I Feel Good!
I Feel Good! – What’s going on in our brains when we have that rush of positivity?
There’s no better human experience than to simply feel good. Feeling good, and the accompanying sense of invincibility, is the pinnacle of our emotions. Achieving this almost spiritual state is a worthy mission that occupies many of us.
When we feel good, what changes is our perception of our situation. Suddenly, our problems have achievable solutions, whereas before they overwhelmed us. We value the positives we experience more. We perceive the balance between the positives and the negatives as weighted on the positive side of the scale. We experience a joy of life, yet we can’t always isolate its source or describe its components. Just being alive and living in the moment is enough. We don’t feel a need to obsess about past mistakes and failures, just as we don’t feel a need to worry about what the future might bring. We are content with who we are, what we have and where we’re going.
Sounds good? It is! Feeling that good is such a subtle and uncomplicated thing yet, for many of us, we rarely, if ever experience it.
So, what’s going on? What happens in our brains when we feel good – and what can we do to feel good more often?
Whatever emotion we experience, happiness, sadness, anger, anxiety, excitement, is due to the chemicals in our brains. The brain constantly adjusts the balance of these chemicals to direct our behaviour in order to enhance our life experiences and chances of survival.
The really good news is that, once we understand how these chemicals work and what produces them, we can take control of our emotions. We can learn to feel good more often and for longer periods of time – improving peace of mind and life experience. An absolutely priceless achievement.
Dopamine is the biggest player when it comes to feel good chemicals. It works as a chemical provider of pleasure, a fix for our brains as a reward for some sort of achievement. This could be obtaining a qualification, a sugar fix, a sports win or even something like finishing the housework or a good book.
In order to stimulate the release of dopamine in our brains, we can break our goals down into small steps. Creating a series of small successes keeps the dopamine flowing, making you feel good more often.
Oxytocin is all about intimacy. Whether having sex with a loved-one, cuddling our pets or bonding with friends whilst socialising – all these activities feel good because they stimulate our brains to release oxytocin.
Ensuring we have plenty of face-to-face contact with people keeps our oxytocin levels high. Cyber contact doesn’t affect oxytocin production in the same way that ‘real’ contact does.
Serotonin is the respect chemical. The brain produces serotonin when we feel respected by others or ourselves. The ‘feel good’ we get when serotonin is released in our brains encourages us to repeat the positive behaviours that generated that respect.
A really good way of increasing serotonin production is to reflect on our past achievements and successes. The brain doesn’t differentiate between what is real and what is simply imagined. So, by remembering or visualising these events, our brains are tricked into producing the serotonin created during the original situation.
Take a few moments every day to think of everything you’ve achieved so far. It’s even better if you can do this whilst you’re outside, as the sun’s UV rays also encourage the production of this chemical.
The word ‘endorphin’ literally means ‘self-produced morphine’. Endorphins give us the persistence to endure pain or stressful situations, acting as an analgesic and sedative.
Endorphins are produced in our brains during physical exertion, such as exercise, sex and even laughter. Research has shown that even the anticipation of such exertion causes endorphins to be released.
Taking up exercise is a great way to increase our levels of this chemical, but this is not always possible for everyone. So, it’s well-worth knowing that laughter can have the same effect. Watch a funny film, spend some time on social media or invite an entertaining friend over. Smelling lavender or vanilla can also increase levels of endorphins in the brain, as can eating chocolate or spicy food.
Reprogramme Your Brain to Feel Good
Our brains wire themselves up as a product of our life experiences. Trauma and negative events can cause us to expect more of the same unhappiness to occur. During these events, particularly if they are frequent and long-term, neural pathways form and connect that actually predispose us to feel these familiar negative emotions.
When we are young, our brains have incredible plasticity, changing and rebuilding neural pathways with seemingly impossible speed. As we age, this process slows down. But new discoveries have proven that our brains are capable of neuroplastic change until we die.
Focusing attention on regularly practising our new ‘feel good’ habits will change the physical structure of our brains. Over time, both our habits and the neural pathways in our brains will ensure we feel good more often and for longer. Feeling good need no longer be unachievable; with practice and commitment, we can all start to live happier lives.