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The Chemistry of Happiness


“All the joy the world contains has come through wishing happiness for others. All the misery the world contains has come through wanting pleasure for oneself

– Shantideva, ninth century Indian Mystic

Reading this quote it would be understandable to conclude that this, at best, this is a pleasant but idealistic sentiment and, at worst, a load of rubbish. We live in an increasingly hedonistic society, where everyday we are bombarded with stimuli that promise to sate our craving for new pleasures. Why shouldn’t we quench our desires with all the wonders the modern world can offer us? Surely personal pleasure, satisfaction and fulfilment go hand in hand?

Surprisingly, biology tells us that things aren’t that simple and, quite possibly, the ancient sages like Shantideva may have been right all along. The key lies within our biochemistry, in the form of the hormones/neurotransmitters dopamine and oxytocin. It is dopamine that gives us our sense of what constitutes a desirable, rewarding activity, substance or person . At balanced levels, dopamine allows us to enjoy life, to get things done, be motivated, form healthy bonds, make sound choices and have realistic expectations. However, too much or too little dopamine brings with it a set of problem behaviours that will be very familiar to most people. In excess, we have more wanting but, crucially, less liking of things. Dopamine becomes a chemical of craving but not satisfaction, hence the prospect of those new shoes, gadget, gambling win etc. is all encompassing, it has hooked our brain’s desire for reward and we must have it come Hell or high water. Sadly, the getting of said item or experience is not what dopamine is interested in; it just wants to drive you on to the next thing. Where dopamine stimulation is excessive, there is also likely to be a subsequent crash after all the excitement that makes things feel bleak and joyless. What’s the solution? More stuff, titillation, hedonism! At least that’s how we end up feeling.

The question is why would dopamine become excessive? Why the big highs and lows? Our dopamine-driven reward circuitry evolved prior to the modern world, when most rewarding activities were fairly low-key and healthy. The sight of some newly ripened, juicy, sugary fruits, the prospect of dancing with someone you find attractive and enjoying a celebration with others in the tribe. The modern world, however, offers a host of superstimuli available on tap, and it sends our poor brains into overdrive. Compulsive shopping, junk food, gambling, drugs, porn all offer big dopamine spikes, and a neverending supply of new and more stimulating prospects; the new chocolate bar variety, next stimulant high, next exciting image will all be better. What comes up must come down, however, and so as we experience these dizzying dopamine highs our bodies respond by reducing sensitivity to it, literally decreasing the number or receptors on nerve cells that would normally be activated by binding dopamine. Our dopamine levels crash and we are driven to more extreme stimuli to get out of the ensuing low feeling.

When dopamine levels are too low, we experience a lack of joy and drive, low libido, withdrawal, low energy and inability to love. There comes an intense desire to medicate our mood with any available rewarding superstimulus. Yet we run the risk that by obtaining another high we crash even harder. It may seem paradoxical, but both low and excessive dopamine both lead to addictions, in excess we are single-mindedly driven to obtain each new stimulus because our brain is telling us it is the most desirable thing we have ever encountered, when low we desperately crave to get out of the sorry state we are in. Either way we must have whatever it is at all costs! So, how do we step off this chemical rollercoaster?

Firstly, by recognising that not all of what appears to be desirable is actually good for us, and seeing how the cycle of highs and lows controls us can be motivation in itself. I don’t want to be a slave to dopamine highs at the cost of my ultimate wellbeing. We all want to be happy, but pursuing superstimuli is not the answer. I’m not saying stop shopping, eating cake etc. altogether, but know when a behaviour is actually bringing true satisfaction or just the prospect of imagined happiness and a corresponding low after it has been obtained. As a side-issue, it is my observation that compulsive social media checking, also seems to be another superstimulus trap, scrolling endlessly through the Facebook feed for the next little interesting story or shocking revelation…

Secondly, by engaging in activities that balance dopamine and promote the production of oxytocin. Oxytocin is the ‘love’ hormone that bonds us to those we care about, be they partners, parents or children. When we have plenty of oxytocin it fights the effects of stress, relaxing us, boosting our immune system, speeding up wound healing and making us want to behave at our best: caring, kind, selfless and loving. Unlike dopamine, the more oxytocin we produce, the more receptors for oxytocin our nerves produce. We love to be loving!

The ‘highs’ of oxytocin-stimulating behaviours don’t carry the skyrocketing excitement of dopamine, yet they are profoundly more satisfying and conducive to lasting happiness. These behaviours include, smiling with eye contact, giving to people without being asked, giving unsolicited approval, listening with full attention to someone, massage, hugging, sharing an activity with attention on the person you are with, forgiveness and gratitude. We can also walk in inspiring scenery, garden, sing, play music, dance, exercise, spend time with companions, care for pets, practice yoga, tai chi, qigong or meditation. The irony is that often these things don’t look like the path to happiness, and the quick personal pleasure fix seems the better choice. Yet all the research and, I would suggest, most people’s experience in the wisest part of their being, knows the quick fix is ultimately unsatisfying. (As an acupuncturist, I would also add that acupuncture can help to balance hormones, with demonstrable effects of needling on dopamine levels).

One key area where all of this matters is in our romantic relationships. In the ‘honeymoon period’ we experience the delightful harmony of our partner giving us a big hit of dopamine (they are rewarding) and they stimulate us to produce oxytocin, so we are caught up in loving feelings and a craving that we simply cannot be without that person. We are altruistic, motivated; they bring out the best in us. So why does this have to end? Over time dopamine production habituates such that our partner may no longer be seen as so rewarding. Some suggest this is a cruel consequence of our genes seeking to combine with new partners to produce more genetically diverse offspring that will have a better chance of surviving.

As dopamine crashes, our perspective on our partner can shift, we can feel irritable, needy or jealous, seeing them in the worst possible light, but innocently assuming it is because the ‘real’ them has now emerged. New prospective partners may, however, light up our reward circuitry quite powerfully. However, all of this is a trick of perception that can be understood as follows: We experience a low mood from our modern lifestyle induced dopamine crash, and our rational brain checks in to see how we are feeling. Looking to justify the feeling, it builds stories about our circumstances that look entirely real, because it implicitly trusts the feeling we are experiencing (the feeling comes from our mammalian brain, which our rational brain checks for a sense of what is true and correct). Hence our partner looks like they really are intolerable and we would be better off without them, how could we have put up with them before?

One solution to getting around this is to know that when we check in on our mood and feel negative, angry, irritable, low etc, we can realise that it is coming from within and will be inevitably colouring our thoughts about our partner. So don’t build those stories! Just accept a low mood for what it is, and it will rebalance itself much more quickly because you won’t build a story on top of it. The alternative is to indulge in the negative thought story which creates a downward spiral in which we think more negative things that produce more of the chemicals that make us feel even worse, which we take as being even stronger evidence that these thoughts are correct. Worse still, we can then behave in aggressive, moody, cold or other unpleasant ways that will be likely to also lower our partner’s mood (creating in them a tendency towards insecurity, moodiness, irritability, selfishness among other things) in which state they will probably give us back the behaviours that confirm we were right about them all along ! We can unwittingly bring out the worst in each other.

Therefore, try and catch yourself when you are doing this and avert the crisis. Not building the story and instead creating space for new perceptions (or even just acknowledging that a new perception is possible) and engaging in the oxytocin producing behaviours described above can work wonders. Giving love and wishing others happiness can indeed, as Shantideva attested, give us happiness too. Looking for a dopamine high in the form of a new partner offers little in the way of a solution; balanced dopamine and an oxytocin rich, loving bond within a long-term monogamous relationship increases lifespan and overall wellbeing. Be the person to make the move towards loving and giving oxytocin-stimulating behaviours. A cherished partner, child, friend or parent will be more likely to give us back the bonding behaviours that bring us happiness. Even if they don’t, seeing them with compassion is actually rewarding for us, whatever their response. It feels nicer to be nice!

The majority of the understanding shared in this article has been informed by the fantastic work of Marnia Robinson. Her book, “Cupid’s Poisoned Arrow”, is an inspiring work that also challenges some commonly held concepts about relationships. Yet, for the open minded it offers a valid path to harmonious, satisfying, long-term relationships.

Other useful concepts have come from the Three Principles Understanding shared by the late Sydney Banks and exemplified in the excellent book “The Relationship Handbook”. More information about the Three Principles can be found at www.threeprinciplesmovies.com

Rob Veater Acupuncture: providing effective acupuncture services for Colne Engaine, Earls Colne, Pebmarsh, Halstead, Sudbury, Colchester and surrounding areas