You can manage your happy brain chemicals when you know how they work in the state of nature

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Meet Your Happy Chemicals

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Dopamine is the good feeling that a reward is at hand. It's your brain's signal that you are about to meet a need. Dopamine motivates the investment of energy in steps toward rewards. Each step closer stimulates more, but the dopamine stops once the need is met. To get more, your brain scans for the next opportunity to meet a need. Dopamine motivates constant survival action by making it feel good. Each brain defines survival rewards with neural pathways built from its past dopamine surges. READ MORE


Serotonin is the good feeling of social power. We hate to acknowledge this urge in ourselves though we easily see it in others. Serotonin is your brain's signal that it's safe to assert yourself in the presence of rivals. It's not aggression but the nice calm feeling that you have the strength necessary to meet your needs. Serotonin is soon metabolized so a mammals always needs to do more to get more. But the brain chooses its opportunities carefully because a misguided assertion can become a survival threat. READ MORE


Oxytocin creates the good feeling of social trust. A mammal can lower its guard when trusted others are near. You might want this feeling all the time, but trusting everyone would not promote survival. The mammal brain evolved to make careful decisions about when to release it. Common enemies motivate mammals to seek safety in numbers, and their brains reward them with a good feeling. Neurons connect when oxytocin flows, which wires you to trust in contexts that triggered it for you before. READ MORE


Endorphin masks pain with a euphoric feeling. It promotes survival by easing an injured mammal's escape from danger. But the endorphin stops in a short time because pain is the useful signal that an injury needs protection. Endorphin evolved for emergencies only. We are NOT designed to inflict pain on ourselves to enjoy it – that creates a bad loop because more pain is always needed. Fortunately, you get a bit of it from a belly laugh or healthy exertion, and a bit is enough. READ MORE

They're not meant to be on all the time, alas


The brain saves its happy chemicals for new rewards, and habituates quickly to old rewards. This is why we're often disappointed by the same-old thing, and why we're always seeking. Natural selection built a brain that rewards you for meeting survival needs, not for just sitting around. Survival is defined in a quirky way, alas: your mammal brain cares about the survival of your genes, and it relies on neural pathways built in youth.


Cortisol commands attention when a threat is perceived (internal or external). It creates the feeling that you will die if you don’t make it stop. Each cortisol spurt connects neurons that turn on the bad feeling when similar circumstances are met. Disappointment triggers cortisol. This promotes survival by alerting a mammal when expectations are not met, so it stops investing energy in an unrewarding pursuit.


Some neural pathways become superhighways thanks to myelin. It coats neurons, so they're super-efficient conductors of electricity. Myelin is abundant in the brain before age eight, and during puberty, so the experiences of those years become your brain's infrastructure. When electricity flows effortlessly down your myelinated neurons, you feel like you know what's going on. Leaving your myelinated pathways can feel like a survival threat, despite your best intentions.

Mirror Neurons

When you see another mammal get a reward or risk pain, mirror neurons fire in the same pattern as if you were having the experience yourself. These special neurons mirror what you observe in others. Repetition build neural pathways, so without effort or intent, a young mammal wires itself to seek rewards and avoid pain in the ways it observes in those around it.