Happiness chemicals & The Upside of ‘Negative’ Emotions

By Adriana Ayales

Life in the human body is designed to be a blissful experience. Our evolutionary biology shows us that we are equipped with everything necessary to thrive. All animals naturally seek pleasure and avoid pain. Therefore, our brain has a wellspring of self-produced neurochemicals that turn the pursuits and struggles of life into pleasures. And, as a side effect they make us feel happy when we achieve them!

Our biology is generous, yet it lays dormant if not nourished accordingly. Our body produces hundreds of neurochemicals, only a small fraction of which have been identified by scientists. We will not know in our lifetime exactly how all of these molecules work, yet we have a generally good understanding of a few masterful ones that control how we perceive and feel. 

Today we are reviewing popular neurochemicals said to be responsible for our happiness, along with simple ways to activate their participation in our daily life. We’re also reviewing the in’s and out’s of low and high emotions, and how they act as a gateway to understanding what might be going on inside.
 

 1. Dopamine – “The Reward Molecule”

Dopamine is responsible for reward-driven behavior and pleasure seeking. Every type of reward seeking behavior that has been studied increases the level of dopamine transmission in the brain. If you want to get a hit of dopamine, set a goal and achieve it. It’s also important to note that the simple act of setting a goal with enthusiasm already triggers dopamine receptors. Accomplishing the task itself, also activates the dopamine system. You can also get a natural dose of dopamine (along with oxytocin!) when you perform acts of kindness toward others.

2. Oxytocin –  “The Cuddling Hormone”

Oxytocin is the “cuddling hormone”. Or what I like to call, the loving touch hormone. You don’t need someone else to release oxytocin. Performing self massage, any kind of self care rituals, and gifting yourself any kind of self pleasure, assist in releasing oxytocin.

Oxytocin is well known amongst mothers, as its the hormone produced in abundance during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Oxytocin is primarily associated with loving touch and close relationships. This hormone provides us with the warm fuzzies, by stimulating both dopamine and serotonin, while reducing anxiety. Other ways to increase oxytocin is by hugging someone, holding hands, giving compliments, bonding with loved ones, and connecting lovingly with your pets or animals, 

 3. Serotonin – “The Happiness Chemical” 

Serotonin may be the best-known happiness chemical because it’s the one that antidepressant medications primarily addresses. But, let’s get this straight; serotonin is a naturally occurring neurotransmitter that is triggered by several things each and every day. 95% of the body’s supply of serotonin is manufactured in the gut, so the well-being of our microbiome, and overall gastrointestinal tract, is vital to keeping our mood high.

Other ways to boost your serotonin is eating foods high in tryptophan (an amino acid that’s converted to serotonin in your brain such as: oats, nuts, seeds, pineapple, eggs, salmon, etc.) Due to gut bacteria being a key player in serotonin production, it’s vital to eat a high-fiber diet as this is known to fuel serotonin levels through the gut-brain axis. 

4. Endorphins – “The Pain-Killing Molecule”

Endorphins are produced by the central nervous system to help us deal with physical pain. They also make us feel lightheaded, and even giddy at times. A classic well known way to induce endorphins is exercise. Endorphins are released after both aerobic and anaerobic exercise. Studies show that even just a 30minute walk can significantly reduce depression and low moods, as well as boost endorphins.

Other ways to activate endorphins is laughter exercises, and lots of cacao. Endorphins are also responsible for masking pain or discomfort, which explains their association to “fight or flight” response.

Endorphins are what we excrete when we power through something, allowing us to push harder in moments where you are breaking through set goals.

Emotions as Tools for Self Discovery


On the other hand, what if I told you that negative emotions do us a great favor?  They’re actually mysterious signals with a deep purpose that oftentimes surge for “no apparent reason”, urging us to pay attention and change what we’re doing. Emotions that generate unpleasant feelings have been labeled as sinful, like anger, depression or envy, or even rejected in polite interaction like expressing jealousy, frustration, or identified as unhealthy like sadness and shame.

Culturally we’re taught to suppress these feelings, or medicate them, and punish ourselves for feeling them. Because these feelings are mostly seen as aversive, they are often called “negative” emotions. Honestly, if you think about it, emotions are not inherently negative or positive, they are oftentimes a response to an inner chemical event, or behavioral patterning. In esoteric practices, for example, they are distinguished by much more than whether they feel good or bad.

Beneath the surface, every emotion orchestrates a complex suite of changes in motivation, physiology, attention, perception, belief and behaviors —summoning specific memories that trigger all sorts of bodily responses. Each component of every emotion has a critical « job » to do, whether its preparing us to move toward what we want (anger), urging us to improve our standing (envy), or allowing us to undo a social blooper (embarrassment). Mathew Hutson, psychologist, says,

“We have the wrong ideas about emotions. They’re very rational; they are tools carved by eons of human experience to direct us where we need to go.” – Mathew Hutson, psychologist

EMOTIONS as mirrors to your inner landscape
       1. ANGER
Anger results when we feel undervalued. It prompts us to reassert the importance of our welfare, threatening to harm others or withhold benefits if others don’t recalibrate our worth. This may also explain why we get angry when someone needlessly tries to be helpful; they obviously haven’t shown malicious intent, but we feel underestimated, or assume that we are being seen as incapable. 

Aaron Sell, psychologist, has researched how one of the primary benefits of anger for an individual is preventing oneself from being exploited. If you know what you deserve, and someone else sees things differently, anger arises. He explains “Your heart rate increases, you start to sweat, you think about all the things you could do to set the other party straight. In fact, the frustration of devaluation that leads to anger quite often gets you what you want.”

       2. ENVY

“Envy — even more than admiration — ignites our ambition to overcome a sense of inferiority and achieve future success” explains Hutson. It is a very human thing to compare oneself to others, or at least the conditioning we’ve received culturally. Much of our success — financial, romantic, and personal — depends on our relative status and resources within a group, as it has throughout human history.

“Happiness is greatly influenced by our comparison of ourselves to others.” Ultimately, boiling down to the discomfort you feel of being worse off than those around you presents a combination of shame, resentment, and hostility = a mix, packaged as envy. 

“Envy can have destructive consequences. But it also has benefits: to reduce or reverse inferiority. Envy moves us to increase our own standing, or decrease the standing of others.” Instead of competing or feeling less-than our competitor, it is meant to be used as a propeller to generating more success. We can also become more successful by emulating the person we envy. While benevolent, envy is essentially a creative force, where as malignant envy is destructive.  

       3. FEAR & ANXIETY

Fear stimulates vivid pictures of what may go wrong — and how to get out of the situation. When in fear, our focus narrows, the heart races, and our animal senses pick up. Everything unrelated to safety vanishes. The flight or fight response is automatic. Hutson explains that it “originates deep in the brain, and has been conserved in species throughout evolution.” Most of our base fears are learned as children, yet researches have seen how many fears are an ancestral inheritance.

Many shamans and “videntes” (seers) first recognize where your fear comes from in order to gain access to your blueprint. To these types of seers, this grants direct access as to what we’ve inherited culturally, ancestrally or directly from our trauma. This allows a major access point to what we need in order to surrender and heal.

Without fear we would become uncritical risk takers. This can have a huge benefit, as fear can deter us from trying things out, or it can actually be damaging, making us do things without evaluating potentially harmful consequences. Researchers believe that “fear and anxiety not only preserves life, it is essential in all kinds of situations that require caution and self discipline.” Hutson explains that anxiety about how we’re living our lives can point to ways in which we’re not being true to ourselves; ways in which our actions don’t align with our deepest values. Anxiety can serve a corrective purpose, bringing us back to authenticity.

       4. SADNESS & GRIEF

Sadness indicates a deprived body, mind and spirit. Sadness ignites us to carefully detect that part of our spirit that has been underfed, and reminds us to energize our body with the right nutrition. Hutson explains that the failure to recognize and experience sadness and grief after a trauma back fires on us. We can remain dissociated to pain, up until a point in life, where it all crumbles – manifesting itself into a chronic illness or crisis.

Happiness cues the brain to suppress worrisome or negative feelings and increases the body’s energy level. Sadness does the opposite, slowing down its metabolism, and manifests itself most visibly in tears. Research has substantiated the age-old theory that crying releases harmful toxins by showing that tears of sadness have a different chemical composition than tears of joy, or those caused by irritants. Cardiologists have also found that crying can reduce stress and the harmful physiological reactions associated with it. Psychologists explain that the simple recognition of being sad, or depressed, already changes chemistry, and begins the restoration process. 

       5. REGRET + DISAPPOINTMENT

Regret emerges when we think about what could have been, if only we’d done something differently. “It relies on counterfactual thinking – pondering on alternate realities. Psychologists explain that counterfactual thinking allows us to analyze the past and the future and to understand causality. Because making a mistake is such an excellent learning opportunity, our emotions highlight our mistakes for us, adding regret to injury. 

Research shows that by making our errors more painful, regret renders them more memorable and more effectively induces us to change our ways. The reflective point of generating a “mistake” propels our evolution to change our ways and transform all new patterning for the second time around. “Regret has a trusty sidekick keeping us out of trouble: anticipated regret. When it’s not paralyzing us, this fear of future self-loathing makes us wear condoms, drink less, and eat better.” Regret arises when an outcome is worse than we expected it to be, highlighting powerlessness. The reparative element distinguishes regret from disappointment, which motivates us to abandon a goal rather than persist.

Whether avoiding sadness or anger, regret or grief, distancing ourselves from our negative feelings cripples everyday functioning and growth, potentially enabling illness. It also alienates us from the full range of human experience. The more these emotions are recognized and acknowledged, it’ll naturally deepen you as a human being. Be open to feeling the full spectrum of your emotions, without labeling “good” or “bad”, and listen carefully to what your body reveals.

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