Is Your Brain Chemistry Making You Happy, Sad, Mad, or Anxious?
Dr Daniel G Amen
THE 7 NEUROCHEMICALS OF HAPPINESS
The Molecule of More—This unique transmitter helps with focus and staying on task while supporting the brain’s ability to remember things. This brain chemical helps you remember significant moments, whether good or bad, and is involved with anticipation, pleasure, and love. I liken dopamine to a “chemical of more” because you always want more of it since this is the principal neurotransmitter that makes you feel good.
The Molecule of Respect—This brain chemical is involved with mood, sleep, and flexibility, and it helps you to be open and adaptable to change. Serotonin increases when you feel respect from your peers and decreases when your feelings get hurt.
The Molecule of Trust—Whereas dopamine is the “chemical of more,” oxytocin can be called the “chemical of love” for the way it enhances bonding and trusting relationships. This powerful neurotransmitter has a reputation for playing Cupid because it’s released when you snuggle up, have sex, or socially bond with friends. But some researchers believe oxytocin also leads to feelings of jealousy and suspicion, especially toward those outside our social circles.
The Molecule of Pain Relief—Almost everyone has heard about these neurotransmitters. These “feel good” brain chemicals released by your body during a workout or physical exertion cause your immune cells to flood the cardiovascular system, which protects your body against illness and lifts your mood.
The Molecule of Calmness—GABA, which stands for gamma-aminobutyric acid, is the brain’s chief inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. GABA’s primary role is to reduce brain cell excitability and slow down the firing of neurons. It helps balance more stimulating neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and adrenaline. Too much stimulation can cause anxiety, insomnia, and seizures, while too little nerve cell firing can cause lethargy, confusion, and sedation. It is all about balance.
The Molecule of Peace—These molecules play a role in regulating mood, sleep, and appetite. Excessive endocannabinoid activity contributes to overeating and obesity, while low activity is a risk factor for developing depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, inflammation, and immune system problems. Marijuana and hemp contain more than 100 naturally occurring cannabinoids that, when absorbed, interact with the endocannabinoid system’s receptors to produce a response. The best known are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). While they have a similar chemical makeup, THC and CBD interact with cannabinoid receptors completely differently. THC is the cannabinoid people associate with marijuana. It directly stimulates endocannabinoid receptors to cause intoxicating effects. CBD does not cause a high because it works indirectly.
The Molecule of Danger—This hormone gets a bad rap. It’s critical for your survival and has important benefits, but it’s also a hormone that you want less of—not more of— because, when cortisol production gets out of control, it drains your happiness. Why is that? Cortisol is the body’s “stress hormone,” and chronically high levels are linked to depression, anxiety, grief, memory loss, and weight gain as well as conditions like type 2 diabetes and hypertension. The body also releases cortisol whenever you feel like you’re in danger or involved in a fight-or-flight response. When stress seems never-ending and remains high for too long—like during the pandemic—then cortisol will make you feel awful. This explains why researchers have found that the happiest people tend to have lower cortisol levels.
In my book, You, Happier, I dive deeper into each of these neurochemicals to show how they play a role in your brain type and how they impact your overall happiness. I also share specific strategies to help you balance your neurochemicals for greater joy and contentment in your life.