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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
"Happiness"

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, right?

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

There’s two chemicals or neurochemicals that are associated with happiness. Now, the first one I want to talk about is called dopamine. So dopamine is very much associated with reward and 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 reward and they are particularly sensitive to reward associated with novelty. And this is why we see so much behaviour associated with risk going into uncertain situations and unfamiliar situations and often unsafe situations.

Whenever teens do something new, the brain goes: “it’s really cool to find out about stuff, have some dopamine because I want you to do that again.” So 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. So whenever 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. So whenever we set a goal and we achieve it, we get that lovely shot of dopamine as well, right? So the other neurochemical that is associated with happiness is called serotonin. Now 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. And so can you get more of it? Can you build it?

One of my favourite things to say is that all of our behaviour is just electric and happiness and confidence and resilience is all associated with the messages that are going around in our brain and the chemicals that are making those feelings happen. So with regards to serotonin, we also know that it is associated with purpose and meaning and accomplishment. So 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 then so if we want to increase the serotonin that we have, 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.

And both the dopamine and serotonin work on what’s called a positive feedback mechanism. So what that means is that the more dopamine or serotonin we get, the happier we are, the braver we are to sort of put ourselves out there. And the more reward we experience. And when we have those positive emotions, we get more serotonin, we get more dopamine, which makes us even more happy and, you know, willing to take more risks. Yeah, it’s pretty cool.

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

Well, we know that confidence and happiness are linked in some ways because it’s actually the same areas in the brain that light up when we’re happy that light up when we’re confident. So it’s primarily the prefrontal cortex, which is that front part of the brain, which is sort of our logical, rational goal setting part of the brain and the ventral striatum, which is our reward centre in our brain. So they’ve done lots of imaging experiments where they’ve looked at people when they have a sense of confidence and these areas of the brain light up. And when I do the same experiments in people that have a feeling of happiness, they also see these areas of the brain light up. And we know that when we feel confident it is often associated with some kind of accomplishment or being on purpose. And because we know we get that shot of serotonin or shot of dopamine at the same time, which are, you know, is responsible for our happiness. That’s how we know that confidence and happiness are linked. But 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 happiness is actually made up of two things. So there’s what’s called hedonic happiness, which is really associated with pleasure. And when we engage in those things that really make us feel great in that moment, like eating a yummy chocolate cake or you know, cuddling somebody that you really care about. We have, you know, an immense feeling of pleasure in those times, but that sort of hedonic pleasure can be fleeting. And so we have it in that moment and then it passes. So the other type of happiness we can have is called eudaimonic happiness, sorry. And so this is more associated with the focus on having meaning in our lives and, and self realisation and self actualisation. So when we are engaging in our activities that make us feel good about who we are and what we’ve achieved and what we’re capable of, that’s when we have those eudaimonic feelings of happiness. And I would say that confidence sits there. It’s more associated with that sort of eudaimonic happiness as opposed to the hedonic feelings of pleasure.

So then would it be safe to advise the 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 and you know, really in their element, we of course want to enable these kinds of behaviours. But it’s equally as important to look at that 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? And that’s kind of a heavy concept for a teenager about really encourage them to engage ingoal attainment and goal achievement and goal pursuit. Because there is 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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