Subject: Your 5-day happy chemical jumpstart

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Your 5-Day
Happy Chemical Jumpstart

Fellow mammal,

Happiness is your brain's release of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, or endorphin. These are the good feelings you crave.

You can get more of them when you know what turns them on. For the next four days, you will get an email explaining each of the happy chemicals. I'll also give you quick tips for jumpstarting them.

Today’s message explains the “on" switch of your happy chemicals. (All this information plus a step-by-step plan can be found in my book, Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin levels.

Your brain is not designed to make you happy all the time.
It evolved for survival, so it turns on happy chemicals when it sees a way to meet a survival need.

Your unhappy chemical (cortisol) turns on when you see a survival threat.

But your brain defines survival in a quirky way:
- it relies on neural pathways built from early experience, and
- it cares about the survival of your genes.

This is why our ups and downs are so hard to make sense of.

Happy chemicals are only released in short spurts.
Soon they're metabolized and you have to do more to get more. This is why we often feel an urge to do more. It's nature's operating system!

Natural selection built a brain that keeps motivating the body to "do something!" to meet its needs. Animals have the same basic brain chemicals that we have, managed by the same basic brain structures (like the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus).

So how does your brain decide what meets your needs?

When the world around you reaches your senses, it sends electricity to your brain. That electricity flows like water in a storm, finding the paths of least resistance. Your paths were built by your unique life experience. 

Early experience is what counts.
You were born with billions of neurons but very few connections between them. Connections built whenever you felt good or bad. Happy and unhappy chemicals are like paving that turns your neurons into highways.

This is how a young brain wires itself to find more of whatever feels good and avoid whatever feels bad. In the state of nature, what feels good is good for you, and what feels bad is bad for you, so each brain wires itself to survive by feeling good.
Your brain's super highways build in youth.
When you're young, your brain produces a lot of a special highway-paving material called myelin. This fatty substance coats neurons so they conduct electricity at super speeds. Your myelinated neurons are so efficient that whatever you do with them feels effortless. The thoughts you have with your myelinated pathways feel true. You feel like you know what is going on.

Myelin peaks before age eight and during puberty. Thus, your repeated experiences in those years built the superhighways of your brain.

This complicates life because the experiences of youth are not necessarily the best guide to adult needs. We are designed to wire up in youth because in the state of nature children often lost their parents at a young age. And we're designed to re-wire in adolescence because our ancestors often moved to a new tribe to find a mate, so they needed to wire in new customs and survival skills. Whether we like it or not, our brain is designed to build its basic network, or "white matter," in youth.

We all face the world with a neural network built from accidents of experience.
You can always add new leaves to your neural trees, but the branches built from early experience are the core of who you are. It's not the network you might build today if you started with a blank sheet of paper. But there's no use resenting those you think got a better neural network. No one has it easy! A pampered child has a hard time facing the adult world with pampered child circuits. Everyone has a hard time facing the world because our brain craves happy chemicals with a life-or-death sense of urgency.

Managing a brain built from accidents of experience is the challenge that comes with the gift of life. We all strive to meet our needs and feel good with a brain wired to respond to things that met our needs and felt good before. 

Of course we all end up with some quirky circuits.
Old circuits can cause you to feel good about something that's not actually good for you. And you may feel bad about something that's actually good for you. When you know where these impulses come from, you have more power over them. Instead of taking them as facts about the world, you know they are just one pathway among your billions of neurons. You can build a new pathway!

For example, when you feel like "I'll die if I don't have a _____," you can remind yourself that you won't actually die, but it feels that way because new chemicals are triggered by old pathways. You can think of another way to feel good (one that's safer in the long run), and start blazing a new trail through your jungle of neurons.

First, here's how your quirky circuit got built:
Your brain is designed to avoid harm. It likes anything that relieves a bad feeling because it thinks it protected you from harm. Imagine you're chased by a lion and you climb a tree. The great feeling of relief gets linked in your mind with trees. The next time you're chased by a lion, your brain quickly scans for trees.
Today, you may feel threatened by a math test or a performance review. Let's say you go for a pizza when you feel threatened. You get a momentary feeling of relief, and your brain associates the relief with the pizza. The next time you feel threatened, you think of pizza. You don't consciously think the pizza saved your life, but your mammal brain sees it that way.

So when you try to give up pizza, you feel like your life is in danger. Not consciously, of course. But your inner mammal feels like a lion is chasing you and there are no trees to save you.

Anything that relieved a bad feeling in your youth built a superhighway in your brain. We all get wired to seek more of whatever brought relief in our  myelin years. You can end up feeling like your survival depends on something that is actually bad for you.
Fortunately, we can redirect our electricity instead of just going with the flow. But it's hard. It uses up so much bandwidth that you can't do other things. And it's scary, because the effortless flow of electricity through old pathways is the source of our confidence. Old pathways make it possible to chat while driving a car or create a to-do list while brushing your teeth. Thus, we tend to rely on old impulses even when they cause us pain.

45 Days to Pave a New Neural Pathway

You can build a new pathway to give your electricity a new place to flow. But it's harder than you expect.

It's like slashing a new trail through a jungle. Every step is exhausting, and after all that, the new trail quickly disappears into the undergrowth. It's so hard that you're tempted to take the paved highway-- but you know the highway goes to a yucky place rather than a fresh new place. So you remind yourself that if you slash the same trail every day, a path gets established.
Repeat a new behavior for 45 days and you will establish a trail in your brain.

So choose the new thought or behavior you need and repeat it faithfully for 45 days.

At first it may feel awful so you don't believe it will ever feel good. But electricity will start to flow and you will literally forget to feel bad.

On Day 46, you will be eager to blaze another new trail. Your old highways will still be there to tempt you, and your new trails will be smaller than the ones you myelinated in youth. But you can wire yourself to feel good when you do things that are good for you.

Tomorrow's message will explain how to do this with dopamine.

Lots more on re-wiring your inner mammal in:

Habits of a Happy Brain

And if you want an hour of one-to-one coaching to get started on your new happy circuit, find details here.

Please forward this
to someone who will understand it.

Sincere best wishes,
Loretta G Breuning, PhD
building power over your mammalian brain chemistry


99 Pinehurst, Canyon, CA 94516, United States
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