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9 Minutes of Neuroscience: Happiness


9 Minutes of Neuroscience: Happiness

The following is an excerpt from Episode 3 of the “Raising Girl Shaped Flames” podcast. If you’d like to hear the full episode, you can catch it here and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasting goodness!

9 Minutes of Neuroscience with Dr Diane Harner

Definition of Happiness:

The first thing that I want to cover today is: What is the function of happiness? Why are we even happy at all? What we know is that happiness is our brain’s way of getting us to pay attention to rewarding behaviour. And a way of thinking about rewarding behaviour is anything that is in the best interests for us to repeat. So things like eating food and cuddling and achievement, they’re all associated with reward because in some way they enhance our chance of survival. So when our brain tells us that we are doing a rewarding behaviour that it wants us to repeat, it gives us the feeling of happiness.


So what’s going on in the brain when we’re experiencing these rewards?

There’s two neurochemicals that are associated with happiness. Now, the first one I want to talk about is called dopamine. Dopamine is very much associated with reward, particularly the anticipation of reward. What’s really interesting about dopamine in teenagers is that we know there is a higher amount of dopamine released in association with anticipating reward and they are particularly sensitive to reward associated with novelty. This is why we see so much risk-taking behaviour associated with going into uncertain, unfamiliar and often unsafe situations. Whenever teens do something new, the brain reinforces that by going: “it’s really good to find out about new things, have some dopamine because I want you to do that again.” This “drives seeking” behaviour.

What we also know about dopamine is that we get a nice little hit of dopamine whenever we set a goal and we achieve it. When we set a goal, we are expecting a reward on the other side because there is achievement associated with that. And our brain loves us to seek the rewards that we are predicting.

The other neurochemical that is associated with happiness is called serotonin. Serotonin is a lovely chemical to have on board because it actually reduces our sensitivity to rejection. And what that means is that if we have higher levels of serotonin, we will be more inclined to put ourselves out there and to take more personal risks because we’re not so concerned about judgment.


So it turns out there’s actually a chemical in the brain that is preparing us and giving us that courage and that confidence. Can you build courage and confidence?

Something that I often say is that all of our behaviour is just electricity and chemicals and happiness and confidence and resilience are all associated with the messages that are going around in our brain and the chemicals that are making those feelings happen. We can influence the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin through things like diet and exercise.

We also know that serotonin is associated with purpose and meaning and accomplishment. Whenever we do an activity and we can say, “I did it”, “I accomplished that”, “I achieved that”, our brain gives us a lovely hit of serotonin. So if we want to increase our serotonin levels, it’s a really great idea to challenge yourself so you can have that feeling of accomplishment. And of course when we have that feeling of accomplishment, that also impacts our confidence because confidence is about belief in our own abilities.

Both the dopamine and serotonin systems work on what’s called a positive feedback mechanism.What that means is that the more dopamine or serotonin we get, the happier we are, the braver we are to put ourselves out there and the more reward we experience. When we have those positive emotions, we get more serotonin and more dopamine, which makes us even more happy and willing to take more risks.


But what’s the neuroscience behind the relationships between happiness and confidence?

We know that confidence and happiness are linked in some way because it’s actually the same areas of the brain that light up when we’re happy and when we’re confident. It’s primarily the front part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex which is the logical, rational, goal setting part of the brain and the ventral striatum, which is the reward centre in our brain. There have been lots of imaging experiments done where they’ve looked at people’s brains when they have a sense of confidence and when they have a feeling of happiness and they see the same areas of the brain light up.

When we feel confident it is often associated with some kind of accomplishment or being aligned with our purpose. Because we know that we get that shot of serotonin or shot of dopamine at these times, this indicates that confidence and happiness are somehow linked. Having said that, happiness can come from all sorts of places. So it’s not only a result of being confident, it’s absolutely possible to be happy even when you’re not confident. And none of us are confident 100% of the time.


Is that what parents should be encouraging their daughters to do? Do things that make you happy and therefore you’ll be confident?

One doesn’t necessarily equal the other because there are many, many different ways of being happy and there are different types of happiness. There’s what’s called hedonic happiness, which is really associated with pleasure. When we engage in those things that really make us feel great in the moment, like eating a yummy chocolate cake or cuddling somebody that you really care about, we have an immense feeling of pleasure in those times. However, hedonic pleasure can be fleeting, we have it in that moment and then it passes.

The other type of happiness we can have is called eudaimonic happiness which  is more associated with the focus on having meaning in our lives and, and self realisation and self actualisation. When we are engaging in activities that make us feel good about who we are, what we can achieve and what we’re capable of, that’s when we have those eudaimonic feelings of happiness. I would say that confidence predominantly sits there. It’s more associated with that sort of eudaimonic happiness as opposed to the hedonic feelings of pleasure.


Would it be safe to advise parents that if you’re seeing your daughter show certain levels of confidence with areas of her life, that it’s a good idea to encourage your daughter to keep doing more of those things that she does feel confident about because then they do translate into a sense of happiness?

When we see our daughters joyful and happy that are more associated with hedonic happiness, we of course want to enable these kinds of behaviours. But it’s equally as important to look at eudaimonic happiness and help her to engage with what makes her feel good about herself. What does she value in this life? What is her purpose? Now that’s kind of a heavy concept for a teenager, but its  about really encouraging them to engage in goal pursuit and attainment, because there are a lot of advantages at a neuroscientific level, when we feel a sense of achievement and accomplishment. We get that lovely upregulation of dopamine and serotonin and of course that makes us feel happier and it makes us feel more confident, so we want to keep chasing that.

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