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Ep 197: Happy Brain Chemicals and Teen Behavior

Episode Summary

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.

Show NotesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

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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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Talk to me a little bit about what you do, who you are, and you’re the founder of the Inner Mammal Institute. And you’ve got this book on the habits of a happy brain. What is the inner mammal and where did all this originate?

Loretta: Sure. So the inner mammal is the limbic brain underneath our human cortex, which controls the chemicals that make us feel good or bad. And what amazed me is when I learned late in life, that it’s not really on speaking terms with our verbal cortex. So we have one brain controlling our chemicals, another brain controlling our explanations of why we feel good or why we feel bad, but we don’t really know why the chemicals were released. But then when I studied what triggers them in animals, it was so easy to see that this is what is always driving humans, despite the fact that our verbal brain tends to deny it.

Loretta: So I was thrilled when I learned that. I was able to take early retirement after being a college professor for 25 years in a different field. And I’ve been writing books about the mammal brain since then. And that’s the short story, except I just want to mention what it has to do with teens is one of the many things I learned when I was doing my own explanation is that neuroplasticity peaks in adolescence because of the chemical called myelin, maybe we’ll talk more about all these things soon. The big highways in our brains were built in adolescence and that’s why it matters.

Andy: And we talk a lot about hormones in your book, all different kinds of hormones, how they affect our behaviors and habits. And we know teenagers are highly hormonal. So I see a lot of parallels here, a lot of interesting tie-ins. You really specifically in your book talk kind of about these four hormones. Dopamine, endorphine, oxytocin, serotonin.

Loretta: Yes. I call them chemicals, neurochemicals, because some of them are not hormones. They’re technically neurotransmitters and some are not neurotransmitters, which just as you know, has to do with whether they cross the blood brain barrier and the average person doesn’t need to care. Except for that, the word hormone in English implies sex hormones, and these chemicals are totally unrelated to sex hormones.

Andy: Yeah.

Loretta: They’re the same in males and females, they don’t drive sexual behavior directly. Although as you know, our brain was naturally selected to promote reproduction. And so it’s fascinating to see that the happy brain chemicals reward you for all behaviors that promote reproductive success. And that is a lot of different behaviors, which we could talk about of which only one of them is actual sexual interaction.

Andy: I see. So why are these four specifically so important out of the thousand chemicals that float around the human body?

Loretta: So these are the chemicals that make us feel good.

Andy: Okay.

Loretta: So, sexual hormones don’t make you happy. They make you sexually responsive and you may then want, and then you think I’ll be happy if I get what I want. So a different chemical creates that feeling of I’ll be happy if I get what I want from actually wanting it. Now, I explained the separate job that each of these chemicals do. But again, there only job is to make you feel good to motivate you to repeat a behavior that meets a need. So they’re meeting different needs, and that’s why we’re motivated to stimulate all of them into repeat behaviors that stimulated all of them in our past, typically in our adolescence.

Andy: I found this really interesting in your book on page 15, you kind of break down the jobs of the different chemicals. You say dopamine is about seeking rewards. Endorphins about ignoring physical pain. Oxytocin is about building social alliances and serotonin is about getting respect from others.

Loretta: So, none of this is what you’re telling yourself consciously in words. So I give a lot of examples of what it means in animals to see how it’s just absolute universal and related to survival. And then I show why each of these has a downside, which means it’s not designed to just flow all the time. Like a lot of people think that the normal state is to have happy chemicals flowing all the time for no reason.

Andy: Yeah.

Loretta: And then if you don’t have them, oh, you have a disorder. And that’s what teens are being taught today. But when you know the function of each chemical, you see that you sort of have to work for it.

Andy: Ah, that doesn’t sound good.

Loretta: It doesn’t sound good if you are raised to see happiness as an entitlement.

Andy: Yeah.

Loretta: But if you understand the function of the chemical, then it felt great to me because I was like, oh, so I’m normal. So this is what it takes and there’s nothing wrong with it going up and down and I have power over it and this is what it takes to stimulate more.

Andy: So what you said, when we understand the function of each chemical that will open the door for that, what do you mean by that? What is the function of each chemical?

Loretta: Great. So I’ll give you an example for each one with a monkey, because that helps us see how it’s separate from our conscious intent. So, if you are a little monkey and you’re waking up in the morning, you’re hungry, but you don’t have a refrigerator or a supermarket. So you have to find food.

Andy: Yeah.

Loretta: So this is not a cognitive intellectualized task. You look around and you see something that you can eat and you’re like, whoa, great. So it’s that good feeling that you have when you’re about to meet a need and it has two parts. That can meet my need and I believe I can get it. So that’s what we’re always looking around for something that we believe can meet our need.

Andy: Yeah.

Loretta:

And that we can get it. And how do we know that, is whatever triggered our dopamine in the past connected neurons that wired us to turn it on that way in the future. So that’s why if a little monkey grew up around bananas, then it sees a banana. Wow. Goes for it.

Andy: Yeah.

Loretta: Most monkeys actually don’t grow up around bananas. They grow up around figs or mangoes and they see a fig, a mango and they’re whoa, I’m going for it.

Andy: Okay. So through our experiences, we learn whether or not, which type of things can help meet our needs, and then that conditions us to have the dopamine response when we see that thing.

Loretta: Exactly.

Andy: That’s interesting. Also thinking about if it’s unattainable or it seems like it’s totally out of our realm of possibility to actually get that thing. Then we’re not going to feel excited and juiced up about trying to get it.

Loretta: Exactly. Exactly. And that’s another related wrinkle, which is if you already have plenty of it.

Andy: Oh sure. I don’t care about that.

Loretta: So, running water doesn’t make us happy, but our ancestors, maybe they had to walk two miles to get water.

Andy: Right? Yeah.

Loretta: Maybe they had to carry water upstairs to take a bath and light a fire and wait an hour for the water to warm up. So they would be thrilled if they went to your bathroom today and yet it doesn’t make you a bit happy.

Andy: Ah.

Loretta: So, it’s only unmet needs that trigger dopamine, which is why in the modern world, you have so many of your needs met already. That takes sort of like bigger and better or artificial or minutia that turns you on. If you went on a camping trip, a lot of people have that, oh, when I’m on a camping trip, I’m happy because you actually had to work hard to eat the smallest meal.

Andy: We almost have too many of our needs met in modern life in some ways.

Loretta: Yeah. But none of us are volunteering to do without it.

Andy: We should get rid of our running water is what you’re saying.

Loretta: Well, I like to use this example to have bread and butter. Think about a hundred, 200 years ago, how hard it would be to have bread and butter.

Andy: Yeah.

Loretta: So you’d have to keep the cow alive, milk the cow, get the cream, churn the cream, protect the cream from spoiling and then get salt, which maybe wasn’t available. You had to get bread yeast, get the bread oven working, which was very hard.

Andy: When that loaf starts baking and you smell that, oh, that dopamine is just going crazy. And you’re so excited to eat that loaf of bread. But when we just like open the pantry and grab one that’s just sitting there, we don’t necessarily get that same feeling.

Loretta: Exactly. Exactly. And that’s why the lament you here from teenagers is like, this town is so boring. There’s nothing to do here. Whereas you hear stories from our ancestors. Like, they were excited to go fishing all day because they might earn a nickel. And that nickel was the difference between having shoes and not having shoes.

Andy: Yeah. That’s really interesting.

Loretta: So, you asked me about the function of each of the chemical.

Andy: Yeah.

Loretta: Okay. So we got dopamine, now let’s go on to oxytocin because this is the one that’s popular today.

Andy: Yeah.

Loretta: So, oxytocin is often called the love hormone or the cuddle chemical.

Andy: Sure.

Loretta: But all of these have gotten oversimplified.

Andy: Okay.

Loretta: And the simple example is that you’re told that the way to get it is to hug people.

Andy: Yeah.

Loretta: But we all know that if you hug someone you don’t like, that doesn’t really feel good or meet your needs.

Andy: Not doing it for me. Yeah.

Loretta: Yeah. So the real need is for social trust and in the animal world, it’s not this complicated intellectualized thing. But if a predator is chasing me, I run toward the herd because social support, social protection, promotes my survival. So it’s a selfish impulse to get that protection, that support for yourself. But our bigger brain learns that in order to get it, that there has to be sub reciprocity. So that’s the part we hear about, like if I offer you protection, then you’ll offer me protection. And that triggers the good feeling of oxytocin. So some people might have it, let’s say if you’re watching a football game and cheering with other people, it creates this illusion of being in a herd that our animal brain is looking for. Even though in reality, if you were chased by a predator, nobody in those football stands is really volunteering to protect you.

Loretta: I was going to say a simple example is a famous story. When if you’re seated on a plane next to a stranger and you might tell them things that you don’t tell anybody in your own personal life. So, that feeling of trust is oxytocin. So why do I trust this stranger on a plane? Well, maybe I’m never going to see them again. So they can’t use it against me.

Andy: Yeah.

Loretta: So, my brain is making constant decisions about when to turn on the trust and that’s the good feeling of oxytocin. So somebody might feel it in a math class with somebody who shares their homework with them, whereas another person might feel it at a party with someone that they take drugs with.

Andy: Yeah.

Loretta: So, that’s why we seek it in whatever ways we experience in our surroundings. And then we want more of whatever triggered it before

Andy: There’s such a strong drive to be defined groups. It’s such a human thing and to belong in groups and especially as teenagers, it’s like, so life and death to get in with the right group.

Loretta: Yes, exactly. And that leads us to the next chemical, the right group. Okay. So first we just want any group because that’s protection support, but then just any group isn’t enough, then we want status.

Andy: Yeah. Yeah. You don’t want to be in the loser group.

Loretta: Yes. And we don’t want to be at the bottom of whatever group we’re in. So we create hierarchies in our mind. And what really got me to start the Inner Mammal Institute was I was so blown away when I learned that monkeys create hierarchies in their groups, and they’re putting a huge amount of effort into trying to raise themselves in the hierarchy and that it has a real impact that the survival prospects of their children rise when they raise their status in the group. And I learned this a lot by watching nature videos.

Loretta: There were a lot of books written about it in the eighties and nineties. And I learned that our serotonin is stimulated when we feel like we have a higher social importance than the individual next to us. So we’re always comparing. And when you feel like I’m in the position of strength, my brain rewards me with a little bit of serotonin and nobody wants to admit that they like that, but it’s obvious. And then we want to repeat it because the chemical is metabolized in a few minutes and that’s why people are looking again and again and again for that little moment where they can feel important and significant and one up.

Andy: Yeah. And finding if we are not good at whatever one thing, we’re not super good at math, maybe we’re not going to have high status in math class, but we can kind of focus in on where we’re really good at lacrosse. And maybe we can have a lot of status on the lacrosse team. Well, that feels good. We’re going to kind of maybe devote more energy to the places where we can get success and we can feel that hit of serotonin.

Loretta: Exactly. Exactly. And if you’re good in theater and you’re on the stage and everybody is applauding, that feels great. And you want that hit again and again.

Andy: Yeah.

Loretta: But it’s not easy for anyone because let’s say you’re the star of the lacrosse team.

Andy: Yeah.

Loretta: Every minute there are new lacrosse players.

Andy: Yeah. You’re threatening your place of dominance. Oh, you got to constantly defend yourself against those upstarts.

Loretta: Exactly, exactly. And that’s why watching nature videos, and especially the early work of David Attenborough, it just helped me feel at peace with this. Like it’s not my fault. It’s not their fault. It’s not society’s fault. This is how the mammal brain works. And I can just relax because it’s not real. Except what is real is, the serotonin really does feel good and we always want more. But when we don’t have it, it’s not really a survival threat.

Andy: How helpful is that when we’re talking to a teenager who feels like a loser and that has low status among their peers or in their class or something?

Loretta: Well, this is one of the things that I got interested in. When you hear a celebrity talking about their high school, every single one of them says that they were an outsider in high school.

Andy: Yeah, yeah.

Loretta: How could it be that they were all outsider?

Andy: Yeah. They’re not just like, oh, it was so easy for me. I was just the coolest. Everyone loved me.

Loretta: Nobody ever says that.

Andy: Never.

Loretta: So, I have three theories about this. So, one theory is that nobody feels that way, that you said. It’s like an illusion that you see in movies, but nobody feels that way because we only get a little serotonin reward and then it’s gone. And every alpha monkey is at risk of losing its alpha position every moment. Right?

Andy: Right. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And it’s like, then you’re always you habituate to whatever your current status is and you’re looking upwards to gain more and you’re always still feel like you’re then losing against whoever you’re competing against at the next level.

Loretta: Yes. Like I say, like if you were a big movie star and you got the Academy Award then, or they’re just worried about losing the spotlight.

Andy: Yeah, yeah. Or why some other guy just got paid more for another movie or whatever. Yeah. Why didn’t I get that role? I could do that.

Loretta: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And maybe they think you were looking over the hill or whatever. Yeah. So, just everybody could just relax and know that this competitive feeling is natural and everybody has it and there’s nothing you’re going to do that’s going to make you go away. And the good news is that you don’t have a disorder, nothing is wrong. Your serotonin’s going to go up and down. And even if you became king of the world, you would not be happy every minute. So just deal with it and watch some monkey videos.

Andy: And so that’s three.

Loretta: Yeah. Well, so one is the people like this theory, but I don’t think it’s really healthy is that the people who were popular in high school are losers in adult life.

Loretta: You hear I’m right. That’s what everybody wants to hear.

Andy: Oh yeah. We like that. That fall from grace and that nerds are going to rule the world later on.

Loretta: Why would so many teenagers think this? Well, on some level they’re mirroring their parents because their parents have status anxiety. Their teachers have status anxiety. The human brain has a mammal brain underneath our cortex. It controls our chemicals. It’s the same limbic system that animals have. And so the adults around you are feeding this impulse to be competitive and to feel threatened when you’re in the one down position. So you’re drinking it in from others. Oh. And by the way, yes. So there’s nothing you can do to make it go away. I just wanted to say, but that doesn’t mean you should totally give up and say, oh, well, I’m just going to live in a van down by the river, but you could say, I’m going to do what feels good to me for a few different reasons rather than only to please so and so with the illusion that then I’ll be happy if I impress so and so.

Andy: The final one is endorphin.

Loretta: So, endorphin is the body’s natural opioid. And we hear about it in the context of runners high.

Andy: Totally. Yeah.

Loretta: Endorphin is a good feeling that you have when you have real physical pain, because it masks pain with this chemical that’s called endogenous morphine. That’s where the word endorphin comes from. And it only lasts for 15 minutes because its job is to mask pain so you can run for your life. And after 15 minutes you feel the pain because you need to know when you’re injured so you can protect your injuries. So, we are not designed to injure ourselves to seek endorphin. That would be crazy and not promote survival. So, we are designed to have endorphin for emergencies only, and to seek the others.

Loretta: And yet, so many people are being taught that running and over exercise and performance sports is the way to be happy. And so, that’s why I’m very emphatic about the fact that the other chemicals are really what we’re meant to chase and endorphin is for emergencies only. However, as you know, from the book, we get a little bit from laughing and so laughing is a healthy way to chase it. It’s only a little, not an absolute high, but nothing’s stopping you from laughing again and getting more. But it really needs to be a real laugh because laughter is what activates the deep abdominal muscles that are triggering the endorphins.

Andy: Well, that’s maybe why laughter feels so good.

Loretta: Yep.

Andy: And also sometimes we’re bonding with others by laughing and we’re laughing at people who are lower status than us so it makes us feel good about our status.

Loretta: Yes. And you know, so that’s all of them. So it’s the laughing, the status, the bonding, that’s three of them. And then let’s say to get the dopamine in that too, is like tonight, I’m going to meet my friends to do all those things. And then when I start looking forward to it now, that starts my dopamine. So all those chemicals from effectively laughing at others in your class, which is sort of sad, but that’s why it’s important to know that animals bond when there’s a common enemy. So, when animals look for food, they’d rather spread out so they don’t get into fights. But as soon as there’s a predator, they cluster. So it’s the fear of a common enemy that keeps people together just like other mammals. And that’s why making fun of that other person or that other group bonds you. And then the fear of that other group making fun of you is what bonds you to your group also. That’s sad, but we’re all mammals.

Andy: And it’s like, once you understand how these chemicals work, then you can tie a little morality element in there and we can find ways to get these feelings that are positive and aren’t at the expense of other people.

Loretta: Yes. The simple way I explain to seek serotonin is to put yourself up without putting others down. So, to take pleasure when you do well at math or theater or sports without ridiculing the math or theater or sports of others, and you could see how, if you feel like you’re bad at math, then it’s just easier to ridicule someone who’s worse at math than to actually improve your skills. And it’s tempting to feel like you’re bad at math because there’s a superstar in the class. So even if you’re second or third or fourth in the class, you may not feel good because of your mammalian social comparison. So we’re all challenged to find ways to feel good about our own accomplishments instead of obsessing over what other people do.

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About Loretta Breuning

Loretta Breuning is the author of Habits of a Happy Brain.

Before becoming a writer, Loretta was previously a Professor Emerita of Management at California State University. She is the author of six other books about the human brain and  behavior. She is the founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, where she helps people harness their brain chemicals for a happier life.

Since she began writing about brain chemistry, she has been quoted in Forbes, NPR, the Wall St. Journal, Fox, Time, NBC, Psychology Today, Cosmopolitan, Real Simple and Psychologies. Her work has been translated into seven languages. She is the host of the podcast “The Happy Brain,” and has been featured on many other podcasts including: Almost 30, James Altucher, Brainfluence, Recovery Unscripted, Fat Burning Man, Humans 2.0 and Yogabody. 

 As a speaker, Loretta has addressed Shell Global, Amsterdam, SuperShe Island, The Latin American Center for Positive Psychology, The International Coach Federation, The ICELab Entrepreneurship Program at Colorado State; Crested Butte Wildflower Festival, Imagery International, and more.

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