If you have ever been curious about why we relentlessly seek happiness, or if you find that you want to cultivate a more positive mindset, then this book should be added to your reading list. Habits of a Happy Brain is a junction between self-help and neuroscience; it’s filled with simple language that packs an informative punch. I have only good things to say about this book, and believe that everyone should dip into this 238-page story about our anatomical motherboard: the human brain.
“You can learn to turn on your happy chemicals in new ways… then you can wire it into your brain by repeating it for forty-five days without fail,” writes Breuning. But before you can learn how to harness happy chemicals, you have to understand them, and Bruening provides an abundance of examples on chemical triggers, how they differ in animals and reptiles, how we differ from our ancestors, and how these chemicals impact decisions and experiences in modern society.
She explores how our ancestors were concerned with day to day survival (dopamine surges), but how we are more concerned with oxytocin surges (or lack thereof) in a world now designed as a socially driven machine. We want to be part of the pack, but hate falling in line. We want to belong, but maintain our independence. This is one of many examples Bruening uses to illustrate how chemicals lead us, and like much of the book can help you re-shape how much you worry about your actions and choices.
Even more interesting, Breuning takes time periodically throughout the book to remind us of something we all know well (but often forget): Everyone is different. “We are not born with circuits defining the rewards that meet our needs. We build them from life experience. That’s why one person gets excited about eating crickets while another person gets excited about the Food Network.” While her book focuses on happy chemicals it’s easy to see how this works the same for sadness, too. After all, they are two sides of the same coin, and when reading the above excerpt, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a friend while in high school.
This friend was obsessed with good grades. She had to get A’s. She had to make honor roll. She had to have a perfect GPA. During our senior year she got a low grade on a test and she cried for hours in her car while I consoled her.
“I feel guilty!” she bawled. “There are children starving around the world and I am crying because I couldn’t maintain my GPA.”
“You have a different threshold for what upsets you. You’ve never known what it’s like to starve. You don’t live a life where you are constantly worried about your next meal, so it’s hard for you to switch out of your current mindset because your grades and getting into a good college are your worries. Take a deep breath and give yourself a break. You need to allow yourself to mourn your GPA for a second and then you can pull yourself together and start worrying about global issues again.”
I didn’t know it then, but I was on point with this advice. My friend found happiness by achieving good grades just like someone who has known hunger finds happiness when eating food. While comparison can humble us in positive ways, it’s important to remember that your brain is wired for your direct experience. If you expect yourself to be upset and thrilled about all the same things as everyone else, you are going to soon realize that you weren’t built to be the same as everyone else. Later on in the book, Breuning makes it a point to comment on this type of happiness-guilt comparison mentality, saying, “It’s reasonable to feel bad about the suffering of others and to help where you can. But your brain is designed to focus on your well-being.”
Rounding out the book are some small exercises and one important question each reader must ask themselves in order to design an action plan for a happy-wired brain: What type of chemical drives you? Are you most comfortable seeking respect? Getting rewards? Building social alliances? Or seeking pain just to ignore it? I didn’t anticipate this sort of analysis, but when you stop to reflect on it, Breuning’s question makes perfect sense. Don’t we all know someone who thrives off of being popular (serotonin junkie)? Or someone caught in a bad relationship with someone who hurts them over and over again (endorphin junkie)? Or what about the person who is friends with everyone (oxytocin junkie)? Just like a drug addict must admit his or her drug of choice, so must we analyze which happy chemicals drive us.
So what do we do once we identify our happy chemical? We begin wiring our brain for happiness by focusing on the other chemicals that trigger happiness. This is where the forty-five day plan comes into play. Breuning suggests the best way to build more pathways for happy chemicals in your brain is to spend time focusing on your weaknesses. For instance, since dopamine triggers come easily to me, it would be best for me to start creating serotonin pathways.
At its core, Breuning’s method is a form of self-imposed mind manipulation, but a fascinating one with the potential to change your life!
Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels
Adams Media, December 16, 2015
Paperback, 238 pages