The chemistry of happiness: physiological principles of shaping wholesome personality

The chemistry of happiness: physiological principles of shaping wholesome personality

What you practice is what you develop. To become the way you want to be, just start doing it. We’re talking about this on all our seminars and retreats: our mind is like a muscle; to develop it in a certain direction, you just need to practice this certain direction. Just do it :)

Like we perform exercise to develop our muscle, and the more we practice the stronger it gets, everything that we do in our mind reinforces this quality of the mind that is being practiced, creating mental habits, positive or negative. The more often you feel irritated, the easier it gets for you to get irritated with or without any reason; the more often you feel angry, the more naturally anger appears in your daily reactions, making you “angry person”, or “irritated person”. Because states of mind and emotions, repeated with certain frequency, are not transient and casual, they’re your practice. By having these or that emotions, you make yourself more likely to get them next time. We’re not aware that we’re practicing every moment, and it can be practice of being unhappy, agitated, worried, irritated, anxious, lazy and apathetic, indifferent, rude, short-tempered, depressed, or it can be a practice of being happy, content, satisfied, grateful, joyful, confident, peaceful, etc.

When we teach these simple principles to people, some understand the connection, but there are many who think that this mechanism is not real, that it’s just another kind of philosophy or theory. Others defend their current state of unhappiness by explaining that they have hard life situation and a lot of responsibility, and therefore their state of unhappiness is duly justified. Yes and no. Of course, external circumstances influence the way we feel about life and ourselves, but if we really want to make our life better, we need to try not only to change external factors, but to adjust the way we feel as well, not depending on these or that external factors. Because if we allow ourselves to feel unhappy, anxious, victimized, etc., for a long time, we run into danger of creating real, physical, hormonal and neurological mechanisms that support our habits of being miserable. Even when external circumstances have already changed.

In this post I want to discuss physiological and chemical mechanisms of creating mental habits and states to demonstrate that principle “what you practice is what you develop” is not a philosophy or theory, it’s a mechanism embedded in our body and mind.

There are two systems that regulate all functions and organs in our body: nervous and endocrine. Nervous system regulates all activity by commands delivered by electrochemical signals via body cells called neurons. The delivery of electochemical signal across the body is possible due to the action of neurotransmitters, special chemicals that transmit electric or chemical signals from one neuron to another or from a neuron to a target cell. Thus these neurotransmitters play important role in the way our nervous system works, shaping our everyday life and functions.

Another regulatory system of our body is endocrine. It acts in a purely chemical way, through production of hormones – special chemicals that initiate, facilitate or inhibit chemical reactions in the body and regulate physiological and behavioral activities such as digestion, metabolism, respiration, tissue function, sensory perception, sleep, excretion, stress, growth and development, movement, reproduction and mood. In a word, if you think that hormonal, as well as nervous system, regulate “pretty much everything”, you will not be far from truth. Hormones are transported by our circulatory system and their action, compared to nerve signals, takes longer to take effect, but these effects are more prolonged, lasting from few hours to weeks.

There are several chemicals that are particularly interesting to us in our discussion of mechanisms of happiness and unhappiness. These are: serotonin, dopamine and endorphins. Interestingly enough, all these chemicals are both neurotransmitters (meaning they carry out the signals within nervous system) and hormones (they also perform long term regulatory function on body organs and systems).

Serotonin regulates mood, feeling of anxiety, libido, maniacal states, appetite, social disfunctions, fobias, sleep, memory and learning process, circulatory and endocrine function. It’s very important in regulation of sleep and mood. Secretion of serotonin induces relaxation. Low levels of serotonin may lead to depression, anxiety, low energy, migraine, sleep disorder, maniacal states, feeling of tension and irritation, memory and attention problems, compulsive eating, aggression and anger, decrease of sex drive. High level of serotonin  causes calmness, higher pain tolerance, feeling of well-being, bliss and unity with universe.

We can increase level of serotonin in three ways: cultivating positive moods, exposure to bright light, and exercise (think yoga, aerobic exercise, running, chi gong, tai chi, dancing, any exercise routine and movement therapies).

Another family of substances, endorphins, are sometimes called “hormones of happiness” because they induce the state of happiness, euphoria and contentment, increase tolerance to pain, reduce stress effects and tiredness and increase body’s resistance to internal and external stress-factors. The name of the substance is translated from Latin as “morphine-like substance originating from within of the body”.

The level of endorphin is increased by experiencing emotions of love, creativity, bliss, contentment. Endorphins are also produced during long and strenuous exercises to decrease pain, heighten reaction speed and boost body’s stress adaptation (think of high intensity long duration exercises, static yoga practices that require stamina, etc.). Also production of endorphins is triggered by immobilization and cold-temperature stress (think of Vipassana and other long-immobilisation meditation practices, and temperature tempering). Other factors to stimulate endorphin production are pleasant music, new positive impressions, sex, and chocolate.

The last hormone-neurotransmitter to be discussed here is dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for good mood. Dopamine performs many important functions that influence memory,  control of motor processes and pleasure. It makes us feel alive, motivated and content. The chemical is part of positive encouragement system, creating feeling of contentment and pleasure when we do the things we like, eat delicious food or make love. Such drugs as cocaine, nicotine, opiates, heroin and alcohol, as well as delicious food and sex, increase dopamine level. Therefore researches assume that such behaviors as smoking, drug and alcohol addictions, indiscrimination in sex partners, gambling and overeating are connected to dopamine deficiency. Low levels of dopamine in motor areas of brain causes Parkinson disease, whereas low dopamine in cognitive areas of brain impairs cognitive functions and leads to poor memory and inability to learn, poor concentration, scattered attention in performing tasks and conversations, low energy, absence of motivation, inability to enjoy life, addictions, manias, absence of satisfaction from activities that used to be gratifying.
Dopamine production is stimulated by states of positive stress such as being in love, listening to pleasant music, performing physical exercise and having sex. The feeling of enjoyment in itself stimulates production of dopamine, which in turn enhances feeling of enjoyment and happiness. Research shows that meditation increases dopamine levels as well.

In studying all this information, we cannot help noticing striking similarities: increase of all three chemicals is attained by developing positive attitude to oneself and to life, cultivating positive mood states, enjoying whatever we do.

Also, notice that all three substances are stimulated by physical exercise.

So it seems like healthy physical activity plus positive mindset is the way to go in creating a “happy body chemistry”.  Add to this plenty of daily sunlight, gratifying sex life, body tempering, outdoors activities, meditation, pleasant music and a little bit of chocolate (if you need it at all provided you do everything else), and your internal “laboratory of happiness” is bound to work abundantly.

As all the three chemicals induce the state of well-being, happiness, contentment, pleasure and joy, the moment you start “practicing” contentment and satisfaction to stimulate their production, you will get a gratification of these states lasting in your body and mind more naturally and effortlessly.

While it seems that we derive a great deal of satisfaction and pleasure connected with things happening outside of ourselves (for instance, you have got yourself a limousine), these feelings are not created from these outside world events. They are created by specific substances in our body and the external events can only trigger production of this or that substance. Therefore, why even bother trying to shape what happens around us (that very often is hard or impossible to do) if you can directly orchestrate the chemistry in your body by some substance manipulation and get exactly the same results?!

Did the drug addicts find an ultimate solution? Happines comes from within… with a liitle chemical help.. .Well, let’s not go too far.

With biochemistry in mind, the mechanisms behind drug, tobacco or alcohol addictions seem to be much easier to understand. As it was mentioned before, the effect of most drugs and alcohol on subjective sense of pleasure is explained by heightened levels of dopamine and other neurotransmitters. However the drawbacks of drug addiction are numerous, starting from messing with body mechanisms of natural production of these chemicals and developing drug tolerance leading to psychological, physiological and chemical drug addiction, finishing with negative effects foreign substances have on our body systems and organs.

And even though the idea we’re trying to put into practice: creating a faculty of being happy in any situation in life, with or without a limousine; also disregards the influence of the outside circumstances and instead, it focuses on what can be done from the inside out. The difference is: no side effect and no need for drug dealers ;-).

The implication of the existence of these chemical processes are extremely straightforward:

the more we cultivate feelings of contentment and happiness in everyday life, the more we develop our natural capacity to be happy, without any efforts and conscious involvement. The more we enjoy life and whatever it brings and learn to view any situation as good to us in this or that way, the more life is enjoyable and filled with joy.

So, what do you practice today?


I used the sources:

Young How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs

Berry, Lerner, Meier & Yang The chemistry of happiness

Neurotransmitters, depression and anxiety

 

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