The chemistry of happiness
The reward centers of the nervous system play an important role in the evolution of species: They produce pleasurable sensations in the presence of certain stimuli associated to survival and reproduction in order to teach an animal that it’s convenient to generate those circumstances, and thus increase the likelihood of survival of the individual and the species. But being humans the most complex living organisms on earth, we have developed reward responses for a wide range of stimuli that go a long way beyond mere survival. These are called extrinsic rewards and maybe, if we force it, they can be traced back to those primal instincts. This is because of a learned conditioning and it depends on culture. For example, we can say that we seek social recognition because it solidifies our chances of getting a mate and having children to perpetuate our DNA, or that we seek financial stability to maximize our chances of surviving for a longer time.
But those aren’t the only extrinsic rewards that motivate our behaviors. There is indeed an enormous array of activities that will activate these centers in different ways and levels of intensity, depending on cultural conditioning and personal preferences. These can go from completing a hard level on a video game, appreciating a strange piece of abstract art, or attaining academic goals to being selflessly generous, eating vegan or, in general, postponing instant gratification to do the right thing.
While pleasure can sometimes act as a signaling of the right way for survival, (like in the case of food for nourishment or sex for reproduction), it can also be deceptive at times. The most delicious foods aren’t necessarily the ones that are best for our health. And consuming certain drugs can produce pleasurable sensations but end up killing us or ruining our lives.
For navigating this complex structure of rewards associated to sometimes contradicting stimuli humans have developed a more comprehensive concept than just pleasure: the concept of happiness.
The pursuit of happiness guides human behavior and lays behind every decision we make. On a simplified vision we can think of happiness as the optimization of the quality, intensity and frequency of rewards experienced by our brains throughout our lives. We choose to sacrifice instant gratification if we sense that the long-term gratification we will obtain out of it is greater. In our example about consumption of harmful drugs, choosing not to take them increases happiness because cognitively we have learned about the disasters of addiction and we consider that long term, and throughout our lives, the sum of rewards we can get without them exceed the ones consuming them can give us minus the pain they’d cause. Happiness as a long-term project provides the rational answer. However, empathy makes some of those sacrifices be real, in the sense that the gratification derived from our sacrifice is actually smaller than the one that we would have had by being selfish. But contributing to the gratification of others is important enough to make it worth it.
What is it in the brain that can make us (sometimes) feel happier by sacrificing our immediate wants? Can we be happy most of the time? How can we optimize the different types of rewards we perceive throughout our lives? How to build a model of happiness that is sustainable both socially and in time? To begin to find these answers it’s important to understand that the concept of happiness englobes a series of qualitatively different positive emotions, chemically associated to different neurotransmitters. Happiness isn’t yes or no, pleasure or pain, black or white, one or zero. Happiness is an incredibly complex equation of external circumstances, neurobiological balance, psychological attitude and cultural beliefs. In it, each of these neurotransmitters play a critical role. Understanding them and how they work together is an important step towards deciphering the chemical basis of happiness, and using it in our favor.
But wait! First of all, what is a neurotransmitter?
According to neuroscience your thoughts, emotions, sensations, and your entire experience of this life are defined by the ways in which the neurons in your brain connect to one another. Electrical impulses travel from one neuron to the next one, and then to the next one, describing paths. Each neuron can send the impulse to different neighboring neurons, and in this “choice” lays the difference between you and any other person. Your personality, and everything that you have learned, will make your electrical impulse chose different pathways. Moreover, you will often repeat some patterns that get habitual for you. Your whole identity has to do with this process. The pathways that these impulses describe, time after time, will ultimately define who you are, how you act, how you feel and of course, how happy or unhappy you are. Thankfully, to some extent, you still have the power to consciously rewire your brain and break habits and typical neural paths.
Life is made of millions of little decisions between neighboring neurons. The impulse reaches a given neuron and from that point on an immense array of possibilities opens: one pathway can be a smart thought while another one can be a stupid one. One can bring up a happy feeling while another one can be depressing. One can be the solution to your problem while another one can be irrelevant. One optimistic and another one pessimistic and so on. But the electrical impulse can’t always jump freely from one neuron to any of the connecting ones. Even if two neurons are close enough to each other, this doesn’t mean that the synapse can take place. There is a space between them, and the impulse can’t bridge this space unless there is a chemical substance present that facilitates the passage. These substances are called neurotransmitters. When a neurotransmitter is present in the synapse space it makes possible the connection between two neurons that otherwise could never occur. It acts like a key that opens a door, or a railroad barrier that opens the passage to another track. Each neurotransmitter “unlocks” different pathways, impossible to access in its absence. That is the case, for example, of the pathways leading to the experience of pleasure. They are inaccessible unless the right neurotransmitters are present. There are hundreds of hormones and other substances that can act as neurotransmitters, but here we will talk about five of them which are directly involved in the complex process of happiness: Cortisol, endorphins, dopamine, acetylcholine, serotonin and oxytocin.
Cortisol: Happiness as lack of pain, suffering and stress.
Just like rewards, pain also plays an essential role in survival. Pain is an unpleasant sensation that arises as a reaction to damaging stimuli, to help us prevent things that would harm — and ultimately kill- us. For example, without pain, you wouldn’t realize that your foot is burning, and you wouldn’t therefore remove it from the fire in time, causing you to eventually lose it. Physical pain brings our attention to the part of the body that needs healing prompting us to take care of it in the most effective way we’re capable of. While we are in pain we obviously don’t experience happiness. Therefore, eliminating pain is a precondition needed to achieve happiness. But pain itself is so unpleasant that we, as complex organisms, have come up with mechanisms to try to prevent it before it happens. That’s why we have cortisol. When the danger of imminent pain is perceived, the body generates cortisol, to alert us before it’s too late. When we’re imbedded in this chemical, the priority is to escape from the danger. We developed this in the stage in which we were a weak animal exposed to predators like the saber-toothed tiger, as a part of the fight-or-fight mechanism. Cortisol is supposed to leave the organism once the danger is gone. But sadly, that’s not what happens in our modern human life. Beyond physical pain, there is also emotional pain. And if the body experiences emotional pain, unease or discomfort, or even if it feels they are imminent, it generates more cortisol causing anxiety and stress, all of which are enemies of happiness. And even the subtlest threats can trigger it.
Often times, we generate too much unnecessary cortisol (that is, cortisol that isn’t meant to protect us from life-threatening situations). It seriously damages the body, being the cause of countless illnesses and reducing life expectancy. The production of serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine, among other “happy chemicals” that we’ll discuss later, is inhibited by the presence of cortisol, implying something that seems obvious: that we can’t be happy while unhappy.
If we define happiness as the sum of all the pleasurable moments throughout our life minus the moments of physical and emotional pain and discomfort, it becomes clear that the ways we deal with real pain and cortisol are essential.
Cortisol levels inevitably rise when the external circumstances are hostile: illnesses, poverty, incarceration, violent environments, stressful jobs. For this reason, if you aim for happiness first you must take care of all these factors that can be making you unhappy. Without eliminating them or preventing them, there is not much that neurotransmitters can do for you. There are objective circumstances that impact on happiness beyond a matter of attitude or chemicals.
However, given a certain combination of specific circumstances, one person can be more or less happy with them than someone else, depending on their personal attitudes, belief systems and biochemical configurations.
Endorphins: coping with pain
Fortunately, we have a powerful ally in our fight against pain (physical or emotional) and also against unnecessary cortisol and chronic stress. It’s called endorphin.
Endorphin is the natural pain killer of the body. It works just like an opiate, reducing the physical pain and calming the body, giving it a sensation of pleasurable relaxation and sometimes even euphoria. As we have said before, pain is there to alert us to get out of danger. But if it has already obtained our attention and we need to take the adequate actions to eliminate the risk, it is not serving its purpose anymore. It is better for us if we momentarily feel good enough to run, fight, escape, or do whatever is needed, undistracted by pain. That’s when endorphin kicks in. It helps us cope with all kinds of pain, physical or emotional, real or imagined, life threatening or subtle. Endorphin suppresses cortisol levels. It can be activated on purpose, without pain, through exercise, laughter and music. When its level is high, it opens the door to the pleasure centers of the brain, being one of our shortcuts to the happy feelings we are trying to maximize. But as we will see later, endorphins can be dangerous too and they must not be abused, or they can end up hindering our long-term happiness.
Dopamine: happiness as achievement
Probably the neurotransmitter most directly associated with the activation of the rewards centers of the brain (and therefore the most basic form of the feelings of happiness) is dopamine. Dopamine is released whenever the immediate completion of a goal approaches, to make you feel excited and motivated and help you reach it. The closest you get to the goal, the more dopamine you release and the more excited you get. Until you ultimately achieve the goal (or you don’t) and either way the dopamine levels drastically drop. When this happens, you’ll find yourself craving for more dopamine, because you’ve learned to associate it with the reward that often comes immediately after it. These rewards can be food, sex, money, social recognition, academic achievements or the pleasures of winning a game or sport, among many others. In the presence of a triggering stimulus, dopamine is generated in the ventral tegmental area of the brain (VTA), and from there it travels to different areas of the brain unlocking the “dopamine pathways” associated with pleasure, rewards, motivation and addiction. For example, while traveling the mesolimbic pathway, dopamine goes to the amygdala, and when it gets there it brings up the pleasurable sensations (activates the pleasure centers) and the feeling of “Wow, this feels so good! I need to do this again”. Then it goes to the prefrontal cortex, where it makes you observe and appreciate the details of the moment, and to the hippocampus, in charge of making you remember all about it so you can repeat it in the future.
But different brains have different levels of receptiveness to dopamine along the pathway. While some people are extremely motivated by the promise of these rewards, others with less sensitivity to dopamine don’t really care too much about them. These people are generally more apathetic and have difficulties getting excited or motivated by what they may consider superficial or unimportant pleasures. Generally, people with high levels of serotonin tend to be more indifferent to dopamine and vice versa. While high levels of dopamine are associated to losing contact with reality, low levels make people vulnerable to addictions (drugs, alcohol, tobacco). This is so because when dopamine fails to lead us to rewards the healthy way, we tend to look for more extreme ways to activate them, and these substances are a dangerous shortcut to getting there. Something we can do to maintain a healthy level of dopamine over time is to break up our goals into smaller and attainable goals to feel that we are getting things done, step by step, instead of having long periods of dopamine scarcity followed by a sudden dopamine spike, and then by a sudden drop. Also, when the accomplishment of a goal approaches, it’s convenient to already have another goal in mind, to mitigate the contrast between dopamine highs and lows amid achievements.
Acetylcholine: happiness as bliss
Distant cousin of dopamine, this neurotransmitter also mediates the activation of our reward centers. But it does it under completely different circumstances. Unlike dopamine, acetylcholine rewards us for relaxed, introspective activities. It thrives in solitude, while we are meditating, daydreaming, or enjoying the pleasures of a good book and a hot cup of tea on a rainy Sunday. Acetylcholine activates a longer pathway than dopamine does, meaning that these rewards are not so immediate, but still they can be very powerful and important. In fact, when acetylcholine levels are low, the tendency to substance abuse grows just like with low dopamine levels. Acetylcholine makes us feel good without the need of external stimuli: good with ourselves, with intellectual and reflective activities, alone time and peace. When it’s present in the organism our thinking abilities are enhanced, including a better memory, reasoning and focus. The happy feelings derived from acetylcholine are subtly different to those coming from dopamine. They come slower and last more. They are often described as bliss, relaxation, joy or content while dopamine rushes are associated to words like excitement, fun, self-pride, or thrill. In sum: although we tend to develop a preference for one or the other, we actually need both to be happy.
Besides the levels of dopamine and acetylcholine someone possess, there’s the matter of how well or bad we process them and in which places of the pathways we have the most sensitive receptors. People whose processing of acetylcholine is poor won’t be able to feel happy on their own, in a quiet environment, and will feel bored very quickly, looking for external stimulation to get their dopamine levels high since this is the easiest way they know to activate their pleasure centers. On the other hand, and in association with the introversion personality trait, people with a preference for acetylcholine over dopamine will feel overstimulated in crowded environments and prefer quiet atmospheres to indulge in the acetylcholine pleasures.
Serotonin: Happiness as purpose
Both neurotransmitters described before (acetylcholine and dopamine) have something in common: they offer us instant rewards. They may come to us through different pathways and triggered by different stimuli but the sensation in the brain is the same: pleasure, an intense instant of delight, enjoying the present moment. But real happiness goes beyond pleasurable flashes. It is more than that. And we had to develop a chemical that made us feel good by sacrificing instant pleasure and postponing rewards in favor of more important long-term goals. That’s why we have serotonin. Instead of activating the pleasure centers of the brain the way the others two do, when serotonin neurons reach the amygdala they regulate our mood in a profound way. It makes us feel consistently good. It is not about a moment, and probably you won’t be feeling exultant or ecstatic. It is a positive state of mind. A deep but subtle underlying feeling of wellbeing.
Serotonin is the molecule of purpose in life, meaning, and will power. It’s the mother of self-esteem, self-worth and self-respect. Its levels are increased when we feel that we are doing the right thing, when we are consistent with our values, and when we focus on the greater good. Low levels of serotonin (or a poor functioning of serotonin receptors) can lead to depression, irritability, impulsivity and anxiety. Decreased serotonin levels also mean that you are unable to follow a plan, to endure hardships, or stick to your commitments. It makes you feel tired, unable to focus, and prone to easily yield to temptations.
The thing with serotonin and dopamine is that when one goes up, the other one goes down. Either way, if the unbalance is noticeable it is not a good thing. People with a dopamine dominance need constant stimulation and never seem to feel satisfied with life. The same happens with acetylcholine. Even for someone with acetylcholine preference over dopamine, serotonin levels are lowered when the rewards centers are activated. This means that an acetylcholine dominance would require the constant chase of intellectual, spiritual and other solitary pursuits, without never really getting any peace or satisfaction. On the other hand, people high in serotonin but low in the other two lack motivation, enthusiasm and drive and can seem apathetic and lethargic. Neurotransmitters need to be balanced for a happy existence.
You can increase your serotonin levels by exposing yourself to sunlight, getting a massage, exercising or listening to music. But most importantly, serotonin is generated by all kind of attitudes that reinforce a feeling of purpose and meaning. It will flow freely in your brain when you do things that make you feel confident and important. Give a direction to your life. Ask yourself: “Where is it all going?” If you understand it. If you feel that you are building your future, and you do things that align with your life project, all these things will keep your serotonin in a healthy level. Also remembering meaningful events of the past that have led you to your accomplishments will produce the same effect. Creating a narrative of your own life that put everything into perspective, thinking positively about the past and constructively about the future, and practicing gratitude, are mental ways for boosting your serotonin production.
Oxytocin: happiness as love
Happiness studies may vary in their methods and focuses of investigation but most of them are consistent in one key finding: the single factor that most influences happiness in the life of an individual is social connection. We are not talking about having hundreds of friends and acquaintances, that could help but it doesn’t influence so much. We are talking about having five or six people in life with whom you share deep affection and trust: Family members, a stable romantic partner or close friends. People who are there for you no matter what. People who have your back. People who would eventually die for you if the case comes, and for whom you’d give your life too. Strong connections like that make all the difference in the world in how happy someone feels. But which of the chemicals in the brain helps us develop that kind of bond? It’s not really serotonin or dopamine or anything we’ve explained so far. The answer is a different neurotransmitter, a hormone called oxytocin. Together with the essential neurotransmitters we’ve already described, oxytocin, — which is in charge of love, friendship and social interaction- is of great importance in the formula for happiness.
When oxytocin is present in the brain it lowers stress, and generates a feeling of trust and attachment towards others. Oxytocin regulates sexual arousal. It improves social interactions and diminishes social anxiety. It gives you a sense of calmness and wellbeing. It reduces drug cravings and inspires generosity. It is shown to increase fidelity between partners as well.
Oxytocin is present in pregnancy and breastfeeding as a way of solidifying the bond between mother and child. It is also liberated in high quantities during orgasm, kissing, cuddling and hugging to promote attachment between romantic partners. Generally, all kinds of affectionate physical touch generate oxytocin in the people involved which in turn accentuate their bond. But beyond touch, a good conversation is also a great way of generating oxytocin (and therefore attachment). During a conversation, all positive exchanges increase the oxytocin levels of the participants. This is especially notorious when people praise and encourage one another, when they listen attentively to the other person and they engage in a respectful and constructive exchange of ideas. Oxytocin levels are shown to rise in this kind of interactions no matter if they take place in person, over the phone or online. Giving and receiving gifts is another possible oxytocin booster. Moreover, not only connection with other people can generate oxytocin. Indeed, lovingly caressing a pet can be as effective in filling your brain with it as human contact.
Overall, oxytocin is shown to be so beneficious for your health and wellbeing that you may be tempted to conclude “So this is it! This is the most important neurotransmitter and the one I should focus on to actually achieve happiness in my life”. If this is so, the secret key to happiness could be something as easy as just giving eight hugs a day, like some researchers have advised. Don’t go too fast. Unfortunately, oxytocin has a dark side too. In short, while it is true that it promotes trust, love and generosity within your “in-group” people, it correspondingly makes you develop a sense of distrust, dislike and even hate towards people you consider “out-group”. This means: the more you love your friends the warier you are from outside people and the more you’ll be eager to do whatever it takes to defend your people from your perceived enemies. Oxytocin might be the chemical source of love, but it’s also the seed of hate and conflict.
Pure oxytocin can be sniffed and that’s how scientists have reached these conclusions. When healthy people sniff extra oxytocin around people of their group, social interactions are drastically improved. People act friendlier. They laugh more and look less anxious. Bonds are deepened. They quickly develop trust and generosity, and lose fear. But things change when the subjects with oxytocin high are exposed to out-group people (people they are cognitively predisposed to consider hostile, inferior, unwanted, unsafe or dangerous). In this case a feeling of antagonism and dislike is increased. For this reason, oxytocin can’t be used to treat mental disorders like autism, social phobia, BPS or PTSD. People with these disorders tend to regard almost everyone as “out-group”. Therefore, when high on oxytocin, their social skills are not improved. On the contrary, their relationships get even worse and they develop an accentuated antisocial behavior.
How they all play together
As we have seen, the chemistry of happiness is not simple. There is not one magic “happy chemical” in the brain. There are several, and to make matters worse they conflict with each other. So now that you have general overview of the main neurotransmitters that affect your happiness you may be wondering how to make sense of all this and put it to use to improve your own happiness. Here’s some advice you might find useful:
1- Think in terms of neurotransmitters
Introduce this framework as a way to rethinking your daily life. Ask yourself: why am I feeling happy (or sad or excited) right now? What is going in in my brain and with my neurotransmitters? Am I getting too much Cortisol? Or is it that I’m low in serotonin? Am I just having a dopamine drop? Try to conceptually understand the chemical reasons of how you are feeling and to figure out what you should do to improve the situation. Should you go exercise or listen to music to increase your endorphins? Or should you go hug a loved one to rise your oxytocin? Understanding your current situation is the first step to work in a solution.
2- Identify your preferences and dominance
Is cortisol having a protagonist role in your daily life? Are you more of a dopamine person or an acetylcholine person? Is serotonin guiding your decisions, or you depend too much on social acceptance and oxytocin? We are all more susceptible to some neurotransmitters than others. Try to find out which are your strengths and weaknesses. Understand where you stand so you can build your happiness departing from that start point.
3- Set serotonin as the backbone of your happy formula
Once you have identified your natural preferences, it’s time for you to design your own happiness. How do you want that happiness to be? Would you like to live a highly “dopaminic” life full of excitement and continuous goals to achieve? Or do you aspire to a predominantly “acetylcholinic” life, leaving ambitions aside and finding pleasure in the little things? Do you want to have a life filled with oxytocin, intense friendships, social association and affection even if it probably implies more likelihood to enter in conflict with others, or do you prefer to keep the connection limited, but the hostility potential limited too? Once you define your ideal happiness you will be able to control the factors that keep you away from it and try to get as close to it as you can. But whatever path you chose, there is one neurotransmitter you shouldn’t ignore: serotonin. Without this, no happiness is possible. All the other happy chemicals will dip after they peak. Serotonin, in turn, gives us a base level of wellbeing to which we will come back after the other chemicals have completed their cycle. As we have seen, we build up our base serotonin levels by having a life-plan and focusing in long term goals. We must decide the purpose of our lives, and where we want to be years and decades from now. Build a narrative of your life that is satisfying and inscribe every act you do in that narrative. Before making a decision think: “How does this play with my long-term life goals?” This way, you will keep your serotonin high and will be able to withstand the other neurotransmitters’ highs and lows game with more solvency.
Making serotonin your priority also implies taking care of practical things. Adverse circumstances will always impact negatively in your mood and they need to be prevented or solved. You can’t be happy in a chaotic environment. Take care of your responsibilities and develop positive habits. Serotonin tells you to do what you must do first, and leave what you feel like doing for later.
4- Be aware of the addictive nature of neurotransmitters
With the possible exception of serotonin, the neurotransmitters we have discussed show some addictive properties. This does not only mean that when we get one we want more of it. It has a more dangerous implication: the tolerance attribute of addiction, that’s to say, that we will need each time more and more exposure to a certain stimulus for it to generate a similar rise in the substance in question. Like all addictions, these processes are negative. You need to be aware of them and prevent them if you’re at risk or revert them if you are already there. You can develop addictions to:
• Cortisol: Addicted to stress
Even if stress is something intrinsically bad, your brain does not necessarily identify it as such. If you feed cortisol to your brain, it will ask you for more and more cortisol. If this is your case, you will find ways to keep yourself extremely busy, active and worried. You will fill your schedule with more things to do that what you can actually take in. This is the case of workaholics.
• Endorphins: Addicted to pain
When you hear that someone is a sadomasochist, that they cut their wrists or commit other forms of self-harm, it is not really that they like pain. That would be an anti-natural motivation. The real reason behind these actions is that they are addicted to the endorphins that come after pain. Endorphins are natural opiates that work exactly like morphine or opium: as a powerful painkiller but also bringing up a feeling of euphoria that can be pleasant and, in some cases, addicting. The “runner’s high” is an ecstatic sensation that the runners experience when the push their limits, and it’s partly caused by an endorphin boost. A side effect of this endorphin release is an emotional numbing that limits the subject’s exposure to emotions. That’s why some people exercise to exhaustion or inflict harm on themselves, so they can “stop feeling so much” when they feel overwhelmed. When someone is addicted to endorphins and they don’t get it for a while they feel vulnerable and weak.
• Dopamine: Addicted to external stimuli
Dopamine is addicting by nature. It is behind most addictive behaviors, either real or symbolic. With this I mean that it is involved in alcohol, cocaine or heroin addiction but it is as well responsible for other kinds of «addictions» that aren’t technically so but share some the same basic characteristics. That’s the case, for example, of gambling, technology and social media addiction, shopaholism, fandoms, sports passion, etc. If you are addicted to dopamine that may explain your extreme consumerism, why you can’t stop playing candy crush or your «addiction» to your cell phone, the TV, Facebook, Nutella, Red Bull or Doritos. Basically, no matter what the object of your desire is, dopamine does the same thing: it gives you an intense rush the first time you get it and an irrepressible desire to repeat it. You feel great and you think that if you do the same thing again you will replicate that feeling. But that doesn’t happen. The second time the effect is slightly dimmer, and you need more quantity or intensity of the same stimulus to bring up the same sensation. And each time more and more until you reach a point in which you can’t reach that state anymore through that stimulus and you need something different (stronger) to get it. If you are addicted to dopamine you may find yourself changing the way you get your dopamine highs, but always desperate to find new ways to boost it, and never content. It is an endless chase for novelty, craving for constant stimulation, running behind an illusion that runs faster than you and can never be reached. When Mick Jagger said “I can’t get no satisfaction “, he was probably describing a dopamine addiction.
• Acetylcholine: Addicted to solitude
Solitude can be addictive too. When someone discovers the pleasures of acetylcholine something similar to what happens with dopamine takes place in their brain. They want to repeat it. It can be a solitary walk in the forest, or a long and relaxing bath. Whatever it triggered the high the first time won’t be enough the second time. You will need more. You’ll feel that the less people you have around the better, and keep your circle smaller each day, and the more alone time you can get even better. The acetylcholine addict feels that solitude makes them free of society expectations and its accompanying stress. They enormously enjoy their time alone and need it to recharge from social interactions. On the other hand, they find the social milieu each day more hostile. The moments of time alone needed are each time longer and each time more often. When abused, acetylcholine makes you increasingly antisocial, which is bad for you because it has been repeatedly shown by studies that at least some positive social interaction is a must for happiness.
• Oxytocin: Addicted to love
The problem with oxytocin is its accumulative nature. The more oxytocin you get when you are with someone, the closer you get physically and spiritually to that person, which in turn liberates more oxytocin, which makes you even closer to that person and farther from the rest of the people who can’t generate in you the same effect. This difference accentuates with time and it may become insurmountable. If this happens, you can become addicted to your source of oxytocin. That is, to the individual or group that provides you with the highest oxytocin boosts.
In principle this doesn’t have to be negative. Love has a good reputation. Being particularly attached to your spouse, parents, children, or even friends, sounds natural. It is socially acceptable even if it implies that you’ll choose their wellbeing over humanity’s greater good. That’s just how oxytocin works: making you develop preference for some people over others by expanding your ego to include them. This fact by itself does not configure oxytocin addiction even if it displays some of its elements (for example withdrawal symptoms). When you are deprived from an important source of oxytocin you’ll feel empty because nothing and nobody can fill it that way. That is the chemical explanation of the feeling of “missing someone”. Oxytocin levels depend on the person you interact with and high levels take time to be achieved. If this source is made unavailable to you it will take a long time for you to develop the same levels with someone else. It may even be impossible in some cases. That’s the reason why it can be so devastating to lose a loved one. But this doesn’t grant enough grounds for considering it an addiction.
Real addiction happens when the difference between the levels of oxytocin you get when you’re with someone in particular and the levels you can get with other people becomes extreme. The relationship becomes obsessive and unhealthy. You develop an unnatural dependency to this person. This is made evident when your source of oxytocin is contrary to your overall happiness. It might be the case of a symbiotic friendship which exerts a negative influence over you, an overly possessive parent-child relationship or a disruptive marriage. Your values and long-term goals tell you that you should end or at least change the terms of those relationships. Your serotonin levels are depleted when you are with them. You’re filled with cortisol and your overall happiness is hurt. Still, you can’t quit. You are addicted. That’s the seed of toxic relationships and the reason why some people have such a hard time ditching an abusive partner or getting over their exs. Sexual attraction can be responsible of deepening even more the effects of these unhealthy bonds. People act irrationally and against their own values and convenience under the presence of excessive levels of oxytocin. The urge to get the oxytocin from the source can be incontrollable. For all these reasons this is a highly powerful form of behavioral addiction you should be aware of.
5- Rotate activities
Something you can do to avoid getting addicted to your neurotransmitters is to rotate them. Unfortunately, you don’t have direct power to tell your brain which of them to produce, but at least you can decide in which activities to engage. The chosen activities will hopefully generate in turn their associated chemicals. Cut your cortisol cycle with exercise, a massage or by exposure to natural light. If you are a predominantly acetylcholinic person, try stepping out of your comfort zone and playing the dopamine game for a change. If you intoxicated yourself with endorphins by listening to loud music while driving on your way to work, switch to acetylcholine and listen to soft romantic music on your way back home, and vice-versa!
Rotation should come in two levels: 1. Rotate the chemicals themselves (as we have already explained) and 2. Rotate your sources of these chemicals.
If last weekend you got a nice dopamine rush by eating a delicious piece of chocolate cake, don’t go back this weekend to the same restaurant and order it again. This would only build up your tolerance and reduce its gratification potential in you. Instead, get something different, and wait at least one or two months before repeating it. This way it will be (almost) as effective as the first time. The same concept is also valid for all your other dopamine boosters, and it can even be expanded to the other neurotransmitters. For example, rotating your oxytocin sources would mean sharing your time with different friends and loved ones, and not always with the same ones.
The chemistry of happiness goes far beyond the concepts here disclosed. But you don’t need to be a neuroscientist to take advantage of the basic knowledge of neurotransmitters in your quest for happiness. This is just a general overview, but I hope it can help you make sense of this intricate setting and help you make better decisions. As Jorge Luis Borges once said “All theories are legitimate, no matter. What matters is what you do with them”. My hope is that you can profit from these concepts to live a richer, happier life.