This post was originally published on December 26, 2014.
The brain is always scanning the world for a way to make bad feelings stop. In the state of nature, bad feelings promote survival by telling you to find food when you’re hungry and to run when you smell a predator. You can make bad feelings stop by eating a donut because fat and sugar are scarce in nature. Your brain thinks the donut promotes survival because a surge of happy chemicals masks your unhappy chemicals. Consciously, you know the donut doesn’t solve the underlying problem. But good feelings pave neural pathways. The next time you have that “do something” feeling, this pathway is one “something” you “know.” You may not act on it, because you also know the consequences, and you’ve built other “do something” pathways. But it remains in your mammal brain’s arsenal of survival strategies.
When you succeed at triggering happy chemicals, the spurt is soon over. To get more, you have to do more. That is how a brain keeps prodding a body to do what it takes to keep its DNA alive. Happy chemicals get re-absorbed and your awareness of survival threats resumes. You get that “do something” feeling, and you ponder your options by sending electricity down the pathways you have.
The brain’s quest for happy chemicals often leads to a vicious cycle because of the side effects. “Everything I like is illegal, immoral or fattening,” goes the old saying. Happy chemicals exist because of their side effects, thanks to natural selection. When happy chemicals dip and we seek more, we get more side effects. They can accumulate to the point where they trigger unhappy chemicals. Now, the behavior you use to trigger happiness creates more unhappiness. And the more cortisol you produce, the more motivated you are to repeat the behavior you expect to make you happy. You are wired for frustration.
Vicious cycles are everywhere. Some of the most familiar ones are alcohol, junk food, compulsive spending and drugs. Other well-known vicious cycles are risk-taking, getting angry, falling in love and rescuing others. Each of these behaviors can make you feel good in a moment when you were feeling bad. The good feeling means happy chemicals are building connections, making it easier to trigger good feelings in that way in the future. Over time, a neural superhighway develops. Now your brain activates that behavior effortlessly. But too much of a good thing triggers unhappy chemicals, which let you know that it’s time to stop. It’s hard to stop, however, because your brain seeks happy chemicals. So the same behavior can trigger both happy and unhappy feelings at once, like driving with one foot on the accelerator and one on the brake.
You can stop this vicious cycle in one instant. You can resist that “do something” feeling and live with the bad cortisol feeling. This is not easy because cortisol screams for your attention. It did not evolve for you to sit around and accept it. But you can build the skill of doing nothing during a cortisol alert, despite that urge to make it go away in any way possible. That frees you to activate an alternative happy circuit instead of the old familiar one. A virtuous circle starts in that moment.
But what if you don’t have an alternative circuit at the ready? That’s where my book comes in. It shows how new highways to your happy chemicals can be built. We think it should be easy to build new circuits since our old ones got there without struggle. This book shows why it’s so hard to remodel your neural infrastructure.
Modern society is not the cause of vicious cycles. Our ancestors had their own variations. They felt good when they made human sacrifices, and when the good feeling passed they made more sacrifices. Over time, humans developed better ways to trigger happy chemicals and avert unhappy chemicals.
Your brain’s happy chemicals were not meant to create constant ecstasy. They were meant to steer you toward things that promote survival. When we try to get constant happiness from them, disappointment is likely.
The first lick of an ice cream cone is heaven. Ten licks later, your attention wanders. You start thinking about the next thing on your agenda, and the next. You still love the ice cream, but you don’t feel it as much because it’s not new information. Your brain is looking for the next great way to meet your needs. Dopamine is triggered by new rewards. Old rewards, even incredibly creamy-delicious ones, don’t command your brain’s attention. Scientists call this habituation.
When a happy chemical surge is over, you notice your unhappy chemicals again. The world is full of potential threats, but you notice them less while happy chemicals are spurting. Once the spurt fades, unhappy chemicals grab your attention. You wonder how to get the good feeling back. Your brain is always looking for ways to feel good. Often, that leads to things that are good for you. Sleep feels good when you’re tired, and warmth feels good when you’re cold. Life is simple when you can relieve unhappy chemicals by doing things that feel good.
When that doesn’t work, any way of feeling good seems enticing. Things that worked in the past come to mind. Maybe your bottle cap collection, or your Great Aunt Hilda. The brain expects things that felt good before to feel good again.
Your bottle cap collection can’t protect you from harm, of course. But when your brain is screaming “do something,” anything that triggers happy chemicals masks unhappy chemicals. Distraction is not the best survival strategy when your cortisol is triggered by a lion. But when your boss is in a bad mood, it’s nice to have a way to mask your bad feelings.
Our happy chemical strategies are often a mystery to us. Why does your bottle cap collection give you pleasure while a fishing trip does nothing for you? Each brain learns from the experiences it has. If a child pulls out his collection on a day when he’s experiencing a lot of pain, and then the pain stops, his brain “learns” that focusing on the collection stops pain. Each of us learns ways of stopping pain and turning on happy chemicals. We don’t learn by intellectually analyzing every possible action. We learn from accidents of experience.
Endorphin is called the body’s “natural morphine.” The truth is the opposite: morphine is artificial endorphin. Opium derivatives, like heroin, make you high because they fit into the body’s natural endorphin receptors.
“Euphoria” is the word often used to describe the endorphin feeling. But this neurochemical did not evolve for good times. Physical pain is what triggers endorphin. You may have experienced this if you took a bad fall and got up thinking you were fine, only to find yourself in pain a little later.
Endorphin masks pain for a short time, which promotes survival by giving an injured mammal a chance to reach safety. If your ancestor broke his leg while hunting, or got worn down by hunger and thirst, the oblivion of endorphin helped him keep doing what it took to save himself.
“Runners high” is the well-known endorphin experience. But a regular daily run does not make you “high.” You have to push beyond your capacity to the point of distressing your body to get that good feeling. This is not necessarily a good way to promote survival. Endorphin did not evolve to motivate you to inflict pain on yourself. It evolved to help you escape pain.
Perhaps you’ve seen a zebra wriggle out of the jaws of a lion on a wildlife documentary. You see the zebra run for its life with its flesh ripped open by the lion’s teeth. Endorphin masks the pain for a few moments, which helps the zebra escape. If it fails to escape and ends up in the lion’s jaw, it will die in an endorphin haze. Nature’s euthanasia is nice to know about while you watch disturbing footage of predator devouring prey. Endorphin was not meant for partying but for momentary respite in the brutal struggle for life.
The respite is brief because pain has survival value. Pain is your body’s signal that something is urgently wrong. If you ignored pain all the time, you would touch hot stoves and walk on broken legs. You would not make good survival choices if you were always high on endorphin. Masking pain promotes survival in narrow circumstances, but we evolved to notice distress signals, not to mask them with oblivion.
Happy chemicals disappoint for a good reason. They evolved to excite you about new rewards, not to waste your attention on the same old reward. Discovering a new planet would excite you, but looking at your planet every day would not re-kindle the initial excitement. If you expected to live at that level of excitement forever, you would be disappointed.
I feel a thrill when I walk into a coffee-roasting shop. Sometimes I comment on the delicious smell to the person behind the counter, and I realize they don’t notice it. They have habituated to the fabulous smell. If I went to work at a coffee roaster in order to feel constant joy, I would be disappointed.
But such disappointment is hard to avoid, because your brain builds expectations when something feels good. Your brain doesn’t give up after a disappointment. It tries again. It trusts its own circuits because they come from its own experience. If you had a great time at a party after you got a bad grade in math, your brain built a link that suggests partying when you feel bad about math. The same parties will not make you as happy as they once did, however, and bad grades may pile up and make you unhappier. You might respond by partying even more. You could build a new circuit that helps you feel good about doing your math homework. If you don’t, the vicious circle is likely to continue.
You can probably think of 10 vicious cycles in 10 seconds: junk food, alcohol, love affairs, drugs, losing your temper, gaming, getting recognition, shopping, watching a screen, telling other people what to do, withdrawing, career advancement, pleasing people, climbing mountains, rescuing people, smoking, writing another book. (That’s more than 10. I couldn’t stop.) All of these things can make you feel good, which motivates you to activate them over and over. But the good feeling doesn’t mask unhappy chemicals as much as you expect, and the side effects feel bad. When you look for a way to feel better, the same happy strategy comes to mind. It has disappointed you before, but the highway to your happy chemicals is still there.