Hacking Happiness: 13 Science Backed Ways to Feel Good Virtually All The Time
BY LORETTA GRAZIANO BREUNING, Ph.D.,
learning to feel good pretty much all the time isn’t very hard… when you have powerful, research-backed tools at your disposal to help keep happy chemicals and neurotransmitters flowing through your brain. photo: kathrin_hb photocase.com
New Habits for Each Happy Chemical
We are lucky to live in a time when our brain is increasingly well understood. You can learn how to feel good by turning on your happy chemicals in new ways. No one can do this for you and you cannot do it for someone else. This chapter outlines specific suggestions for new roads to dopamine happiness, endorphin happiness, oxytocin happiness, and serotonin happiness.The abundance of choices will help you find a path you can believe in. Then you can wire it into your brain by repeating it for forty-five days without fail. Once you’ve built a new habit based around ways to feel happier, you will be so pleased with your power over your brain that you will want to build another.
New Dopamine Habits
Here’s how to feel happier by increasing dopamine. Implementing the following habits are small ways to feel good on a short term and long term basis when practiced regularly.
1. Celebrate Small Victories
You have some success every day, so commit to finding it and say, “I did it!” You will not conduct a symphony at Carnegie Hall every day. You will not lead starving hordes into the Promised Land every day. To feel good regularly, adjust your expectations so you can be pleased with something you actually do. This doesn’t mean you are lowering your expectations, or “full of yourself,” or losing touch with reality. It means you are lingering on your gains the way you already linger on your losses (which I’m sure you can imagine is not a key for how to feel better).
Celebrating small steps triggers more dopamine than saving it up for one big achievement. Big accomplishments don’t make you feel happy forever, so if you always tie happiness to a far-off goal, you may end up frustrated. Instead, learn to be happy with your progress. You will not be celebrating with champagne and caviar each day. You will be giving yourself permission to have a feeling of accomplishment. This feeling is better than external rewards. It’s free, it has no calories, and it doesn’t impair your driving. You have a small victory every day. Why not enjoy it and feel good in the process?
At first, it might feel silly to look for reasons to pat yourself on the back, and the reasons you come up with might make you uncomfortable. Still, commit to doing this whether or not it feels good. You can decide to be worthy of your own applause and enjoy the feeling, even if just for a split second. If it feels fake or forced, that’s normal, because the circuits that berate your accomplishments feel strong and true.
Celebrating small accomplishments is a valuable skill, not only because it’s one of the ways to feel happier, but also because big things come from many small steps. You won’t take those steps if you are just running on the fumes of the last big thing. Finally, your daily triumph will feel better if it doesn’t depend on one-upping someone. If you have to win in ways that make someone lose, you limit yourself and end up with side effects. You can celebrate what you are creating instead of just who you are defeating.
No success is too small. Do not undermine your good feeling by apologizing to yourself for the triviality of the accomplishment. Just enjoy the split second of triumph and move on. It’s just a spark, but if you ignite it every day, you will be your own best spark plug. Remember, learning how to feel happy and good is a practice.
2. Take Small Steps Toward a New Goal
It doesn’t take much time or money to step toward a goal. Just commit ten minutes a day and you will feel momentum instead of feeling stuck. Ten minutes is not enough to move mountains, but it’s enough to approach the mountain and see it accurately. Instead of dreaming about your goal from afar, you can gather the information you need to plan realistically. Your goals might change as your information grows. You might even learn that your fantasy goal would not make you feel happy. Those ten-minute investments can free you from unnecessary regret and help you find a hill you can actually climb and feel good in the process. Your ten-minute efforts can define manageable steps so you’re not just waiting for huge leaps that never come.
If you think you can’t spare ten minutes a day, consider the time you already spend dreaming of what you’d rather be doing. You can use that time to research the necessary steps. You will get a dopamine feeling each day as those steps come into view. You will start to expect that dopamine feeling and look forward to it. You will learn to feel that it’s possible to transform a dream into reality with steady effort. When your ten minutes is over, go back to living in the present, which is another hack for how to feel good and happy. Do not make a habit of focusing constantly on the future.
Take action, don’t just daydream. Spend your time on concrete action. Don’t spend it fantasizing about quitting your day job or pressuring others to help you. It’s not their goal. Dig into practical realities instead. Do this faithfully for forty-five days and you will begin to feel better and have the habit of moving forward.
3. Divide an Unpleasant Task into Small Parts
Everyone has a dreaded task they’d rather forget about. It might be the mess inside your closets or the mess inside an important relationship. One method for how to feel happier is to commit to spending ten minutes a day on your dreaded task. You don’t need to have the solution when you start, only the willingness to keep stepping.
You may think it’s impossible to clean out closets or renegotiate relationships in ten-minute chunks. But if you wait for grand solutions, you will languish for quite a long time. Instead, go to that closet, pull out one chunk of mess, and sort it out for ten minutes. Go to that yucky relationship riddled with disappointment and plant goodwill for ten minutes. You might not feel happier right away, but don’t let a day go by without tackling another chunk. Keep it up for forty-five days and you will be comfortable tackling the annoyances that stand in the way of making your life feel better.Of course, you can’t control other people the way you can control the contents of your closet. But you will replace a bad feeling with a good feeling if you keep trying. And you will keep trying because your positive expectations trigger dopamine, which is one of the neurochemical ways to feel good.
Your dreaded task may miraculously resolve itself in less than forty-five days! If so, don’t stop. Find another painful mess so you keep going for forty-five more days. That’s what builds the habit of facing tough challenges in small increments instead of being intimidated by them. Remember to feel good about what you’ve done each day. Soon, you’ll have the habit of tackling obstacles and feeling rewarded by it, which is a great way to feel happy.
4. Keep Adjusting the Bar
Good feelings flow when the level of challenge you face is “just right.” If a basketball hoop is too low, you get no pleasure from scoring points. If it’s too high, you have no reason to try. Effort is fun when you expect a reward for your effort but it’s not certain. You can adjust the hoops in your life as one of the ways to feel happy and make things fun.
Here’s another hack for how to feel good in your life. For forty-five days, experiment with lowering the bar in areas where you have set yourself impossible goals and raising the bar in places where you’ve set it so low that you feel no reward. If you feel you have no choice between frozen dinners and gourmet banquets, define a moderate cooking goal and start your forty-five days now. If you feel you have no choice between sitting on the couch and walking the red carpet, try going out in a middle-of-the-road way, and then try another way.
Summary: How to Feel Happier by Increasing Dopamine
+ Celebrate small victories
+ Take steps toward a new goal
+ Divide an unpleasant task into small parts
+ Keep adjusting the bar
New Endorphin Habits
Here’s how to feel better by increasing endorphin. Committing to the following habits are additional ways to feel good that will carry over into the long term.
Laughing stimulates endorphin as it spontaneously convulses your innards. Find out what makes you laugh, and make time for it. This is one of the best and easiest ways to feel happy. A big ha-ha laugh is necessary to trigger endorphin—sneering at people you disdain doesn’t do it. Nor does laughing on the outside, although that might prime the pump. It can be hard to find what triggers your laughs, but you can commit to keep sampling comedy until you get your daily laugh.Laughter is not just a way to feel good, it’s a release of fear. Imagine laughing with relief after a close call with a snake. Social risks are more common than predator risk in modern life, and we often fear expressing a socially unacceptable emotion. Social shunning is a real survival threat in the state of nature, so we are wired to take these things seriously. Comedians often express socially risky feelings. When they survive, the part of you that fears shunning laughs with relief. You can think of laughing as creating safety instead of thinking it’s frivolous.
You can enjoy more relief if you put it at the top of your priority list for forty-five days. Don’t give up if it takes a bit of trial and error. I often think jokes are “not funny,” but I have found a local improv troop that always seems hilarious to me. So I make time for it, a lot—what a better way to feel happy than that!
6. Exercise Differently
Varying your exercise routine is a good hack for how to feel good and to trigger endorphin. It takes strain to trigger endorphin, and if you keep straining the same place, you risk injury. If you work new places with new exercise, moderate exertion can stimulate endorphin.
Your body has three layers of muscles. When you vary your exercise, you give the neglected, constricted layers more attention. Since they’re weak, they have to work harder, so you stimulate development where it’s needed instead of going overboard on the parts you overuse. Chasing an endorphin high is not worth the risk of wearing out a part and needing a parts replacement. Variety is a great alternative and one of the best ways to feel better.
If you’re a person who doesn’t exercise at all, everything you do will be something different and it will all feel good. If you’re already athletic, you may hate the uncoordinated feeling you get when you try something new. You may see it as a setback, when it’s actually strengthening your weakest link. Free yourself from performance anxiety for forty-five days. You may like it so much that you want to try another variation for another forty-five days, and can keep switching things up, finding new ways to be happy.
Endorphin is also stimulated when you stretch. Everyone can add stretching to their daily routine, because you can do it while you’re watching TV, waiting in line, or talking on the phone. Mild stretching brings circulation into constricted areas. Stop before you feel pain. Just because a little is good doesn’t mean a lot is better, nor is it needed to start feeling happier. If you stretch every day for forty-five days, you will not only feel good but also come to enjoy it so much that you will look forward to doing it every day.
Stretching is not just about arms and legs. Sample classes that introduce deeper stretches without hurting yourself. The point is not to push harder on the usual spots but to stretch spots you didn’t know you had, such as the muscles between your ribs. Don’t forget to stretch your toes, fingers, and even ears—you’ll be surprised by the ways this can feel good.
Slow movement is an essential variation on this theme. Tai chi and Qi Gong are so slow that you may think they’re not real exercise. But super-slow movement is more of a workout than it seems. It forces you to use muscles evenly, activating the weaker muscles instead of letting the dominant ones take over. Both are great exercise methods for how to feel good in your body and mind. Commit to doing something that doesn’t look like “real exercise” for forty-five days, and you will feel the difference.
Summary: How to Feel Happier by Increasing Endorphin
+ Exercise differently
Building New Oxytocin Circuits
Here’s how to feel happier by increasing oxytocin circuits, which are activated when we bond with others, fall in love and experience pleasure.
8. Place Stepping Stones to Trust
Building trust is another key for how to feel happy and good, as it stimulates oxytocin. Maybe there’s someone you want to trust, but you can’t bridge the divide. It’s good to know you can build trust with a long series of very small interactions that help you feel better along the way. Individuals or groups with an unfortunate history cannot always wipe the slate clean all at once. Intermediate steps build trust gradually. The stepping stones can be placed so close together that neither party risks a big betrayal. Each step need only create positive expectations about the next step rather than resolve the whole problem. Each small experience of trust stimulates the good feeling of oxytocin, which connects neurons that help trigger more.
Divorce lawyers use this strategy to help a couple reach agreement. You might try it with that person who is “ruining your life.” Initiate a very small interaction, and if that proceeds without disaster, do it again. The goal is not to trust blindly and get disappointed. The goal is to build positive expectations.
Coexisting without trust is bad, but getting burned again is worse. So instead of taking a leap of faith with that crazy neighbor or the coworker who stabbed you in the back, you can find steps that are comfortable. For forty-five days, craft reciprocal exchanges that build stepping stones toward trust with difficult people. You can’t predict the results since you can’t control others. But you will expand your sense of control over the trust bonds in your life. This is hard work, and it may not feel good in the short run. But in the long run, it builds confidence that you can do something about those thorns in your side learn how to feel happy in spite of them.
You might start by just making eye contact with that person who’s making your life difficult. The next day, you could comment on the weather, and add a smile the day after that. It could take
a week to build up to a shared chuckle about traffic, and even that may stir up bad feelings that are curiously strong. But you will continue making neutral contact—neither venting anger nor rushing to please. In forty-five days, you will have built a new shared foundation upon which you both feel happier and better about. You may always need to limit your trust in this person, but you will be able to relax in his presence the way gazelles relax in a world full of lions.
9. Be Trustworthy
Oxytocin works both ways. When other people trust you, it feels good whether or not you trust them. You can enjoy more oxytocin by creating opportunities for people to trust you. Handle this strategy with care—you do not want to be the rescuer of everyone you know forty-five days from now. Your goal is simply to feel the pleasure of another person’s trust for a moment each day as a way to feel happier in your daily life. Of course, you can’t force other people to trust you, and it may take more than a moment to extend yourself in ways that build trust. Do not spend a lot of time seeking approval. Simply honor your commitments, and then pause to enjoy being a person who honors her commitments. It may sound self-important, but the circuit it builds is the foundation of future trust. So plan to honor your commitments scrupulously for forty-five days. This is how to feel good simply by increasing trust with yourself and others.
10. Get a Massage
Massage stimulates oxytocin and is a great way to feel better in your brain and body. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a daily massage. Here are some other options:
+ Start a reciprocal exchange with a massage buddy.
+ Build the skill in a community-education class so you can absorb the enthusiasm of your classmates.
+ Try self-massage, which is a surprisingly effective way to feel good, too. The Qi Gong self-massage technique requires no special strength and it’s easy to learn from a video.
Once you create the habit of stimulating your oxytocin in this way, it’s a pleasure you will always have available.
Summary: How to Feel Happier by Increasing Oxytocin
+ Place stepping stones
+ Be trustworthy
+ Get a massage
Building New Serotonin Circuits
Here’s how to feel happy by increasing serotonin circuits, which come alive in a variety of situations.
11. Express Pride in What You’ve Done
Pride is complicated. Applause-seeking can have bad side effects, but when you get no recognition from others, something feels wrong. You could applaud yourself, but the brain is not easily tricked by hollow self-respect. It wants respect from others to feel good because that has survival value. Alas, there is no guaranteed safe way to get this serotonin boost. Social recognition is unpredictable and fleeting. But you can stimulate your serotonin without being “a jerk.” Simply express pride in something you’ve done once a day.
Pride is a rudder that helps you navigate opportunities to get social recognition. It helps you steer between the opposite extremes of constant approval-seeking and cynical dejection, which actually can help you feel quite happy and content. Taking pride in yourself means more than just thinking it silently. It means daring to say, “Look what I did!” to another living soul. Asking others to respect your accomplishment is risky because you may be disappointed. People often protect themselves by insisting that social respect doesn’t matter or that it’s hopelessly unfair. But these rationales don’t help you feel better because they don’t soothe the mammal brain’s longing for the sense of security that social respect brings.
So for forty-five days, say “look what I did” to someone else once a day. You will expect a positive reaction, and if you don’t get it, you will learn that it doesn’t kill you. The next day you will crow with positive expectations again. It’s hard to overcome negative expectations. It’s natural to have concerns about the “right” way to crow. But if you keep trying for forty-five days, you will wire in the feeling of social respect and learn how to feel good expressing pride regularly.
12. Enjoy Your Social Position in Each Moment
Believe it or not, your social position changes constantly. One minute you feel like you’re in the subordinate position and the next minute you find yourself in the dominant position in relation to those you focus on. You hate the subordinate position, but when you’re dominant, that frustrates you too. You can learn how to feel happy by enjoying the advantages of wherever you are instead of focusing on the frustrations.
You may think equality would make you happy, but the closer you get to it, the more your brain finds tiny differences to dwell on. When mammals gather, each brain seeks the good feeling of being dominant. You can easily see this in others, but when your brain does it, it feels like you’re just seeking what you deserve to feel good. Your inner mammal will constantly find ways that you have been undervalued and this can make you miserable even in a rather good life. You will feel much happier if you relax and enjoy wherever you find yourself.
You have built expectations about social rivalry from your past experience. The frustrations and disappointments of your past built circuits that make it easy for you to feel bad about being in the one-down position and bad about being in the one-up position. You could spend your whole life longing for the position you’re not in. Or you could build up the circuits that find the good in what you have and help you learn how to feel good out of habit:
+ When you’re in the subordinate position, notice the advantages. Someone else is in the “hot seat.” You’re not responsible for protecting others, and you don’t have to worry about defending your position.
+ When you’re in the dominant position, enjoy the moments of respect and choice instead of being overwhelmed by the pressure, because those moments will end.
For forty-five days, notice your status frustrations and remind yourself of the hidden advantages of wherever you are as a way to boost serotonin and a way to feel better. Your status will always be going up and down in small ways. Your mammal brain will always keep track of it, as much as you wish it wouldn’t. If you fret over your position, the fretting will never end. You can focus on the positives instead, which will train your brain to feel happier. Once you create this thought habit, you will always have a way to make peace with your mammal brain.
13. Make Peace with Something You Can’t Control
Your brain looks for things you can control and feels good when you’re in charge. But our control is often limited and unpredictable, so frustration percolates. You can learn how to feel better and more comfortable with your limited control. That doesn’t mean being out of control or giving up. It means feeling safe when you’re not in charge.
To build this new circuit and train your brain with how to feel happier, notice your usual strategy for feeling “on top of things,” and do the opposite. For example, if you are a person who tries to bake the perfect soufflé, spend forty-five days cooking without recipes. Conversely, if you are a person who likes to just throw things into a pot, spend forty-five days following recipes.
If you are a person who likes everything neat, let junk pile up for six weeks as a surprising way to feel happy and good. But if you are a person who hates order and loves chaos, put things away as soon as you use them for six weeks. Color outside the lines if that’s new for you, but if you already pride yourself on that, courageously stay inside the lines. It might feel awful on Day One, but forty-four days later it will feel curiously safe.
Getting rid of the clock is a great way to experiment with control, because you can’t control time. We all have habits for managing the harsh reality of time. For some it’s chronic lateness and for others it’s constant clock-checking. You may think you can’t change your relationship with time, but here are three great ways to feel good by ignoring the clock and make friends with the passage of time:
1. Start an activity without having an exact time you need to stop. Finish the activity without ever checking the clock the whole time. It’s over when you feel like it’s over.
2. Set aside a time each day to spend with no plan.
3. Designate a day you can wake up without looking at the clock and continue through your day with no time-checking.
No matter how busy you are, you can find a way to relax your efforts to control time. You may be surprised at the bad feelings that come up, despite your abiding wish to escape time pressure. The bad feelings won’t kill you, however, and accepting them helps you accept the harsh realities of time and feel happy and better in spite of it.
Your mammal brain feels good about things it can control. Some people break traffic laws to enjoy a sense of control, while others feel their power by scolding those who break traffic laws. Whatever gives you a sense of power won’t work all the time, however. You will end up feeling weak and unimportant some of the time. That triggers cortisol, but you can learn to feel safe when you are not in control.
For forty-five days, give up control instead of trying to control the world in your accustomed ways. Don’t quit your day job to beg with a rice bowl and think that will be a way to feel good. Just stop checking the weather report, buying lottery tickets, and expecting the world to work according to your rules. Choose one habit you have for feeling in control, and do without it. If you can’t give up your control ritual completely, commit to giving it up for a certain time each day. You will learn how to feel happy and safe in the world despite your inability to control it.
Summary: How to Feel Happier by Increasing Serotonin
+ Express pride in what I’ve done
+ Enjoy my social position in each moment
+ Make peace with something I can’t control
The Challenges of Establishing a Habit
If you were planning a trip to the Amazon, you’d have to choose between interesting places far from paved roads and destinations that are easily accessible. The exotic locales would entice you, but when you saw what it took to get there, you might gravitate toward the beaten path.
It’s the same with your jungle of neurons. New goals sound great, but once you start slogging toward them, well-paved neural highways may tempt you. You can build a new highway if you slog for forty-five days. Exciting destinations will start to feel good and become accessible, so your old roads will be less tempting.
To establish a new trail through your jungle of neurons, you must repeat a new behavior every day. Otherwise, the undergrowth will return and your next pass will be just as hard as the
first. Spark your new trail each day whether or not you feel like it, and you will eventually pass it with ease, feeling happier and better as you go. You may not get the highs of your old happy habit, but you will learn to feel good without artificial highs and their inevitable side effects. You will be so pleased with your new habit that you will want to build another, and another.
It bears repeating that you will not feel happy on Day One. Maintain realistic expectations. Nibbling on carrot sticks will not feel as good as licking an ice cream cone on Day One, and it may not seem that this could change with repetition. Doing homework will not feel as good as watching a movie on Day One, and it’s hard to imagine that changing either. Stick to your plan and you will connect carrot sticks or studying to your happy chemicals. You can learn how to feel good when you do what’s good for you.
1. Overcome Initial Unpleasantness
The first step is a willingness to do things that don’t feel good at first. This is difficult because your brain usually trusts its own reactions. You don’t usually listen to music you dislike on the assumption that you’ll grow to like it. You don’t befriend a person you dislike or join an activity you’re bad at on the assumption that something will change.
It’s natural to trust your current likes and dislikes when you think that will make you feel happy. But now you know that they’re based on accidents of experience rather than complete information. Your accidental circuits cause the threatened feeling you get when you depart from the road you know. If you avoid the threatened feeling by sticking to the old road, you miss out on a universe of potential happiness. You can learn to enjoy the challenge of embarking on a new road to feel good.
2. Make a Commitment to One Pathway at First
With so many choices for how to feel happier and so many neurons to help you feel better, you can build a lot of new pathways to your happy chemicals. But you only have a limited amount of time and energy. If you spread it everywhere, a new road may not get built. So choose one remodeling project to start with. Commit to repeating it for forty-five days whether or not you feel like it. If you miss a day, start over with Day One.
Commitments to yourself can be difficult to enforce but will ultimately feel good. For example, I made the commitment to bring reusable bags with me when I buy food, but I kept forgetting them. So I added the commitment to go back to my car and get them if I forgot. The next time I found myself at the supermarket without the bags, I thought “I’m too busy to go back to the car.” Then I realized that I will always be busy, and I am a powerless person if I can’t even honor a commitment to myself. So I went back to the car to get the bags, and I never forgot them again because I didn’t want to waste time going back to my car. You will not want to waste time starting over with Day One. You will want to honor your commitments to yourself and thus enjoy a new happy habit.
This article on feeling good is excerpted with permission from Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels by Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD. Used by permission of the publisher, Adams Media, a division of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.
About The Author
Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., grew up surrounded by unhappiness and was determined to make sense of it. She was not convinced by theories of human motivation she learned in school, so she kept searching. When she learned about the effect brain chemicals have on animals, human frustrations suddenly made sense, so she retired from teaching and founded the Inner Mammal Institute. The Inner Mammal Institute provides tools that help people make peace with the animal inside. It has helped thousands of people learn to manage their neurochemical ups and downs. Discover your inner mammal at InnerMammalInstitute.org