Book Review, Summary & Notes

Habits of a Happy Brain by Loretta Breuning

Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphins Levels


Loretta Breuning


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In her book, Habits of a Happy Brain, Loretta Breuning, Ph.D. explains how you can use the power of your brain to change your life for the better. Drawing on the latest scientific findings, Breuning shows how the brain chemicals in your head really affect your happiness levels. In addition, she explains how we can use our mind to change our brain, leading to better health, more energy, optimism and a better attitude towards life.

Notes & Quotes

When you feel good, your brain is releasing dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, or endorphin. You want more of these great feelings because your brain is designed to seek them.

Each happy chemical triggers a different good feeling:

  • Dopamine produces the joy of finding things that meet your needs- the “Eureka! I got it!” feeling.
  • Endorphin produces oblivion that masks pain – often called euphoria.
  • Oxytocin produces the feeling of being safe with others – now called bonding.
  • Serotonin produces the feeling of being respected by others – pride.

The human limbic system is surrounded by a huge cortex. Your limbic system and cortex are always working together to keep you alive and keep your DNA alive.

Each of the happy chemicals motivates a different type of survival behavior:

  • Dopamine motivates you to get what you need, even when it takes a lot of effort.
  • Endorphin motivates you to ignore pain, so you can escape from harm when you’re injured.
  • Oxytocin motivates you to trust others, to find safety in companionship.
  • Serotonin motivates you to get respect, which expands your mating opportunities and protects your offspring.

The mammal brain motivates a body to go toward things that trigger happy chemicals and things that trigger unhappy chemicals.

You are always looking for a way to feel good, deciding whether to act on it, and them looking for the next best way of feeling good.

Nature tends to build on what’s there instead of starting over with a blank sheet. Mammals built onto the reptile brain and humans built onto the mammal brain. We humans have a large stock of extra neurons ready to wire in new experience.

You can keep building new neural pathways and thus keep fine – tuning your efforts to meet your needs. But man does not live by cortex alone. You need your limbic system to know what’s good for you.

Each time you have an experience, your senses take in the world and trigger electricity on your brain. That electricity flows in your brain like water flows in a storm – it finds the paths of least resistance. The paths you’ve already built give your electricity a place to flow, and that shapes your response to the experience.

Because we’re designed to store experiences, not to delete them. Most of the time, experience holds important lessons.

When you were young, you built new circuits easily. In adulthood, building a new circuit is as hard as slashing through a dense rainforest.

Each time a pathway is activated, it fires more easily. Repetition develops a neural trail slowly, the way a dirt path hardens from years of use.

You can stop  a vicious cycle in one instant. Just resist that “do something” feeling and live with the cortisol. This is difficult to do because cortisol screams for your attention.

You can do that forty-five days if you repeat a new thought or behavior very day without fail. If you miss a day, start over with Day One.

In humans, everything from holding hands to feeling supported triggers oxytocin. Orgasm does too. Sex triggers a lot of oxytocin at once, yielding a lot of social trust for a very short time.

Oxytocin is related to love in so many ways that it is often called the bonding hormone or the cuddle chemical.

Serotonin is stimulated by the status aspect of love –  the pride of associating with a person of a certain stature.

Endorphin is stimulated by physical pain, but you get a bit from laughing and crying too.

Something as small as failing to get a smile from the person you smile at can trigger surprising neurochemistry because your brain relates it to the survival prospects of your genes.

The urge for more did not start with “our society”. In fact, our ancestors never stopped seeking either. When their bellies were full, they looked for new way to meet their needs by making better arrows and stronger shelters.

“Euphoria” is a common description of the endorphin feeling. But this neurochemical did not evolve for good times.  Physical pain is what triggers it. You may have taken a bad fall and got up thinking you were fine, only to discover that you’re seriously injured. That’s the power of endorphin.

The larger a creature’s brain, the longer it remains helpless after birth. It takes time to fill a brain with useful connections.

With each social interaction, they update their circuits with oxytocin or cortisol. Over time, you “know who your friends are” because your neurochemicals react to individuals as “good for your survival” or “bad for your survival”.

Animals  only fight when both individuals believe  they are stronger. Conflict is usually avoided because animals are skilled at assessing  their  relative strength, and the weaker individual submits to avoid harm.

We scan for ways to enjoy the good feeling of social importance without the bad feeling of conflict.

Each  brain builds expectations that tell it when to forge ahead to meet its needs and when to hold back to avoid pain.

Every brain longs for the good feeling of serotonin, but the motivation is easier to see in others and can be difficult to see in yourself.

When you worry about the SATs or looking fat, cortisol creates the physical sense of imminent annihilation.

Each generation of humans can learn about danger from its own cortisol  surges. We learn about danger from our elders as well, but each generation trends to sneer at the fears of its elders and build fears of its own.

Your brain is a central clearing-house that links past pain to potential future pain.

Watching an action stimulates the same neural trail as executing the action.

We do not mirror everything we see in others. Mirror neurons  only fire when you watch someone get a reward or face a threat.

Mirror neurons allow us to feel other people’s pain. This has a benefit, as often suggested by empathy researchers, but it also has a cost.  You can get wired to suffer just by being around people who suffer. Even if your life is fine, mirroring builds a pathway to your cortisol.

For example, if your work is criticized at a performance review, you know your survival is not literally threatened, but cortisol makes it feel that way.

To make matters worse, just belonging to the herd doesn’t  make your mammal brain happy. It wants to be noticed.