Ep 197: Happy Brain Chemicals and Teen Behavior

Loretta Breuning, author of Habits of a Happy Brain, joins us to talk about how oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin and endorphins create happiness and habits in our teens’ minds.

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Full show notes

Sometimes teens behave in ways that seem truly inexplicable. One day they'd rather die than miss a trip to the mall with their friends...and the next they can’t stand a single one of those same friends! They want to join the lacrosse team but won’t go to a single practice,  date someone new every week, and change their future career three times in one day. It seems like they’re being motivated by something behind the scenes…something that even they don’t understand!

In reality, teens are acting under the influence of all sorts of brain chemicals that developed as a result of evolution. Beyond just the reproductive hormones like testosterone and estrogen that we often associate with adolescence, kids are motivated by their internal reward system, including chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins. These chemicals cause teens to form habits and reward-seeking patterns that not only shape their teenage lives, but potentially their adult lives too!

To understand how these chemical forces work in the teenage brain, we’re talking to Loretta Breuning, author of Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels. Loretta is the founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which provides resources for people to understand their pleasure-seeking brain chemicals and cultivate a happier life! 

In our interview, Loretta explains how oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin and endorphins work, how these chemicals change teens’ behavior, and what happens when teens don’t get enough of them.

The Chemicals Behind Your Teens’ Behavior

You may have heard that brain chemicals like dopamine or serotonin are related to happiness, but how do they really work? Loretta and I dive deep into the different chemicals that motivate us by signaling pleasure in our minds. In our interview, she explains that these chemicals are not a part of our conscious, reason-driven mind, but instead our inner, mammalian limbic system. This part of our brain controls how we feel, while the outer cortex uses logic to process our lives, says Loretta. Because these two are somewhat disconnected, we are often confused about what’s motivating us and making us happy!

Loretta explains that dopamine is one of the most important and significant chemicals in this reward system. It’s stimulated in our brains by attaining something we need or achieving a difficult task! For example, our ancestors had to scavenge for food in order to survive, so when they finally found and obtained nuts, berries, vegetables or meat, their minds were flooded with dopamine. This signaled to their brain that they should check back in the same place for food next time, ensuring their survival! In the modern day, this dopamine might come from ordering something we really want online, or finally finishing a book we’ve been reading for months. 

Nowadays, we can achieve this dopamine a little too easily, says Loretta, leading us to occasionally feel depressed. In our modern society, we don’t have to scavenge through the woods for food…we just have to walk to the refrigerator! This can lead to a lack of stimulation in teens’  brains, and may cause them to feel bored or complain that there’s nothing to do. This could lead them to seek out dopamine in less healthy ways, Loretta explains. She and I talk about a feeling she calls “dopamine droop”, further in the episode.

Another important chemical is serotonin, which motivates us to earn respect from others. We receive serotonin when a crowd laughs at our jokes or cheers us on. Many times, we receive this chemical when we’re provided entry into some kind of exclusive clique, or feel ourselves move up in a hierarchy. This is what motivates teens to win football games, run for student body president, or accumulate hundreds of Instagram followers! It doesn’t last forever, says Loretta, leading us to constantly seek more and more. Even when we’ve received the highest award we can possibly get, our minds are often desperate to know when the next one is coming.

In the episode, Loretta and I talk about two other pleasure chemicals: oxytocin and endorphins. In addition to explaining what these chemicals are, Loretta and I are also discussing how they motivate teens to act certain ways.

Cultivating a Happy Mind

In our conversation, Loretta explains that teens are at the peak of neuroplasticity–meaning that they’re particularly susceptible to falling into reward-seeking habits that stimulate these chemicals. These habits might just stick with them as they grow into adults, so Loretta suggests encouraging them to think critically about how they search for that regular boost of happiness in their daily lives.

Loretta and I talk about how humans tend to receive a serotonin boost when they put others down, especially when this negative talk is shared with peers. It’s easy for us to make others seem small in order to boost our own status, says Loretta–it’s just a product of our mammalian brain. This mean-spirited behavior is pretty common among teenagers, and can lead to some serious drama. Loretta recommends that we help kids find ways to lift themselves up and achieve something for a serotonin boost, instead of bringing others down to get the same result.

This practice of dragging others down is often seen as a product of modern social media, but Loretta says we’ve been doing it for centuries. For most of human existence, we’ve been competing to be the most impressive and attain whatever brings us an increase in status. Nowadays, modern luxuries make it possible for us to obtain pretty much any physical object we want–meaning that social media and the online world has become the basis of modern day status-seeking. In our interview, Loretta explains why social media activity can be so emotional for teens who are trying to find their place in the high school hierarchy.

When discussing the effects of these chemicals, Loretta and I also talk about what happens when we don’t receive them. We’re prone to feeling the physical and mental sensation of disappointment–what happens when we anticipate a hit of serotonin or oxytocin that we never end up receiving. Disappointment can often spike our cortisol levels, leaving us stressed and in a negative thought loop, says Loretta. For our ancestors, this feeling of disappointment may have come from not having enough food to stay alive. For us, it might come from having to wait a long time at the grocery store, or finding out our favorite show is no longer on Netflix!

In the episode, Loretta and I talk at length about the power of distraction: how giving ourselves or our teens small rewards can help soften the blow of disappointments. A few spoonfuls of ice cream or dancing at a party can help teens remain stable and healthy throughout daily life! Loretta warns against making these small pleasures taboo–if we don’t have little rewards along the way, we can go overboard when we finally boil over from too much stress.

In the Episode…

My conversation with Loretta was incredibly eye-opening! On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about….
  • How teens can use social media in a healthy way
  • Why almost everyone feels like an outcast in high school
  • How laughing can boost our endorphins
  • Why we might tell a stranger on a plane our secrets
If you enjoyed this week’s episode, you can find more from Loretta’s organization at
Innermammalinstitute.org. Don’t forget to share and subscribe and we’ll see you next week.

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Inner Mammal Institute
Inner Mammal Institute
Enjoy more dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphin by knowing how they work in nature. Founder @lbreuninghttps://t.co/MGqFreUk0s
Ep 197: Happy Brain Chemicals and Teen Behavior
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