trying to slash a new trail through dense rainforest. Every step takes huge effort, and the new trail disappears into the undergrowth if you don’t use it again soon. Such trail-blazing feels inefficient and downright unsafe when a nice superhighway is nearby. That’s why people tend to stick with the pathways they have.”
This is where support, mindfulness, and clear direction and goals help you stay focused on why you are willing to struggle and persist in your journey. Set yourself up for success by engaging with someone who will support and cheer you on. Whether you reach out to me to learn more and set up a support system, or enroll people in your life already, this is a journey you will be thankful for embarking on. Happy Trail Blazing!