The Secrets To A Happy Brain and Life with Dr. Loretta Breuning

Content By: Ari Whitten & Dr. Loretta Breuning

In this episode, I am speaking with Dr. Loretta Breuning, who is the founder of the Inner Mammal Institute. She’s the author of many personal development books, including the one that I have read of hers, which I highly recommend, and found fascinating, called Habits of a Happy Brain.

Table of Contents

In this podcast, Dr. Breuning and I discuss:

  • Why it’s unrealistic to expect feel-good hormones to be “on” all the time (and ways to trigger the hormones for optima happiness)
  • The purpose of dopamine and serotonin
  • The relation between endorphins and over-exercising
  • What the science of brain chemicals teaches us about the importance of novelty in our lives
  • How to best stimulate the oxytocin hormone that’s so connected to social bonding, happiness, and longevity (without getting so much that it backfires!)

Listen or download on iTunes

Listen outside iTunes


Ari: Hey, this is Ari. Welcome back to the Energy Blueprint Podcast. With me today is Dr. Loretta Breuning, who is the founder of the Inner Mammal Institute. She’s an author of many personal development books, including the one that I have read of hers, which I highly recommend, and I found fascinating, called Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, and Endorphin Levels.

Basically, as a teacher and a parent, Dr. Breuning was not convinced by the prevailing theories of human motivation and happiness. She said about on many years of doing a very deep dive into the scientific literature around this topic and how our brain works, and how neurochemistry really relates to happiness. She’s arrived at a number of very novel and original insights into this topic, and important insights into this topic that not a lot of people are talking about.

In particular, she really has a strong critique of the notion that our moods and behaviors and ways of being a byproduct of our neurochemistry in our brain. She’s much more a proponent of a paradigm where we are less at the end of the train of effects of this neurochemistry in our brain and much more at the originating causal end of that chain of events. Meaning what we choose to do, how we choose to act and behave is affecting our neurochemistry, which is, in turn, affecting how we feel. She also has some really interesting insights around the permanence versus transients of these neurochemical states.

This is a topic that I personally found tremendously fascinating, and I think you’ll get a lot of value from. With no further ado, enjoy this podcast with Dr. Loretta Breuning.

Welcome, Dr. Breuning. It’s such a pleasure to have you on.

Dr. Breuning: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Ari: I have to say, I stumbled across your work randomly as I was on Amazon recently looking up the term happy brain. I stumbled across your book, Habits of a Happy Brain, and I bought it, and I was really impressed with it. I immediately found many, many different novel insights from your work that I had not stumbled across in anybody else’s work.

One of the most interesting aspects of your work is that you approach things from this perspective of the inner mammal evolution and the mammalian brain, and looking at what our brain is doing from that evolutionary perspective. What is it trying to achieve? What are these different chemicals in the brain responding to and what are they trying to get us to do? I found just that framing of this entire picture to be incredibly insightful. All of a sudden, all these light bulbs went off for me because I’ve spent many years reading about things like dopamine and serotonin, and oxytocin, but to have your framing of them created so many new insights for me.

For people listening to this, what are some of the key novel insights, in your opinion, that come out of looking at the brain and looking at human happiness from this perspective of evolution and the mammalian brain?

Dr. Breuning: Sure. The simplest one is that our happy brain chemicals are not meant to be on all the time. I feel that’s such a relief because many people have learned this disease model where they think, “Other people are happy every minute and I must have been left out,” or “What could be wrong with me?” “Who else can fix me?” It’s just such a relief to say, “Oh, so these chemicals turn on for a very specific moment to motivate a specific survival behavior, and then they turn off and they’re quickly metabolized.” You always have to do more to get more. If you have a treadmill feeling, that’s really the job the brain evolved to do, is that our ancestors had to keep pushing, keep foraging to survive.

The primary brain chemicals for happiness

Ari: I’m debating whether we should go into this right away, or maybe circle back to it. This treadmill thing, maybe we’ll come back to it later. I want to maybe talk about, how do we have a healthy relationship with that? I do want to say that relief is really the right word for what you just described. For me, it was a relief because it was the first time I’ve really encountered that, this idea that, “Oh, if I don’t feel happy and joyful at every moment of the day, it’s not a sign of something wrong with my brain or some kind of chemical imbalance. It’s actually more an issue of I’m not doing the things and creating the sort of thoughts, emotions, behaviors that generate these spurts of chemicals that make me feel a certain way.”

For me, it was a huge relief. Let’s talk specifics about some of these different chemicals in the brain and what their functions are. Can you give an overview of some of the key compounds you talk about in the book and what they do?

Dr. Breuning: Sure. I focus on dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphin. The reason is that those chemicals create good feelings. I know there are lots of other chemicals. People say, “Why didn’t you include this or that?” The only job is to create good feelings, but they’re very different good feelings. Again, it’s not like people think, “Oh, well, I got to check my blood and make sure I have enough of this at every moment.” No. It’s a spurt that is supposed to motivate you at the moment when that good feeling would motivate a survival behavior. How do you know that moment? Because it released that chemical in your past in a similar situation because our neural pathways are paved by these chemicals.

Everyone learns from their own past. Dopamine is the good feeling that you’re about to get a reward. Now, many people say, “Oh, I’m not motivated by rewards.” We could debate that forever. You are. If you ever do animal training, the mammal brain is very motivated by rewards, but our verbal brain comes up with philosophical explanations, blah, blah, blah. A reward is anything that meets a need.

For example, if you have plenty of water, then water is not a reward, but if you are lost on a camping trip, you’d be ecstatic when you find water. It’s very situational but mostly wired by the situations of your early years. We could talk about that. When a reward is more than expected, then you get an extra large dopamine spurt, and that builds an extra large pathway to seek that in the future. When a reward is less than expected, then you get some cortisol, the stress chemical, and the point is that it tells you don’t waste your energy, pull back.

Cortisol just means pullback but our brain evolved to make careful decisions about where to invest your energy. We’re all constantly thinking, “Ah, should I bother with that? Is that worth the energy?” We know that as much as we try to predict outcomes reality is that it’s not. Dopamine is when you make a good prediction, but it’s just not realistic to expect that you’ve made a good prediction every second of your life, which is why some people love to play the lottery or gamble, and other people– like even music, is really prediction. Your brain is predicting the next note.

Many people like to talk about the weather, the stock market, politics, or sports. Those are all forms of predicting. We get excited when our prediction is correct. Should I move on to the next chemical?

Ari: Yes, please.

Dr. Breuning: Oxytocin is the one that people are maybe listening for wanting to hear because this is what we’ve been taught that hanging with your buddies is the source of happiness. A hug and a pet is the source of happiness. When we pull back to the animal perspective, you see that oxytocin is not meant to be released all the time for no reason, because it creates the feeling of social trust of letting down your guard. If you let down your guard at the wrong time, that would be terrible for survival. It’s meant to motivate you to put in that effort to build social support when it’s an appropriate situation. Then not to trust in social support when it’s not an appropriate situation.

We would like to have that feeling every minute, and that’s what motivates us to do what it takes to get it, but it’s just not realistic to expect that you’re going to just sit on the couch and have it every minute of every day. The simple example I use is a zebra can let down its guard and eat the grass when it’s surrounded by other zebras because then it doesn’t have to be on alert. It’s sharing the burden of vigilance with others. When a zebra is alone, it’s so busy looking for predators that it can hardly eat, but it’s really inherently selfish that like, I want you to protect me from predators so I can eat. That’s an inherently selfish motivation.

People deny this and they think maybe they’re appealing to some higher virtue, but in fact, they end up bitter. It’s like, “Well, I’m totally unselfish, but you are selfish, so what’s wrong with you?” I’m really focused on realistic expectations in every one of these chemicals.

Ari: One of the messages there is to recognize our own selfish desires at play even in things we might create a narrative around that– where we conceptualize us as being giving or altruistic.

Dr. Breuning: It’s a selfish urge to have social support and giving an altruistic may help you get support. Then it’s very good decision. It’s a good response to this reality, but you have to do it from a realistic base, otherwise, you end up with many people would be, what you constantly hear is, “Well, I’m very giving to other people, but they’re not giving to me.” You know that theme song probably.

Ari: Yes. Most definitely. We’ll do a deeper dive on some of these, but just do the broad overview. Dopamine, oxytocin, and then serotonin.

Dr. Breuning: Serotonin most people have heard of in the context of antidepressants, but there was research in the ’80s that serotonin rewards a mammal for asserting successfully. This is a life-or-death matter in the animal world because they’re very competitive over food. If you assert yourself for a bit of food, you’re a stronger individual, they’re likely to attack you and you can get injured. A little mammal learns to restrain themselves when they’re near a bigger individual.

When they compare and they see that they are in the position of strength, then the serotonin is released. This is not what anyone wants to think about the world or to think about themselves consciously, but it’s so easy to see that everyone is looking for that good feeling of, “I am strong enough to assert myself successfully.” A nice way to say it is just that we want to be special. Your brain rewards you with serotonin when you feel special. It’s hard to deal with the fact that eight billion other people in the world want to be special as much as you do.

Ari: [laughs] We have a whole culture, obviously, particularly in the modern west around materialistic pursuits as a way to demonstrate the status. We wear our Prada bags and our Versace shoes and our Rolex watches and drive our Range Rovers and things like that. Many of these things are intended whether consciously or not, people may not be fully aware of it, but they’re intended to demonstrate one’s status, to virtue signal one’s status, one’s wealth, and therefore one’s power and social status. Is that accurate to say? Or would you have any editing there of what I’ve said?

Dr. Breuning: That’s true for some people, but as you know a huge percentage of people have rejected that culture. They think they’re superior, but rejecting that culture as a way to feel superior is still the same behavior of the urge to feel superior. I learned this from 10 years in a yoga class. A simple happier way to look at this is in the past, everyone carried a weapon and they were always this close to using it. Parents sent their kids to school telling them, “You better not lose any fights if someone puts you down or religious,” like I’m more spiritual than you are. This competitiveness is just pervasive and it’s always easy to see in others.

The bottom line is we want the feeling every minute. We look for simple ways to get it that are somewhat reliable because if you are always in a contest, you can’t always win and then you feel worn down. Everyone has their reliable way to look for it, but once you consciously know that this is just your inner mammal doing what mammals have always done, then again, allows you to relax rather than feeling like other people are putting you down. What really helped me with that is watching those nature videos, seeing how monkeys really do this to each other all the time. There was a century of research on the competitiveness among monkeys before it became fashionable to insist that monkeys are all altruistic.

Ari: Interesting. I want to come back to that. There’s so many things I want to come back to here but let’s go into the other two chemicals, endorphin and cortisol.

Dr. Breuning: Endorphin, the word means endogenous morphine. It’s the body’s natural opioid. Most people have heard of it in the context of exercise. There’s a culture of exercise as the path to happiness. I was quite surprised to learn that something that should not be surprised, that the body’s natural opioid is triggered when you’re injured. It’s not designed to be on all the time. It’s designed to mask pain with a good feeling so that when an animal has its flesh ripped open, running from a predator, that it has a small window of pain relief so that it can act to save its life.

Or if your caveman ancestors broke a bone and they had to find help, so you have a small relief from pain. If you trigger it by inflicting pain on yourself with let’s say exercising beyond your threshold, then you may get this high, but you don’t get it from natural exercise. You have to do the exercise to the point of pain to get the high, and it still doesn’t give you dopamine, serotonin, or oxytocin. People are really using this as a distractor, and actually distractors have value. I would like to get back to distraction has value, that’s why it’s so popular, but it still doesn’t meet the underlying needs of your inner mammal.

Ari: What about cortisol?

Dr. Breuning: Cortisol is the threat chemical. People call it a stress chemical, but the word stress externalizes. It’s like you’re stressing me, but I’m always focused on being grateful to your inner mammal for trying to protect you. Your inner mammal’s trying to make you aware of threat, but how does it define a threat? We even know with animals, you define a threat from anything that triggered your cortisol in your past. If you had rather safe life in your past, then you just have a cortisol reaction to whatever did trigger your cortisol.

When it’s on, it feels so bad that you feel like I’m going to die if I don’t make this stop, and that’s what motivates people to do whatever stupid thing made it stop in your early years because that’s when our big neural pathways were created.

Ari: I like the way you phrase that. That’s what motivates people to do whatever stupid thing they learn how to do when they were a kid.

Dr. Breuning: Yes. I’ll have to admit for myself. I’m having one of these recently. Just to show you how it works, I’m a bit squeamish about spiders. I think a lot of people are, but a lot of people aren’t, so it’s a good example without too much moralizing or whatever. For some terrible reason, suddenly I’ve seen spiders on my couch, and they’re almost the same color as the couch. They sort of blend in, so by the time I see them, it’s like, “Oh, my God.” It’s like some horrible thing. Then that builds a neural pathway the next time I lay down on the couch to relax and watch a movie, I’m anticipating a spider.

Then I had to be proactive and I said to myself, “There must a reason for this. It didn’t happen before. I must have spider webs.” I looked and I didn’t see them, so I had to look harder. Whether that worked or not, at least it gave me the feeling that I solved the problem and the source, but it’s still a real physical pathway in my brain.

Symptoms of a cortisol dominance

Ari: Got it. Let me see. I’ve heard you talk about, or maybe read in your book where you said, there’s something that happens when we don’t have the happy chemicals. The dopamine, the serotonin, oxytocin masking the cortisol. What does that state look like?

Dr. Breuning: Sure. It’s somewhat individual, but it’s fair to say that negativity is more of our natural default state than positivity. Simple way of thinking about this is babies crying. A baby is crying because they have a felt need that is not met, and when a need is not met, cortisol is released. When your blood sugar falls, cortisol is released. That’s what motivates a monkey to go out and look for food.

That’s what keeps us taking action, and that’s why many people, let’s say, get angry at stoplights because you’re not taking action, which is your way of distracting you from that bad feeling that something bad is about to happen. It’s the powerlessness of youth is when our brains are formed, and then we keep looking for fun, fun, fun, or sense of accomplishment to distract us from that fear that our needs will not be met.

How novelty and variety is linked with dopamine

Ari: Very interesting. Let’s circle back to dopamine. How does novelty and variety play into the dopamine factor?

Dr. Breuning: Sure. First, a fun story I have from a friend who told me she– Was a kid she went to get chocolate milk in a vending machine, and the machine gave her two chocolate milks when she only paid for one. She was so excited 30 years later when she walks pass that vending machine, it’s like she remembers that feeling. Your brain is looking for above-average rewards of whatever you got in the past and that’s what wired you.

It’s not realistic to think that you can always, “I’m going to top that. I’m going to top that, I’m going to top that.” You drive yourself nuts, many people do. Let’s think about what’s the job it evolved to do. Let’s say I’m a primitive hunter-gatherer, I’m looking for food and I find this fabulous fruit tree. I’m so excited and I stuff my face and I’m like, “Oh, now I’m not hungry, I’m so happy.” Then the dopamine stops, because that need is already met. I will not get any more dopamine but I haven’t had any protein.

Now, I’m relaxed, I have enough calories in me and I think, “Wouldn’t it be nice to go and hunt or find water or make better tool.” You’re always looking for a different need to fill. In the modern world where all your basic needs are filled, variety provides that function whereas in a state of nature, it would be when I have fruit I look for protein, when I have protein, I look for fruit. Novelty is another form of variety. It’s also a form of your brain makes that effort to find the pattern in a novelty. It’s similar enough to an old thing, that you recognize it as a reward, but it’s different enough that you think, “Hey, maybe that’s an extra special super duper reward.”

How drugs can affect dopamine

Ari: Okay. How do drugs fit into this picture? Certain drugs are known to stimulate massive increases in dopamine, methamphetamines and cocaine and things like that. How does the connection between work, between doing something to achieve that dopamine release, versus getting a huge dopamine surge without doing something other than, let’s say taking the drug but without doing any hard work mental or physical, hard work, how do those things differ?

Dr. Breuning: Sure. Well, first, when you take it from an artificial substance, you get more than what would be a realistic natural level. Although you could say, well, if I won the lottery or discovered a new planet, maybe I get a very high level and the rest of my life, I would never get that much. Even drugs is probably even more than that. You could see why it would wire your brain to disvalue other things, because that seems so valuable. My favorite example, when I was a docent at the zoo, and they have this elephant turned 16, which is very significant in a male elephants life, and they bought it a sheet cake for its birthday.

It inhaled the sheet cake in 30 seconds. I think the rest of its life, it would never have gotten that much reward value. That would be like cocaine for the elephant. If that weren’t bad enough, that it wires you with unrealistic expectations, but then you have the dip, because it’s depleted you.

Ari: You go below baseline levels of dopamine, not just back to baseline, but below it.

Dr. Breuning: Yes, if there is such a thing as baseline. Baseline comes from the ordinary daily act of meeting your needs, but if you’re already a person that’s just living on the couch from one substance use to another, then your baseline might be quite low because you’re masking other real physical distress. Bad scene, and if that weren’t all bad enough, though, you’re basically depleting reserves. Your synapses have reserves of these chemicals that are replenished at night while you sleep if you get healthy sleep.

Then if you just trigger them all at once, not only are you not replacing them, but you’re telling your body to produce less. Your body is saying, I have enough. I forgot the word, was accommodation, I forgot, what’s the name, I’m forgetting. That’s really a bad loop and, as I said, unnatural substances are clearly worse but you can make the analogy with let’s say, a person who even works until they collapse, or trains until they collapse would be a similar thing.

That’s why it’s great to understand, yes, it’s good to have a sense of accomplishment but then you have to give yourself some downtime, and the downtime would be a good time to focus on the other chemicals.

The best natural ways to stimulate dopamine

Ari: Got it. What are some of the most effective ways of stimulating dopamine? Maybe what’s the goal here, because dopamine serves many vital roles in our lives. It’s giving us motivation and drive to go out and do things, to go work hard, to work hard mentally, to work hard physically, to work hard in our career, to achieve things, to achieve financial success, to provide for our family, to do these things. To do the daily tasks that we need to do. Is the goal to create these constant surges of dopamine throughout the day? If so, what are the best ways of going about achieving an optimal dopamine release schedule, you could say in the brain?

Dr. Breuning: A simple thing would be to say you want frequent small releases, because if you go for something huge, by denying yourself before then, then you may have a big sense of anticipation, but basically also a lot of pent-up denial, and then this big boom and bust. The simple, cognitive answer is positive expectations. The feeling many people complain about, I wake up in the morning, and I have nothing to look forward to. I just go through the motions all day. It’s having something positive to look forward to. Even have your cup of coffee at 11:00, so that you’re looking forward to it until 11:00. That’d be a simple example.

Space out things, I use all different examples but have your dessert after your most difficult task of the day. Structure your personal rewards, so that you don’t have to give yourself excess rewards, which many people do. Many people give themselves reward without accomplishment. Then some people go to the other extreme, they never reward themselves, because they have this theory that they’ll be perfectly happy all the time when, and then fill in the blank with whatever their theory is.

Ari: When something finally happens in the future. Right?

Dr. Breuning: Yes.

Ari: I was listening to a neuroscience podcast this morning, where they were talking about an optimal reward schedule as being– They were making the case that ideally, you want to reward yourself after most instances of hard work but occasionally, it might be beneficial not to and they said suggested something, an 85% to 15% ratio might be the best. I think it was based on computer modeling or something based on research that we know. You reward yourself 85% of the time for doing some hard work, and then maybe every now and then you don’t give yourself a reward.

Dr. Breuning: Yes, that’s called an intermittent reward structure. You’ve probably heard the animal studies where if an animal gets the reward every time reliably, it loses interest but if it’s not reliable, then you’re like, “Whoa, what do I got to do to get this?” And it keeps your interest. Again, the classic example is a slot machine.

Ari: Yes, exactly. Okay and I think the other thing maybe worth just saying out loud here, even though you’ve alluded to it in the way you’ve spoken about this is that it’s all internal. This dopamine system isn’t purely this– I don’t know what the right way of saying it. This pure interaction with the environment that’s unmediated by you as the individual. It’s highly, highly mediated by you as the individual to the point where the individual is largely deciding what he or she is going to reward themself for.

To use exercise as an example, someone might say, “I’m going to reward myself after I do this 15-mile run,” and another person who is just starting an exercise regimen might say, “I’m going to reward myself for just putting on my running shoes this morning because I’m taking one step in the direction of getting on a running regimen,” or something like that, but it’s largely internally structured, internally mediated rewards. Is that correct? How would you describe that?

Dr. Breuning: Yes. We’re all doing it all the time. This is only a means to do it more consciously, so you don’t do– A common pattern that you hear about all the time is a person is diligent all day until this certain time or this certain event and then they just go wild and do a lot of things that they wish they didn’t do.

Ari: Got it. Okay.

Dr. Breuning: Can I say one other thing?

Ari: Sure.

Dr. Breuning: When you said it’s mediated by you, it’s the you you were in adolescence. That’s the missing link that we need to talk about. We’re born with billions of neurons, but no connections between them. Almost no. Those connections build very quickly when you’re under age seven and again during puberty because of the substance called myelin, which insulates neurons in a way that insulation on a wire makes them super efficient.

When I speak my native language, I can find a word so quickly because those are myelinated neurons and for that reason, I don’t even remember that I had to learn my native language, but if I try to speak a foreign language, I have to search for the words. That’s the same with our emotions, that the emotions that you had during your myelin years of what rewards and what threats you experienced is what turns on your pathways and your chemicals easily today.

What I’m suggesting to people is to honor their own power to build new pathways in the same way that you would learn a foreign language which means you know it’s possible, but you know it’s not easy.

The importance of proper oxytocin balance

Ari: Got it. Okay. Let’s go on to oxytocin. Given what you’ve said about oxytocin as being this chemical– I think the phrasing of these things is neither good nor bad, but looking at them through the lens of the inner mammal is important. There’s a context which oxytocin is important and there’s a context which having too much oxytocin would be inappropriate for survival needs.

If you’re trusting too much people who are trying to take advantage of you, people who are trying to physically assault you or trying to steal from you or something like that, obviously it’s not good to have lots of oxytocins coursing through your system. I was almost combining oxytocin and coursing creating OxyContin there. [laughter] What’s the optimal schedule of oxytocin release or what’s the optimal way that we should be looking at oxytocin from this perspective of how often should we be stimulating it and how should we be stimulating it?

Dr. Breuning: Sure. First is to know that while it would be nice to just have it for no reason and it does sometimes come and go and surprise you, but to understand what’s causing it is that feeling of social support. Many people, they have it by accident because the famous example is when you taste a dish that was cooked by a loved one in your past, you get the feeling because it’s linked in your brain. Then if you ate that dish all the time, it would probably not be good for you. Most people are repeating whatever old behavior. The other classic example is going to the pub every night because that’s the only way of feeling social support. The bottom line is to consciously admit to yourself, “I want this feeling of social support and I can’t control other people, so I can’t make them give it to me. What can I do?”

I use a simple analogy, is like, I’m going to build my side of the bridge to many different people and I can’t control when they will cross it, but if I keep building my side of the bridge every day with other people, a little bit every day, I don’t mean to go buy them a new car, but just little steps, then one day I’ll have a nice surprise that this person will step toward me and another day I’ll have a nice surprise from that person.

Ari: Got it. Just continually building and opening as many of those bridges as possible to create lots of bonds in– almost the way you’re describing it makes me think of eastern esoteric ideas, concepts around non-attachment, without being highly attached to needing immediate reciprocation from the- [crosstalk]

Dr. Breuning: Yes, and that’s the irony because oxytocin is all about attachment. You have to acknowledge that you want attachment, you need attachment, and yet you can’t be attached about the other person giving it to you at that minute, in that exact way that you want it. That’s for some people. Other people– Somewhat we’re very different on this depending on our individual past.

Animals seek a herd because it gives them protection, but animals get annoyed with their herd all the time. It’s so easy to see that people are like this too. It’s like, you may feel isolated, but the minute you have a group, then they bug you. It’s important to be honest about this. In the animal world, if you are too close to others, then you end up eating grass that has been peed on, and animals really don’t like that, so they’re always trying to space themselves out. Like baboons, if they don’t space themselves out enough, they attack each other and get bitten. Animals would really rather space themselves out and it’s only awareness of a predator that causes them to cluster.

In many human societies, everyone can think of the groups they belong to, people are constantly warning you of the threat coming from this common enemy that keeps you close to the group, but really, acknowledge the part of you that says, “I would rather do my own thing.” A simple example is you think you want support because you have a difficult task, so you ask somebody and then they give you advice that you don’t really agree with. Then you ask someone else and they give you a– Before I go looking for support, I say, “You know what? I know I would support because that child part of me would like support,” but if I go look for it, I’m going to really wish that I was just in my own greener pasture.

Ari: I’m going to give you a personal example of this from a couple of days ago. I was surfing, and one of the things with surfing, surfing has become extremely popular in the last decade such that almost every accessible surf spot all over the world these days is very crowded. For surfers, there’s nothing worse than surfing in a big crowd. It’s really annoying to have lots of people all around you battling for each wave.

On the other hand, two days ago, I was in the water and I saw a fin come out of the water. That often happens and it’s usually a dolphin. I see lots of dolphins frequently out there. Sometimes you have really magical experiences where one will swim right next to you or right under you. I had one jump out of a wave right at me one time where I had to fall off my board to avoid getting smashed by this, probably, 400-pound dolphin. This fin that I saw in my peripheral vision didn’t quite look like a dolphin fin. It was like just below the surface, just barely coming up.

Then I asked the guy next to me, I said, “Hey, did you see that?” He said, “No.” I said, “I think that might have been a shark fin.” He thought I was messing with him. Then five seconds later it appeared again and you could clearly see it was a great white shark, a juvenile. It was the first time I’ve seen a great white shark in the water. It’s interesting, in that moment, everybody’s really happy to be in a crowd rather than to be the lone surfer in the water. You’re really happy to have lots of– If the shark is going to attack somebody, you know that he has lots of options of who he’s going to choose, and so you’re very happy to have 50 people around you in that scenario.

Dr. Breuning: Wow. Yes, and see, that’s the thing, you’re happy to have 50 people around you and your conscious brain would never say, “Oh, maybe they’ll get bitten rather than me.” Nobody would consciously think that. Your conscious brain says, “Oh, we’re going to stick together and fight off the shark,” but in the state of nature, effectively, the more there are, the more chance that someone else gets it.

The link between community and oxytocin balance

Ari: Yes, absolutely. I want to go a bit deeper on this oxytocin aspect. Community is something that is talked about a lot, and it’s very robust in the literature as being linked with both happiness and health longevity. There was a book that was very influential on me when I was doing my PhD program in clinical psychology, and it was called Constructing America, Constructing the Self. It’s a very obscure book by Philip Cushman, not popular, but it’s an amazing book.

It’s basically a socio-cultural historical context of the origins of psychotherapy. The very short oversimplified version of this book is that he argues the loss of community, of our ancestral tribe, village, of where we’re living with lots of family and community around us, sharing a certain culture, sharing traditions and rituals together, and the progressive deterioration of that to the point where we’ve lost shared rituals, we’ve lost this sense of community, we’ve lost extended family living near us, and in many cases now in the modern world, we’ve lost even nuclear family living close to us. We’ve spread out.

He tracks this specifically over the course of the last a hundred years or so, and especially after World War II, this became very prevalent, and then the rise of certain things like airplanes, for example, facilitated this. It became easy for people to relocate to a new place, whereas historically, for most of human history, that was a very difficult thing to do. The gist of it is that he argues that most of our mental psychological malaise, particularly depression, anxiety, the chronic sense of void, of lack, that many of us have, is largely the result of loss of community.

I’m curious how that kind of thinking– I know Johann Hari is also someone who’s talked a lot about this in recent years, but I’m curious how that kind of model of community and the loss of community is relating to this story, how it tracks on to your way of talking about things.

Dr. Breuning: Sure. I’m familiar with this perspective, of course, and with all due respect, let me just offer some alternative thinking. At my advanced age, I’ve seen many fads in psychology come and go. Every few years, there’s a new theory that explains everything, and this is the one in our time. If you’re being informed in these times, it is the paradigm that explains everything.

My first little bit cynical response to this is, you’ve heard of the blue zones where these people live to a hundred and they find these communities, and one of these communities was Italian Americans. If you are not in that culture, then you have this idealized view of another culture. That they are loving and hugging and patting each other on the back and sharing and caring and positive every minute of every day, but anytime you’re inside a culture, which I grew up among all Italian Americans, then you see like, “Oh my God, I didn’t see [unintelligible 00:44:19] that.”

Take a country today where there’s more traditional culture, it’s not really approved to leave your nuclear family or your extended family. You’re expected to support your brother’s children if you make any money, even if your brother just sits on the couch. You cannot marry the person of your choice because they have to be someone from your group, someone that raises your parents’ status is what everybody got stuck with, someone who raised their parents’ status.

There are all these downsides, and we’ve had now like a hundred years of anthropology, where in order to be an anthropologist, you can only see the glorious, celebratory, positive things about indigenous cultures and traditional cultures, and only see the negative of our culture, otherwise, you are not doing anthropology. If we could go back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 250 years ago, he said, “Nature is all happy, and everything unhappy comes from civilization.”

We have that paradigm that biases us to sift the facts and to say, “If I’m unhappy, every moment of unhappy is the fault of some flaw in my society. If we could only rip down society and start over, then the perfect society would sprout up like daisies and then I’d be happy every minute without having to do anything about it.” I spent my early years believing in this, I have to confess, but I don’t believe it now.

Ari: Let’s go into serotonin before we run out of time. Your framing of serotonin is very novel, in the sense that most people are talking about serotonin as this sort of– Actually, you know what? Loretta, sorry, I just got to stop my dog from whining. I got to let her back in the room. One second.

She just gave birth a few days ago. She’s got little puppies, so we keep her separated from the other dog in the room with her puppies. She needed to get out to go do your business, and then she needed to get back in to see her puppies.

Dr. Breuning: That’s an example, you need to separate her from the other dog. [crosstalk] See, that’s the perfect example. In the state of nature, when a mother is about to give birth, she goes to isolate herself. Why in her most vulnerable moment would she isolate herself when a predator could get her and the babies? Because other adults will attack her child and even her.

The actual role of serotonin in the brain

Ari: Yes. Serotonin. Your framing of this is very unique, very novel. After reading your book, I spent some time looking at the literature that you were citing in your book, which I had not stumbled across before. Serotonin is often talked about as this sort of joy, gratitude, contentment. We have this whole story built up, which has largely been built up as a result of financial agendas of pharmaceutical companies that stand to profit off the narrative that depression is the result of a chemical imbalance in our brain and serotonin deficiency and we need drugs to fix it, if we have this serotonin deficiency, yet you’re talking about it largely through the lens of social status.

We touched on this earlier, this idea that we’re playing all these different kinds of games. I gave the example of materialistic games that we can play with our name brands and our fancy cars and our Rolex watches. Then you gave the example of how people play the game in other ways, where one can feel superior as a result of rejecting materialism, and then they can make themselves feel special and superior to all the people playing the materialistic games, or they can make themselves feel superior as a result of their religiosity and the belief that their religion is the one true religion, everybody else has got it wrong or that they’re sinners or they’re going to end up in hell or something like that.

Dr. Breuning: Or that their atheism is the one true religion, just to include everybody.

Ari: Exactly. Yes. I think there’s a million political examples of this, and this is across every political issue, from wearing masks, people are doing this to virtue signal that they’re a good person. They think it means that they believe in the science and things of that nature, or if they’re staying locked in their home, they think that that means they’re a good citizen, or if they’re pro-abortion, they are pro-life, they equally feel self-righteous in their positions that it makes them superior to the other camp.

I think that there’s endless examples of how we play these status games. Yet, just to take the materialism versus immaterialism example, it almost feels like damned if you do damned if you don’t. If you’re playing the materialistic game, no matter how wealthy you are and how fancy of a car you drive, there’s always somebody who’s doing it better than you, who’s got a bigger, fancier house, more expensive house, who’s got a fancier car, who’s got more cars, who’s got a nicer watch, who’s got more money.

Then if you opt out of that game to make yourself feel superior and say, “I’m not playing this materialistic game and I’m therefore superior to you,” that’s also, as you pointed out, still playing in the game. What is the right approach to serotonin? What is a healthy way to optimize our serotonin levels?

Dr. Breuning: Sure. First, I want to mention that in my book status games, one of the top ones is, “My abs are better than your abs.”

Ari: I’ve played that game at some points in my life.

Dr. Breuning: Yes.

Ari: Unfortunately, my wife has way better abs than me despite the fact that I work out way more than her, so I’ve accepted my loss in that game.

Dr. Breuning: Physical appearance is a very big arena for this. The first step is to know that social comparison is a natural behavior for the mammal brain because a mammal always has to be aware how it stacks up against others, ‘Am I stronger than you or am I weaker than you?” Whenever two mammals meet in nature or even in the zoo, their brains instantly do a weighing of the other and come to a conclusion, “Am I stronger than you or weaker than you?” so that I can have the right behavior.

It’s interesting that many languages, I cannot speak to you unless I first decide that you are more power thoughtful than me or less powerful than me. People who have studied foreign languages, I’m sure and I’m talking about. This mindset is just part of being a mammal.

The first step is just to not take it too seriously, but to know it’s there. Now, the reason you take it seriously, it’s because of what happened to you when you’re an adolescent. Of course, adolescents suddenly have what is a life or death feeling about social acceptance, because from a perspective of evolutionary biology, if I’m rejected socially, my genes will be wiped off the face of the earth. A mammal is in a hurry for social acceptance. Every rejection triggers cortisol, wires you to feel like, “I’m at the bottom of the world.”

If you listen to interviews with celebrities and they all tell you how small and inadequate they felt when they were young, how is it that every single person thinks that they were the ones that were at the bottom in high school? How could that be? It’s because that’s how the inner mammal sees the world through that lens. Again, first, it’s just to take it with a grain of salt, to know that it’s there, both the urge for the one up position and that pain of the one down position. Then we can try to give it to ourself in relatively healthy ways.

There’s no real perfectly healthy way because it is maddening, but I call it putting yourself up without putting others down. Even this putting yourself up can lead to certain excesses that you can think of. Doing that with that grain of salt, just taking it all with a grain of salt.

The best approach to happiness

Ari: Excellent. Okay. My last question to you is, outside– Well, actually, I might have two more. I want to get back to this thing we touched on briefly at the beginning, this treadmill, this idea that some people might be thinking, “Well, okay, this locks me into this situation where in order to feel good, I’m on this treadmill where I have to keep doing these things to generate my spurt of dopamine and my spurt of serotonin and my spurt of oxytocin and so on.” Maybe that could be viewed by some people as almost a disheartening feeling, like, “Oh, why can’t I just be happy? Why do I have to continue to do all this stuff?” What’s a healthy way of coming to terms with that situation?

Dr. Breuning: Well, the first step is what you said of putting it that question into your conscious brain, which takes it out of your non-verbal mammal brain. The mammal brain is saying, “Do more stuff. I want more of that fabulous feeling.” Now, a simple example is the person who runs a marathon and then afterwards you have a let-down and the only way they could think of getting out of it is to run another marathon. You know this famous example of a person who starts up a business and they work 16 hours a day and they’re exhausted, and then they sell the business for a lot of money. They don’t need to work, but then they start up another business. Frankly, as soon as I write a book, I would love to write another book.

Part of it is that we want the dopamine naturally and we’re seeking it in the way we know because we don’t know other ways to get it. One is to give yourself some freedom to explore new ways of getting it. The way I explain that in the book is, if you have this piece of music that you just love and you feel so good when you listen to it, but if you listen to it every minute of every day, it would not turn you on anymore. Then you’d have to find a new piece of music that you love, but you don’t feel it. You have to hear it maybe 20 times before it becomes familiar enough but not too familiar. That’s the sweet spot that we’re always looking for.

If you don’t invest in queuing up that new activity, then that old activity is all you have. That’s a big part of it. I forgot the other. Oh, so instead of just focusing on dopamine, that you can focus on the other chemicals, but most people are not going to want to do that because you’re really using this obsession with this activity to distract you from the pain of social disappointments.

The big one is to understand that your social pain was wired in adolescence, and again, to take it with a grain of salt to say, “That’s just a pathway.” You could build new social pathways and become aware that feeling of rejection is something you are creating internally. You could build a new pathway to be more casual and lighthearted and not have such a adolescent life or death sense about social interactions. Then you’ll start enjoying more of a variety of things so that you won’t be so focused on that next big dopamine spurt.

Ari: Yes, got it. My last question to you is, outside of strategies to create spurts of these happy chemicals, are there one or two big ideas or things that you want to recommend to people that are important for happiness that you haven’t talked about thus far?

Dr. Breuning: Sure. I want to talk about realistic expectations, but first, I want to say that I have compassion and empathy for anybody who’s stuck in a serious mental health situation. At my age, I’m more in conversations with parents of people who have serious mental health situations, and so I’m not judging or condemning that conventional view because I truly understand how people get into that path, and I wish I had the magic wand for that path. Having said that, when you’re with someone who’s in the middle of it– I understand how my philosophy can sound off-putting

Realistic expectations is what makes it possible for us to be happy with small things and then to get frequent small spurts. Let me give you a realistic expectation for each chemical. That feeling of, “I’m waiting for my ship to come in,” and you could spend your whole life at your windows, “Is that my ship? Is that my ship? Is that my ship?” Then you end up disappointed and frustrated. Now let’s transfer that feeling to dating. [laughs] A person goes to a bar or maybe a makeup salon and with this whole like, “When will my ship come in?” mentality.

Then, let’s say, you have children and you’re giving this ship-coming-in mentality to your children, so I don’t really condemn those children for having this mindset. What would be a realistic expectation? I just wrote about this in my weekly letter that anyone can get in my website. If I get a job at a coffee roasting shop and every morning I walk in and I’m just thrilled with the smell, or I get a job in a chocolate shop and every morning I’m just thrilled with the smell. After an hour that good feeling will wear off because my nose will habituate to the smell and then I won’t have the good feeling.

Now, without that artificial boost, then I’m back to whoever I was before I walked in the shop, which may generate some complaints about the world that we’re wired in, in my youth, some insecurity. Then my conscious verbal brain tries to explain that threatened feeling. What am I going to conclude is, “My boss is a jerk. That last customer in my coffee shop was a jerk.” That I read the headlines in the corner of my eye and I think the world is going to hell in a handbasket. This is what we create. Then maybe what does the person do? Whatever they do is that habit that they have. Maybe they sneak a chocolate or whatever that habit is.

Realistic expectations about your partner, because when you wanted them so much, they stimulated so much dopamine. As soon as you got them, then they stopped stimulating your dopamine. Also, a group. When you’re isolated and you don’t have a herd, you think, “I wish I was accepted by this group or this group,” but the minute they accept you, then you see their faults. We have to constantly have realistic expectations and know that we’re creating this, and then have some small goal that we can achieve by the end of the day.

Ari: Excellent. I love it. Thank you so much, Dr. Breuning. This has been an absolute joy. I know you have much more wisdom to share, and I’ll have to have you on the podcast again at some point. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with my audience. Where can people find your work, get in touch with you for coaching, buy your books, things like that?

Dr. Breuning: Sure., I have a sign up there for a five-day free happy chemical jump-start that gives you one email a day on each of the five chemicals.

Ari: Beautiful. Thank you so much. I look forward to the next conversation.

Dr. Breuning: Sure, it was a pleasure.

Show Notes

The primary brain chemicals for happiness (04:59)
How novelty and variety is linked with dopamine (21:45)
How drugs can affect dopamine (24:10)
The best natural ways to stimulate dopamine (27:50)
The importance of proper oxytocin balance (34:34)
The link between community and oxytocin balance (42:12)
The actual role of serotonin in the brain (48:52)
The best approach to happiness (55:15)


Recommended Podcasts

Like this article?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Linkdin
Share on Pinterest

Leave a comment

Scroll to Top