Don't confuse "reward" for happiness
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
"Pavlov - that name rings a bell" - I'm ashamed to say I've used that as an opening line during a speech a long time ago.
The most basic form of learning is "stimulus response" - you do something and the outcome shapes whether you do it again. It can be conscious (Skinner's Operant Conditioning) ie. if we are rewarded we will feel good and repeat the behaviour, if we are punished or "negatively reinforced" (ie. ignored) - we don't feel so positive about it and are less likely to. It can also be unconscious (Pavlov's Classical Conditioning) eg. supersitions, or aversions - we are not always sure that the stimulus and response were related, but why chance it?
Unfortunately, this "reward" approach to feeling good, is also the very basis of addiction. When we get a reward, or achieve something, we get a little release of dopamine which makes us feel good - thus it makes sense to do it again. "Rewards" that release dopamine can come in the form of achievement and winning, as well as praise and compliments (which include "likes" or "retweets" - or other form of social media validation). Not only that but the latter makes the "reward" brighter through the use of haptics - a little phone vibration, and positive bleeps and pops. The problems of addiction come when we begin to confuse the (often short lived) happiness from the dopamine release with the longer term happiness of bonding, or simply feeling healthy.
There are actually 7 "happy" hormones - sort of like a Freudian fairy tale:
1. Endocannabinoids: “The Bliss Molecule” - this is also known as the “runners high” – ie, the state of happiness that some people experience after exercises. I find I only reach this after I have pushed myself to either run faster, or for longer than a "normal" workout. While I couldn't generate it every day, I like to think "this is what healthy feels like" and so I try and push myself to do one timed or distanced run a week.
2. Dopamine: “The Reward Molecule” - As I discussed in the opening it is Dopamine which is responsible for reward-driven behavior and pleasure seeking. ANY reward-seeking behaviour will increase the amount of dopamine in the brain. And, with social media, it is often easy to achieve ie...but a word of warning when a reward is easy to come by, it may disappear just as quickly too - leaving you craving more. However, as it is also generated when you achieve a goal - this is a healthier approach to its release.
3. Oxytocin: “The Bonding Molecule” Oxytocin is actually a hormone linked to human bonding, trust and loyalty. It is the hormone which is generated when we spend time with people we love, or through a hug - and even stroking a pet. This is a longer lasting form of happiness - especially because research also shows that it can be released when we look at pictures of fond memories. It is, perhaps, the sense of happiness we seek - but may in a fast paced world, be willing to sacrifice it to generate the quicker acting dopamine.
I too, because of the need for a brand profile, am often seduced by chasing "likes", and often have to anchor myself by focusing on the real world pleasures of my work (eg my writing), and my friends family and pets. The areas I know I have greater responsibility for maintaining, and those I know will last.
4. Endorphins: “The Pain-Killing Molecule” Endorphin translates into “self-produced morphine and are produced during strenuous exercise as well as orgasm, and cab be stimulated by accupuncture. The release of endorphins can also work as temporary pain relief.
5. GABA: “The Anti-Anxiety Molecule” GABA is actually different to the other hormones - it is an inhibitor which slows down the firing of neurons thus creating a sense of calmness. Naturally, this can be increased through practices such as meditation or yoga.
6. Serotonin: “The Stablising Molecule” Similarly to GABA, Serotonin is also responsible for stabilising our emotions. Low levels of serotonin are related to depression, but too much through medication and can decrease arousal - as our response can depend on which area of the brain is stimulated and which receptor is being used. Serotonin also affects our bowel movements.
7. Adrenaline: “The Energy Molecule” Adrenaline is one of the key player in our "fight or flight" response. Its release is often exhilerating, creating a surge in energy which can be used to fight a threat, or run away. It can be generated through what one may colloqually call "thrill seeking" - eg. roller coasters, horror films or extreme sports.
We are likely experience all 7, but one of the most effective things we can do in our understanding is make them work for us. I love psychology for is ability to explain behaviour, but respect it because it is through that understanding we can effect change should we wish.
In our pursuit for "happiness" try to manage your hormones, rather than the other way round.
Be mindful that the reward "hit" from dopamine can disperse almost as fast as it arrives, and if we want a longer lasting form of happiness, Oxytocin is the better "bet".
With regard to generating oxytocin, while it is of course reinforced though those you love showing love in return, don't forget you can generate it through self-love. Be kind to yourself in your words and deeds. You will also find, if you value yourself, others will value you too.
You can create a sense of positivity through the removal of anxiety as well as the generation of happiness - so also consider how mindfulness can help you feel a sense of bliss. Try this "square breathing" technique: trace two squares with your hands breathing in as you "draw" along and down, then out as you "draw" along and up to complete the square.
If you are an "adrenaline junkie" - find safe outlets to pursue it, and remember, you may also feel a "thrill" of leaving things to the last minute - but working under pressure does not always produce your best work.
Exercise and maintaining a level of fitness can impact many of these hormones. It can create both the "runner's high" of endocannabinoids, it can help release endorphins, and it can even regulate serotonin. It can also affect dopamine if you perhaps set yourself a fitness goal and achieve it, and oxytocin if exercise is an opportunity to bond with friends. There are of course other physical changes that can occur with exercise which can contribute to overall wellbeing.
In a world that always tempts us with the "quick fix" I challenge you to take a longer term, and healthy approach to happiness - this week, focus on working the other hormones rather than chasing down reward after reward, which ultimately never means as much as a real life hug from a trusted loved one.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt