The Chemicals of Happiness

Loretta Graziano Breuning says there are four chemicals that produce happiness in our brain.

  • Dopamine produces the joy of finding things we seek
  • Endorphin creates oblivion that masks pain
  • Oxytocin creates the feeling of being safe with others
  • Serotonin creates the feeling of being respected by others

All of these chemicals are produced and released the limbic system, a mammalian system in our brains made up of structures such as the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus. The limbic system reacts quickly and claims to know what is good and bad for you. It makes sense between pleasure and pain.

The cortex is the part of the brain associated with primates and most evolved in humans. This much larger section of the human brain is the thinking, processing part of our mind. They are not involved in chemical production or the release of those chemicals.

Our work with being happiness requires us to work on those lower level systems, given the enormous effects those chemicals have on our mental well-being.

Happy – Short and Long

Philosophy has been working on questions of the mind and meaning for centuries. The thinkers and their analysises are too numerous to count, but for the discussion of happiness, let’s consider two school of thoughts.

As early as the Eygptians, philosophers believed that pleasure should be the primary and proper purpose to human life. Greeks used their word hedonia or ‘delight’ to describe it. Today, we still describe self-indulgence pursuits and behavior as hedonistic. Freud called it “the pleasure principle” and said it provided, in the words of Howard Cutler, “the fundamental motivating force for the entire psychic apparatus…to relieve the tension caused by unfulfilled instinctual drives.”

With time, the Greeks advanced the idea of happiness further. Aristotle said singularly pursuing pleasure was vulgar. He believed activity needed to be measured against virtue. The Greek word he used was ‘eudaimonia’, often translated as ‘welfare’ or ‘happiness’. The word, translated literally, means “good spirit” and more recently as ‘human flourishing’. This is the approach Martin Segilman, the father of positive psychology, has advocated in his most recent work, in a effort to bring a greater whole to the discussion of happiness.

Robert Lustig, an endocrinologist and professor at UC-San Francisco, believes the duality is driven by the neurotransmitters in our brain. He associates dopamine with pleasure and desire, flooding the brain following a rewarding stimulus.  Dopamine helps us take action toward goals but can also trap us in addiction. On the other side, seratonin in the brain functions to create longer, sustained happiness. In one description, the chemical was described as helping people feel important and significant. That might explain serotonin’s association with both gratitude and depression.

In The Art of Happiness, The Dalai Lama distinguishes between these two schools in a different way. He says pleasure is unstable–“One day it’s here, the next day it is gone.” It’s sex, drugs and Rock ’n Roll. Real happiness, he says, is persistent and stable. It remains through the inevitable ups and downs that make up life. Where the pursuit of pleasure move us further away from life, real happiness moves us towards life and make us more receptive to what is always there.

As with most everything, it is not about seeing these competing or distinct. We experience intense pleasure and long for lasting happiness. The practice is to working with both equally.


Failing to Express Gratitude

Gregg Krech is a leading expert on Japanese psychology and the author of Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection.

In the book, Krech shares a list of 11 reasons why we fail to express gratitude:

  1. Misdirected attention – Just failing to notice what is given.
  2. Lack of Reflection – Not taking a moment.
  3. Others must “know” how grateful I am – Don’t take for granted, especially with those close to you
  4. Procrastination – Don’t wait.
  5. Forgetting – Don’t let the moment pass.
  6. Laziness – Make the effort.
  7. Entitlement – No matter the circumstance, others help.
  8. People were doing their job – You still benefit, say thank you.
  9. It’s wasn’t much trouble – Receiving any gift is justification enough.
  10. Later trouble or difficulty – The benefit exists separate from anything else that comes.
  11. An unknown giver – Honor the gift even if you don’t know the source.

A list like this helps us see many things that get in the way of being thankful.



Naikan is a Japanese word that means to “look inside.”

Ishin Yoshimoto used this term to describe a structured method of self-reflection. Ishin was a devotee of Jodo Shinshu, a school of Pure Buddhism and in creating Naikan, he adapted a highly demanding ascetic practice called ‘mishirabe’, that involved going without food, water or sleep for days.

Naikan practice take a less austere approach, but it still involves commitment. Retreats normally last week. Participants spend all of their time in reflection outside of a short twenty-minute work practice, three meals and a shower. When they sit, it is on cushions or pillows in a small area surrounded by curtains or screens.

For reflection, participants are given three questions to contemplate:

  • What have I received from ____________?
  • What have I given to __________?
  • What troubles or difficulties have I caused __________?

The first purpose of these questions is to explore the quality of relationships of those around us. The positive psychology research consistently points to how important social relationships are when assessing happiness. In naikan, participants often start with the relationship they have with their mother.  Reflection period last 90-120 minutes and examine the relationship in segments of three to six years. At the end of each period, a coach enters, listens to what the participant has to share and make suggestions for the next reflection period. Participants continue through a set of reflections to consider the relationships with their father, siblings, spouse, children, and friends.

The second purpose is to show how much you are supported and cared for by those around you. As a daily practice, naikan can be expanded to acknowledge a wide variety of human and non-human items that allowed you to move through the day. I’d have to thank Gregg Krech for writing a wonderful book on Naikan, Aaron Feuerstein for popularizing and not patenting polar fleece, the leftover rice in the fridge that made it easy to make dinner and Matt Mullenweg for WordPress. I could go on to thanking my daughter’s wonderful new friend Hannah, a co-worker who quickly got a call schedule with an upcoming sponsor, autumn, and the airplanes that are built, are flown, and safely maintained to allowed me visit to Maine this week. This is what a naikan reflection list begins to look like.

The most interesting question to me in the naikan technique is the last. Psychology and psychotherapy have long used approaches that ask people to think about those around them, how they have been affected and the feelings that arise. Asking people what role they played in causing harm shifts the lens of self-reflection from being affected to doing the affecting. Ishin considered this practice so important he told participants in retreats to spend 60% of their time on this question alone.

As I have discussed, gratitude takes practice and naikan provides one possible route to improve your practice.


I am working on project about happiness, positive psychology, and ways to bring them into your life. You can subscribe for updates here.

Express Gratitude

Countless acts each day involve the interaction of giver, receiver and gift.

Gratitude is the realization that we have much to be thankful for in each of those exchanges.

“Most of us recognize the ways in which our lives are supported and sustained by others,” says Robert Emmons, “…But acknowledging this awareness takes effort.”

I want to concentrate on the effort in this post.

A book that pushed me down the #happier path was The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky. Her book is a collection of her original research and the research of others that points directly at the actions people can take to be #happier.

The first practice in her book is “Express Gratitude.”

Feeling grateful is important, and sharing it is just as important.

Martin Seligman’s practice of gratitude letters is the most documented. Seligman asked his students to write a 300 word letter to someone who they were grateful to have in their lives. He then asked students to arrange a meeting with the letter’s recipient and deliver it to them in person. Seligman told the students not to share the reason for the meeting and present the letter when they arrived. The recounted stories of those who received the letters are as beautiful and emotional as you’d expect.

Seligman, though, was interested in the students. He wanted to know if they would be affected by expressing their gratitude in such a personal and direct way. Seligman followed up with students and he found that students were still affected weeks and even months later. They were #happier for having shared their thanks.

The other equally studied method of expressing gratitude is with a gratitude journal. Oprah gets a lot of credit for publicized the practice in the 1990’s but the research supports that people are 25% #happier, exercise 30% more, and report fewer health issues when they keep a gratitude journal.

Some have focused on follow-on research to examine frequency with which people kept their journals. Some studies found that a weekly accounting of blessings showed greater long-term effects on happiness than those kept a daily gratitude practice. Emmons, who has done the most work researching gratitude, believes that keeping the practice matters the most. In his book, Gratitude Works!, he offers a variety of suggestions:

  • Sharing more detail helps maintain a practice. In studies, it was found that writing five lines about one item was better than writing one line about five different things.
  • Write about people who have helped you and people who have helped people you love.
  • Look for things you take for granted.
  • Write about unexpected, novel, or unanticipated events and circumstances. These surprising experiences are intense and can help generate gratitude.
  • Be grateful for the negative outcomes that you avoided, escaped, prevented, and redeemed into something positive.
  • Along the same vein, think about ways an event might not have occurred. This helps counter the tendency to take benefits for granted.

A daily practice around journaling could involve focusing on one of the items above and moving others on following days. The changing focus maintains a certain variety that avoids fatigue and highlights different ways to invoke gratitude.

If you need a goal, think about 18,256 blessings.  That’s how many entries in the journal of Jane Randall of Centerville, Utah. In reaching out to Robert Emmons, she said she tried to list each blessing just once.


Before I started this #happier research, I tended to think that gratitude was cultivating an appreciation for what you have and taking time to do that is important, but considering the opposite can be just as important.

In the holiday classic “It’s A Wonderful Life”, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, is given a chance to see the world without him ever being born. Seeing that alternate future fills Bailey with gratitude and inspiration to return to his life anew.

Dutch psychologist Nico Frijda said “constantly being aware of how fortunate one’s condition is and how it could have been otherwise, or actually was otherwise before” engages our minds to recall and imagine those times.

Spiritual practices and academic research also support the value in focusing on less or being without. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims engage in the practice of fasting while the sun is in the sky. Almost every religion places value on silence and solitude. When you ask college seniors to comtemplate the limited time they have left in university, they report higher levels of well-being and participate more in school activities ahead of graduation.

We assume everything we have will always be there.

Flower petals fall.

Loved ones die.

Memories fade.

As Robert Emmons sums it up – “It is a good practice to notice when a particuarly good thing in your life is going to end and not assume it will go on forever. Or just imagine that it is about to end.”

Gratitude follows.



Gratitude – What Is It?

What is gratitude?

Is it an emotion? Is it a thought that we construct? Is it a value that we cultivate? No one is sure.

Anthropologist Jonathan Haidt suggests the existence of an emotion called elevation—“a warm, uplifting feeling that people experience when they see unexpected acts of human goodness, kindness and compassion.”  He further believes that gratitiude motivates you to become a better person, and engage in altruistic acts ourselves.

Paul Ekman, the leading researcher on mapping emotions to facial expressions, is hestistate to refer to gratitude as an emotion, because he can’t find a set of expressions that universally characterizes gratitude, like a smile for happiness or frown for anger. Ekman says, “Not everything we experience is an emotion; we also have thoughts, attitudes, and values, for example.”

Robert Emmons, the leading researcher on gratitude, calls gratitude a secondary emotion.  He refers to Ekman’s research and agrees there isn’t a universally recognizable expression. Emmons thinks this may be because gratitude lags after the event and is often felt later.

No one questions gratitude exists and the discussion of where it arises from is valuable.


Gratitude is one of the most reliable ways to make you happier. Emmons says gratitude has the strongest link to mental health of any personality trait – stronger than optimism, hope or compassion. Brené Brown, in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, says that her research found that gratitude and joy arose together in people’s experiences. Better sleep, less envy, and a longer lifespan are just a handful of many benefits that come from cultivating gratitude.

Being so pivotal to our well-being, understanding the source of gratitude can help us create practices to nuture its growth.


A Vow To Gratitude

I have been mulling around on this post on gratitude for over a week.

I keep looking for something unique to say, a hook that will catch your attention.

On the surface, gratitude is something we all know. We’ve felt it. We’ve been told we should feel it more. We feel guilty that we don’t feel it more often.  This complexity we layer on top of gratitude confuses us, or more accurately, it confuses me.

I know that’s true because it feels like another reason it has taken so long to write this post. In my researching and soul-searching around happiness, I find gratitude is something I don’t focus on enough on and express enough to those around me.

At the beginning of September, I made a personal vow around gratitude. I am actively working on being more grateful in my daily life. I plan to work with it through Thanksgiving.

Over the next few posts, I’ll share more of what I have learned about gratitude and the forms I am using to practice it.


What Makes You Happy?

Katherine Liu interviewed me for a zine she kickstarted and published this spring.

She asked me:

What makes you happy? 

Here was my in the moment, on the record, lightly edited answer:

I think I’m always surprised when I’m happy. It’s when all the stress and all of the worry and all of the regret fall away, and that’s what I think makes happiness such a wonderful quality of life.

I just got back from three weeks in India for a religious pilgrimage—India is an interesting country, and it’s a complicated country. But even with all the challenging parts of the trip, there were some beautifully serene moments of happiness. It was when all that other stuff fell away. It was slowly walking around one of the temples, being there with 6,000 Tibetan monks who were chanting all day long. There was a surreal moment of ‘There is nothing else but this’, that these people were doing something similar to what I do.

I guess that’s how I’ve come to think a lot about happiness lately. I think I try to move things in a forward direction, but what I really try to do is get rid of the other stuff—the things that stress me out. I think most people think that happiness is joy. That’s a different emotion. Joy is that ultimate high— like, “Oh, my son’s going to be graduating in three months for eighth grade.” That moment that he goes across the stage, that’s a joy moment. But I think happiness has the potential of always being there, if you let it.

And it happens in such unexpected ways—it happens every day. I have three kids, and every day it’s something they say, or some joke that they tell, and you just think—wow, that’s really smart. It clears everything else out of the way, and you’re just in that moment with them.


I am working on project about happiness, positive psychology, and ways to bring them into your life. You can subscribe for updates here.

Getting Happier Is Hard

Let me share the most important thing I have learned so far about happiness.

Getting happier is hard.

I know that might be a little depressing but stay with me for a minute.

The happiness research shows that each person has a baseline.  This is the genetic piece to the happiness equation and accounts for fifty percent of your overall happiness. This baseline varies from person to person, but for an individual does not change much and is a reliable piece of your personality.

Humans, as a species, are also highly adaptable. We have evolved to live on just about every corner of the planet. We have created tools and culture to carry knowledge forward. And contrary to what many of us say and believe, humans are incredibly resilient in recovering from tragedy and pain.

This adaptability has a happiness side-effect: most activities and events do little or nothing to change how happy we are.  There may be a temporary effect but we eventually return back to our happiness baseline.  We adapt to our latest set of circumstances.

Take marriage for example. Partners experience a boost in their overall happiness in the time leading up to the wedding, but within two years, each return to their pre-engagement baseline.

I want to stress that I said most activities do little to make us happier.  To make a real impact, we should careful look at our assumptions about what makes us happy.


I am working on project about happiness, positive psychology, and ways to bring them into your life. You can subscribe for updates here.

Negative Perception, Positive Reality

We have a bias toward negativity, but let’s not interpret that the wrong way. Our brains are designed to sense, signal and remember bad things to protect us from bad things happening again.

Take a moment and roll back through the events of yesterday. You’ll likely recall the arguments, tension. the close calls. As I do that, I see a few situations where I could have been more skillful.

Now, slow down and remember all the other scenes that made up your day. My day had challenging puzzles, laughs over lunch with friends, new writings and Avatar with my son.

Shelly Gable, a researcher at UC-Santa Barbara, does research in the areas of positive psychology and social relationships. In one study, she gave participants a list of sixteen common social interactions.  Eight of the events were positive (e.g. I received a compliment) and eight of the events were negative (e.g. Someone insulted me).  Gable asked participants to record how often these interactions took place over the course of a week.  

The results showed participants experienced on average 5.9 negative interactions in a typical week. I’d say that generally matches my experience and I can remember those pretty clearly.

Participants also recorded 19 positive interactions over the course of the same week, more than three times the number of negative interactions! Think about your own experiences again and how quickly we let those numerous, beautiful moments pass.

6 to 19

Gable says, “[A] key reason for primacy of negative information may be that it violates our expectations. Positive events, information, processes and interactions simply occur more frequently than negative ones.”

So, the negativity that we see and carry with us is tinted by a perception of how we see the world.  The reality is something diferent.


I am working on project about happiness, positive psychology, and ways to bring them into your life. You can subscribe for updates here.

Stacked Against Us

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel, at some point, like the deck is stacked against them.

We own a twenty-ish year old house and every time it gets really hot in Portland, our air-conditioning goes out. First, it was the condenser, then a capacitor in our heat pump, and then a pressure sensor. We’ve been doing well this year, but we’ve been on alert each time the temperatures rise. The trouble is that we’ve now conditioned ourselves to believe something is going to go wrong.

Our brains have this built-in tendency . It’s called negativity bias. We are apt to view an input from the outside world as bad and detrimental. Negativity bias has an even stronger effect when something significant happens in our environment.

The first time we lost our air conditioning was the weekend after we moved in to the house.  There were boxes everywhere, we had no idea the problem, and the wait list for repair technicians was over a week. At one point, the fire alarm started going off, because the temperature in the house made the alarm think there was an actual fire.

Our negative bias helps us cautiously assess situations and be ready to quickly flee if necessary. This might be a useful method to assessing danger, but it comes with a side effect: we are more susceptible to negative information. This phenomenon has been heavily researched and the bottom line is that bad is stronger than good.

Roy Baumiester, Ellen Brataslavsky, Catrin Finkeauer and Kathleen Vohs wrote a 48 page paper in 2001 enumerating the ways:

  • Bad events created greater psychology effects than good events.
  • Bad events last longer in our memory.
  • Negative feedback creates stronger reactions.
  • There are more words in the English language for negative emotions.
  • People lament more strongly a monetary loss when compared to the exact same monetary gain.

The researchers concluded this leaning toward the negative allows us to more easily see a need to change and improves our ability to adapt to an ever-changing environment.

But, how can we not feel the deck is stacked against us?


I am working on project about happiness, positive psychology, and ways to bring them into your life. You can subscribe for updates here.


A friend wrote me today and said they were surprised by my last post.

They said they’d never associated the words sad or bitter with me.

I get that.

I am not sure I would have strongly associated those emotions with me either.

Brene Brown on her Rising Strong as a Spiritual Practice audiobook (see chapter five) asks her audience how many emotions the average person can recognize.

Take a guess.

The answer is three – happy, sad, pissed off.

That was the range of my emotional fluency. Sad and mad captured me more often than glad.

And without vocabulary, talking about what I was feeling was hard. Really hard.

Brene says what we really need is the ability to articulate thirty different emotions if we want to deal effectively with what is going on with our inner selves.

My vocabulary is larger now and there is still more work to do.


I am working on project about happiness, positive psychology, and ways to bring them into your life. You can subscribe for updates here.

Is Happiness The Right Goal?

Before we head too far down the path, I thought it was important to acknowledge that not everyone has agreed that happiness is something to be pursued.

George Bernard Shaw said, “A lifetime of happiness! No man alive could bear it; it would be hell on earth.”

Author Eric Wilson believes melancholy should be embraced as an essential part of human existence, a quality needed to find truth.

“I have the true feeling of myself only when I am unbearably unhappy,” remarked Franz Kafka

Albert Schweitzer, the man upheld for his lifelong missionary work, said, “Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.”

I have to admit that each of these quotes touches on a part of why I never gave happiness much of my attention. I thought happiness was overrated. It appeared in my life but not under conditions where I had control. I assumed there was something in my unchanging psychologic making that favored sad and bitter.

I don’t believe anymore that happiness is a pointless pursuit or a random mental state, but it took a long time to see that.

As we get started, let me suggest examining your beliefs about happiness.  Happiness is a loaded word that conjures us complicated questions: Does happiness matter? Am I happy? Do I deserve to be happy? Why are everybody else so happy?


I am working on project about happiness, positive psychology, and ways to bring them into your life. You can subscribe for updates here.