Book Review: Habits of a Happy Brain by Loretta Graziano Breuning Phd

The cover

This book is about happy chemicals and how to make your brain emit them. It is a happy-chemical centric strategy book.

Difficulty: not difficult

Basic Premises: Happiness is a chemical reaction, so be a good chemist. There are 4 happy chemicals: Serotonin, Dopamine, Ocytocin, and Endorphin.

Potentially Controversial Takes: This book references the theory of evolution a lot.

My Favorite Passage:

Your cortex is always making predictions about future pain and future rewards. But anticipated rewards don’t always materialize, which is another source of cortisol. Your cortex can imagine a better world that makes you happy all the time, but you fail to find this utopia. Reality is often a disappointment, and it’s hard to understand the role of your expectations because your cortex generates them so effortlessly.A lizard never thinks something is wrong with the world, even as it watches its young get eaten alive. It doesn’t tell itself “something is wrong with the world,” because it doesn’t have enough neurons to imagine the world being other than what it is. It doesn’t expect a world in which there are no predators, so it doesn’t condemn the world for falling short of expectations. It doesn’t condemn itself for failing to keep its offspring alive. Humans expect more, and we do something about it. That’s why we end up focused on our disappointments instead of saluting our accomplishments.

I think this little sample is like, a really good representative sample of what this book is like. It’s definitely not a cheesy self-help book about “positive thinking”, “manifesting reality” or any of those new-agey type strategies, nor is it another “MUST HUSTLE ALL THE TIME AND MAXIMIZE ALPHA BECAUSE SUCK IT YOU LAZY LITTLE B****” type self-help books either. This IS however, technically a self-help book. It’s a self help book about basic neuroscience and evolutionary psychology concepts with easy to understand explanations.

Chapter WalkThrough:

So with books, I think that the table of contents is a much more honest indicator of book quality than the blurb, so let’s go there first

Introduction . . . |

You like happy chemicals — dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphin. You dislike not-happy chemicals — eg. cortisol. These chemicals motivate you and other animals like you to do things that made your ancestors survive.

Your Inner Mammal . . . |

She explains the “Happy Survival Motives”

Dopamine: seek rewards

Endorphin: ignore physical pain

Oxytocin: build social alliances

Serotonin: get respect from others

In the “How Your Experiences Create Neural Trails” section she explains how feelings are reactions to experiences. You create a neural trail to a feeling that will motivate you to do the right thing for your survival. You can new trails by having new experiences. By repetition, you can change the way you feel about a certain stimulus.

She also touches on the psychological experience of love in this chapter, and explains that it creates heightened feelings and why this is so.

Meet Your Happy Chemicals . . . |

She explains each chemical and the associated behaviors in depth.

Why Your Brain Creates Unhappiness . . . |

Author explains that “Unhappy Chemicals Are Nature’s Security Alarm”. Explains what Cortisol is, and that it is the chemical that makes you have the “do something” feeling, until you do something to make the feeling stop.

Author explains that Cortisol will wire with whatever preceded a pain experience and that this can result in quirky associations sometimes.

She explains empathy and mirror neurons, and how shared pain promotes survival in a group

The Vicious Cycle of Happiness . . . |

Explains why constant happiness is not sustainable or practical.

How a phenomenon called habituation causes you to experience less happiness from the same stimulus over time.

She explains in depth what causes withdrawal symptoms from each happy chemical and how to cope.

How Your Brain Wires Itself . . . |

This was touched on in the first chapter and this chapter really fully explains it.

Author explains myelination and its role in childhood development, and the second phases of myelination that happens during the teenage years.

New Habits for Each Happy Chemical . . . |

Habits for spamming your brain for each chemical. Think about a healthy well-balanced diet for you brain.

Your Action Plan . . . |

Execute on the habits you are trying to build

Overcoming Obstacles to Happiness . . . |

Obstacles you will probably run into

Rely on Tools That Are Always with You . . . |

I like this chapter. Strategies you can use at any time to optimize for happy.

  • Mirror — find someone who does it right and copy them
  • Balance — find happiness with each happy chemical, switch to another when one doesn’t work
  • Graft — reuse a happy circuit you have already developed
  • Energy — Plan around units of mental energy
  • Legacy — Anything you do that leaves a legacy will make you happy. It is your human instinct.
  • Fun — spam happiness by using play behavior
  • Chunk — divide unpleasant things into smaller chunks.
  • Satisfice — evaluate based on “good enough”, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.
  • Plan — form habits by putting them into your schedule
  • Visualize — Imagine the positive outcome

Snippets I like:

Single-minded pursuit of a goal makes everything else seem like an obstacle. Other people, your physical body, and even rules and laws can seem like obstacles. Life feels like an escalator and if it’s not moving up, you think it’s broken down. You can free your-self from an escalator if you are willing to do something different for forty-five days. Do not simply replace one goal with another. Instead, build the habit of having multiple sources of satisfaction. Your new circuits cannot trigger happy chemicals every minute, but they can help you manage the cortisol blast you feel when you ease off your goal.

This strategy is goal agnostic. It’s not about how to achieve any goal, it’s about to hack your brain to allow you to create dopamine (which is basically motivation fuel) to achieve any given goal. I think a central premise of this strategy is that you can’t achieve any goal without your brain.

If you set goals that are too far off, then your strategy is going to be cortisol heavy when you repeatedly do not reach the far-off goal. Chunking the goal into smaller manageable goals makes for a much more steady cortisol and dopamine schedule. Without positive dopamine reinforcement, motivation will dwindle.

Individual vs. Group

The protection of a group feels good, but striking out on your own feels good too. It would be nice to have both, but that’s not a realistic expectation. Painful choices are everywhere and we often make them worse by focusing on what we’re missing. You miss your independence when you’re in a group, and you miss the safety of the group when you follow your individual impulses. Unhappy chemicals surge when you focus on the down side of each option. You could focus on the benefits you are currently enjoying instead — enjoy the group when it’s group time and enjoy your individuality when you’re alone.Appreciating what you have is difficult to do because the mind naturally seeks what it doesn’t have. It’s natural to feel the squeeze on your personal interests while you have group support. And when you go your own way, it’s natural to worry about the loss of social ties. We want to have it all, but this tradeoff is part of being human. Instead of expecting it to go away, pride yourself on your ability to manage it.

This section spoke to me because I angst a lot about, just for some examples, how people at work don’t take me seriously enough, or how I can never figure out how to make small talk at networking opportunities, or how I feel “forced to socialize” or “trapped” by certain social situations or groups. This section helps me just deal with it. This tradeoff is part of being human.

OverComing Obstacles to Happiness

This chapter I found really useful for dealing with people who are miserable. People who are miserable can be like energy vampires, and then everyone around them starts trying to make them happy. Instead of engaging with the endless stream of reasons person a cannot be happy, this book instead focuses on the reasons a person might choose to be unhappy. Each reason comes with a solid rebuttal.

Reason #1: I can’t lower my standards

Reason #2: I shouldn’t have to do this

Reason #3: It’s selfish to focus on your own happiness

Reason #4: I want to be prepared for the worst

Reason #5: I won’t be able to do this

Reason #6: Who can be happy in such a flawed society?

Reason #7: I’ll be happy when …

Yeah, for me just pretty useful for dealing with miserable people. I mean, I have little control over what other people do actually, but at least I know how to engage verbally now. I have words and stuff. Thanks book!

I consider being able to negotiate with miserable people a pretty useful skill actually, because motivation is critical to getting anything done. I also think I should be better at managing people and I think making them happy is a good place to start.

I have noticed that bosses that make me unhappy tend not to motivate me to want to do work for them, and bosses that do make me happy, I am happy to do work for, so I hope that I can also make other people happy and benefit likewise.

On Habituation:

The brain triggers joy when it encounters any new way to meet its needs. New food. New love. New places. New tech-niques. After a while, the new thing doesn’t measure up. “It’s not the way I remember it.” You may wish you could trade it in for another new thing. But when you understand your brain, you realize the disappointment comes from you rather than the thing itself.

I liked this explanation a lot, because this has always made me very annoyed. I feel often betrayed by my desire for novel stimulus. Curiosity killed the cat as they say. I seem to fantasize a lot about “a new place” or a “a new start”, I think this is just my brain craving a novel stimulus. The thing I already is not any less good.

Some Particularly Darwinian Snippets:

A cow that pushes her way to the center of the herd is safer from predators than a cow near the edge of the herd. !e pushy cow improves her chances of living to reproduce and keeping her young alive. Bulls typically avoid the herd until mating time, when they ferociously battle other males for admission. !e most dominant bull pushes his way to the center of the herd, where he meets and inseminates the most dominant cows. In each spe-cies, social dominance promotes reproductive success in one way or another. I am not advocating such behavior, simply recogniz-ing the human challenge of trying to feel good while avoiding conflict

Animals sometimes eject an individual from the group. The most common examples are deposed alphas and adolescent males. Cortisol spikes in an ostracized animal, and indeed they often perish. Animals fear exclusion so intensely that they typically do what it takes to stay with the group, even when dominated harshly. A mammal will leave the group when it promotes repro-duction because the big cortisol surge is offset by a big happy-chemicals surge.

Each gender seeks dominance in ways that best promote its DNA. In most species, females invest so heavily in each offspring that their genes are best served by enhancing the survivability of her young. A male’s reproductive success is often served by maximiz-ing mating opportunities. Within these strategies, both genders dominate and submit to meet their needs.

When you see a lizard basking in the sun, you might think it’s the picture of serenity. But in truth, that lizard is just trying to avoid death. Cold-blooded reptiles die of hypothermia unless they sun themselves often, but when they’re out in the sun, they risk being eaten alive by a predator. So a lizard shuttles constantly between the lethal threats of sun and shade. He makes these decisions by literally running from bad feelings.

Recommended Reading Section

The author ends the book with book reviews that she wrote about other books on the subjects she touched on in her book. I really like this. I like book reviews. They help me pre-select for quality, and I like that.

In Conclusion

I can recommend this book for its easy readability,

it’s subject matter,

the book reads very straight forward, “sometimes we feel like this because this, and this causes this”. I seem to like this style of writing.

I have read other books about psychology or human thought that get poetic about it and I seem to dislike this and feel like the book is a waste of time when I see things like that. This is not always the right reaction, but it is a reflexive one for me. This book does not do that, so it made me want to read it, and it did not waste my time on flowery details. I was able to finish it in two weeks of reading a bit each night before bed.

I like to pick it up when I am having a mood because I am prone to being a worry wort. I guess I think focusing on thought is kind of important and something I am trying to understand and work on.

Overall, would recommend.

This writer seems less controversial than another writer I would like to read, Simon Baron Cohen.

Please leave in the comments if you have some other related books that you would recommend and thanks friends for reading.

Research and Development | Dev Ops | Software Engineer | Topaz Labs

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