Interview with Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning, Author of Habits of a Happy Brain

Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning has spent her life helping people understand and optimize their mammal brains AKA our “inner animals.” She’s done so as the founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and most recently as the author of Habits of A Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin & Endorphin LevelsAs much as we loved the book, there’s a lot it doesn’t go into – which is why we decided to interview Dr. Breuning about our lingering questions.

SHY: What inspired you to write Habits of A Happy Brain?

Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning: Well, I grew up around a lot of conflict and I, like most people, struggled to understand why there was so much unhappiness around me. I read lots of self-help books. I had this idea that I would do things different with my kids. Then I noticed that my kids were struggling and other people’s kids were struggling too. So I was very motivated to understand the brain. And in all my reading, I kept coming across little bits of information about the animal brain and I said, “Wow, this explains everything!” Animals are not in this ideal blissful state all the time. The core mammal brain that we have in common with them produces frustration, and that frustration has a higher purpose. It constantly prods the animals to take the next step to survive and that’s why we’re here.

SHY: So you wrote the book to understand this mammal brain?

LGB: I wrote the book to explain it to others, because I felt like I understood it, and I would talk to people and no one seemed to get what I was saying, so I felt like I needed to explain it in a very in-depth way.

SHY: We have this mammalian brain, but also a higher brain; how much of us is mammal? How much isn’t? Is there not a higher conscious?

LGB: We have this cortex and prefrontal cortex that we hear a lot about. I think about it as a reserve tank of extra neurons. So compared to animals, we have a lot more ability to store information. But we still have the same needs and drives to do what it takes to survive. It’s just that we make more complex decisions with more information about – will this really promote my survival in the long run or not? A lot of writers have given the impression that there’s a war in your brain between the good part and the bad part, and I think that’s very misinformed. Because the information part of your brain got wired when you were young to look for information that makes you happy. That’s how the brain works. That’s how you learn to survive. This is the way to get food, and this is the way to danger. So throughout life, we build on the circuits we built in youth, and they were all driven by the mammalian part: the happy brain chemicals. So what is the higher brain? It’s really nothing but a veto power. Your prefrontal cortex can say, “Don’t do that. That’s not going to work out well.” And then your higher brain doesn’t have a next step. It goes back to your mammal brain to look for Plan B. So your mammal brain is always telling you, this is good for you, and this is bad for you. And that’s really emotional. This is good because it’s linked to your happy chemicals. This is bad because it’s linked to your unhappy chemicals.

SHY: Your argument, then, is that humans are essentially animals, and in order for us to lead happy lives we need to understand that animal part of us.

LGB: I’m not saying this in a controversial way, like we should act like animals. But we have an animal brain with extra stuff added on.

SHY: My understanding is that the major unhappy chemical we experience is cortisol. Is there anything else?

LGB: That’s what I focus on. People talk a lot about adrenaline, and some people like adrenaline. They go out of their way to get thrills. So it’s a complex thing. But basically, cortisol is the alarm signal that signals pain. So in the simplest animal like a reptile, cortisol is just pain. So the bigger the brain, the more you can see everything related to every possible source of pain. Even pain next year, pain 100 years from now. And then social pain is what mammals evolve. So in the mammal world, if you’re excluded from the herd, then you’ll be eaten by a lion. So in the human world, if your boss raises his eyebrow by one millimeter, your mammal brain may interpret that as a survival threat and it triggers your cortisol.

SHY: In your book, you talk specifically about the 4 happy chemicals of serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins, and you give us various ways to boost each of those chemicals. Out of those chemicals, is there one that gives us more happiness than other? Is there something in particular we should focus on?

LGB: I don’t think so. I think that a balance among them is valuable except endorphin. Endorphin is the brain’s way to mask pain, and it creates euphoria. So endorphin creates a euphoria that masks pain, but it’s only triggered by real physical pain. So it’s not a good idea to trigger pain to get it because that’s obviously unsustainable. Laughing triggers a little bit of euphoria, and I think exercise. They’re all valuable because, for example, the social chemical, people often call it oxytocin, that creates a feeling of social trust among people – if you leave that out and just go after dopamine, that would be the example of a person who gets a lot done but doesn’t have a deep sense of security. But alternatively, the person who just likes to have a social reinforcement around them all the time but doesn’t get anything done doesn’t feel good either. So we really need both. In the modern world, we mostly have our food needs met and we have some basic sense of social protection, so serotonin turns on when you feel special. And this is what people sort of obsess over. Everyone wants to feel special. No one wants to admit it. Everyone sees when other people are special, and they don’t like that a bit. But the slightest threat to your ability to be special feels like a survival threat. Because in a state of nature, if you’re less special during mating season, your genes die. So that’s why it feels like a death threat, even though consciously you’re not trying to reproduce and you would never admit that you wanted to be special.

SHY: Are there happy chemicals that in general people are better or worse about increasing in themselves?

LGB:  So let’s say when I was young, one person had a lot of success with social bonds. So that built neural superhighways that say this is what to do to get social bonds. Another person had a lot of success, let’s say, being competitive, being special. Another person had a lot of success accomplishing goals. So whatever makes you happy when you were young, because you’ve got the chemicals, it built a pathway in your brain that is how you get more. Your brain tells you this is what you’ve got to do to be happy. You don’t really know the other ways as much just because you didn’t wire them in.

SHY: Some people are good at raising dopamine; others are good at oxytocin. Is there a gendered difference? For example, women tend to be more social and men tend to be more goal-driven. 

LGB: I don’t really see it that way. I think they just learn different ways to go about it. So for example, if a woman wants to be special or in the one-up position, she could be. Frankly, I personally am more focused on goals and not on social rewards. So it could be my personal experience. But when women focus on social rewards, it’s not just an end in itself. They also have in mind that they want the dopamine and the serotonin out of the social interaction. For example, a party could be a goal. So that would be an example of: I want to throw a big party. So it seems like it’s a social goal, but it’s also stepping towards a goal. And if I want my party to be more special than your party, for example, that would be a serotonin example in the social context.

SHY: At the end of the book, you talk about how we sometimes ruin our own happiness by focusing too much on what went wrong and forgetting about what’s right, and I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.

LGB: I just got back from a trip to India. On one hand, it’s very overwhelming because the streets are full of motorcycles and it’s loud and full of diesel and you almost get run over every two feet and the pollution is so bad that if you just look towards the end of the block where you’re going to cross the street, it’s buried in a white haze. And the sky is the same color as the Taj Mahal so you can hardly see it. It’s really spooky. But then I had to keep reminding myself how much better India is than it was in the past. There were no hungry people around me. There were no sick people around me. There were no security threats around me. And it’s so hard for our brain to notice improvements because we’re always focused on the next threat.

SHY: What’s a daily life example of that?

LGB: Let’s say I have this dream of getting a certain promotion, and I work a long time towards it. And then the promotion goes to someone else. So that feels very devastating. Now, my brain searches, because I’m feeling bad, for all the bad information. You can see why it feels bad. The dopamine is lost, because I don’t have a goal. I’m not stepping towards a goal. Plus the specialness is lost. So now my brain looks for bad information. I watch the news and I say, “Wow, everybody feels the same way as me. We’re all not making any progress towards our goals. We’re all denied specialness. We’re all having a horrible life and just about to be wiped off the face of the earth and never to be heard from again.” So it’s easy to think that way because our survival is threatened as long as we’re alive. We are going to die. We will have survival threats as long as we’re alive. So we have to work hard to find something good to feel about our survival because it’s so easy to see the negative. So the good would be, for example, although I didn’t get that promotion, I have this job that five years ago I would have thought too good to be true. Maybe I have a great relationship. Maybe I have a great friendship or a great living space that five years ago, I would have been thrilled to have. But once you have something, your brain takes it for granted. And there are the most amazing monkey studies on this. When you first get something, and when you want it and you step toward it, it triggers a lot of dopamine. But once you get it, you don’t get the dopamine anymore because dopamine is there to record new information about how to meet your needs. Once you’ve recorded the information, the dopamine stops. So that’s why life is frustrating. But that’s also why we’re here today, because our ancestors kept trying to survive.

SHY: You’re saying that it’s important for us to look on the bright side, essentially, right? What about this idea that if you are upset, being with people who are also upset makes you feel less alone and helps you deal with it more? Would you not agree with that?

LGB: I do; this is the fascinating thing about how I said we want all of the chemicals. So if I hang around with other people who feel out of sorts, and then I feel social bonds – when those people get together, they hate everybody who is taking and succeeding at certain steps. So now, I don’t get the dopamine pleasure of succeeding at those steps, and now my oxytocin is at risk because if I take those steps to feel better, I’m going to lose my social bonds. And this is an unfortunate myth that people get into. My book talks a lot about a vicious cycle and a virtuous cycle. So it’s very easy to get into a vicious cycle where you know one way to feel good, and when you over-repeat that one way, you end up feeling bad. And when you feel bad, you only know one way to feel better, so it gets worse. And so I explain how to create a virtuous circle.

SHY: Why 45 days? Is the assumption that once you do the 45 days, the habit will be ingrained?

LGB: So here’s the way I explain it. Imagine your brain is a jungle of neurons, and imagine you’re in the jungle, and you can take a superhighway that’s already built through the jungle that leads to someplace that you don’t want to go.  You want to take a new path through the jungle that leads you to some beautiful place that you imagine. But to take one step in a jungle where there’s no trail, it’s incredibly hard work. So imagine how hard it is to slash your way through the jungle. With each step, you’re like, “This is crazy. Why am I doing this? It’s so hard. I could just take that road, even though the road goes to the bad place.” So imagine you go through all that work of slashing your trail, and then the next day you go back, and the trail has grown over, and you have to work just as hard. But if you slash the same trail every day for 45 days, you establish it. You could imagine, if you cut plants back every day, you’ll establish a trail. And that is still going to be like a small trail compared to the super-modern paved highway. And in real life, your 45-day new habit is a small trail compared to this habit that you built up from happy chemicals during your early years because that’s a super highway in your brain that’s myelinated, but you can do it. And if you’re wondering why I get the 45 days, I was in this Kundalini yoga class, and they told you to fold your arms and try to fold your arms with the opposite arm on top. It’s so hard that you feel like you’re not even connected to your own arms. And they said it would take 45 days, if you do that every day, to rewire yourself so that the top arm feels natural. And I love that because that shows the rewiring challenge even when there’s no emotional baggage connected to it. In other words, I wasn’t wrong for having done it the old way. That was just an accident of how I got wired. And now I can find my power and I can build new neural pathways. But in adulthood, it’s a lot harder than we think, even though it happens effortlessly in youth.

SHY: And so then once the 45 days are up and you have this path through the jungle in your book you talk about how it’s important to start with one habit and not try multiple ones at once. So after the first 45 days, can I just go ahead on day 46 and try a new one, or should I wait a while?

LGB: Oh I would absolutely go and do a new one. And what I suggest is do a new one in a different category. I suggest you do your first project in an area that you feel like you’re already good at, just so you build confidence, and your second one in an area where you feel like you don’t have a big foundation, because your brain will really benefit from getting a little bit more of a chemical that you’re not getting much of.

SHY: You say that happiness can be boosted with these simple habits. It seems to me like your book is geared towards people who aren’t thrilled with their lives but aren’t severely depressed. So I was wondering who this book is meant for. What counts as happy? What counts as not?

LGB: I don’t make broad statements. I really leave it totally to the reader to decide that yourself because that’s what provides the motivation to keep trudging to the 45 days. I could say what’s unhappy is to feel powerless. To feel like I can’t do anything about where I am. It’s not my fault. I’m a victim of circumstance so there’s nothing I can do. Because so much of our negative feelings are just a re-triggering of old circuits. And even our happy feelings are a re-triggering of old circuits. So you can build new circuits. Then, you can constantly make more informed decisions about which circuits are worth building. And again, I don’t make any general statements about which circuits are worth building. I really leave that to the reader.

SHY: Going back to this idea of not getting what you want and grieving – is it better to not grieve then?

LGB: I really think we are not designed to be happy all the time. So I’m certainly not saying you should focus yourself on this mountain of ecstasy and judge yourself against that. Our happy chemicals are only designed to be released in short spurts. And then they turn off as soon as they turn on. So much of our frustration is caused because when it turns off, you think, “What did I do wrong? What’s wrong with my life?” When you know that, “No, that’s how it works. It just turns off. After your dream comes true, you get a little happiness, and then it doesn’t happen anymore.” Then you realize there’s nothing going on with you. So grief: when you’re getting a lot of your happy chemicals from one particular thing, and that thing is no longer available to you, then it’s a fact that your happiness is gone. You have to build new circuits. And new circuits are harder to build. So I’ll give you a very simple example. If I love hot fudge sundaes, which I do, you can imagine it’s very easy to build a hot fudge sundae circuit. Because in a state of nature, it has survival power. Now if I want to build myself a circuit to get pleasure out of something other than hot fudge sundaes, it’s not going to be as easy because it doesn’t have the “oomph” of the natural survival value. And so the equivalent with grief would be if I fall in love with someone. Anything related to reproduction has more survival value than anything else you could do. Because in a state of nature, if you reproduce and then you die, your genes are passed on. So our brain is naturally selected for whatever repeated your genes. So once I lose that person that I built that connection with, in a romantic sense, it’s very hard to build alternative circuits. But once you understand what your brain is doing, then it’s much easier to not judge yourself, to not judge other people, and to say, “This is hard, but if I keep stepping towards it, I can do it and there’s nothing wrong with me.”

SHY: What is your real-life superpower?

LGB: When I was young, I grew up around a lot of conflict. I was very nervous, and the conflict of normal child life and teen life overwhelmed me. I couldn’t deal with it. Maybe I hadn’t learned the skills. So I did my own thing a lot. And when other people were planning their graduation parties, I was planning my trip to Europe. As soon as I graduated, I went to Europe. I earned all the money myself and went against my parents’ will, so it wasn’t like I was some spoiled kid who was sent to Europe. The bottom line is that it felt so good that the next time I had a problem, I started planning a trip. So that’s been my coping mechanism. So I’m always planning a trip. And my superpower: I can find my way around anywhere. Like, one day, we were in Hungary, in Budapest. And if you’ve ever been there, the Hungarian language has nothing similar to English. Other countries at least you understand toilet or something. The first few hours, we were sort of adrift. Then 24 hours later, we felt like regulars. We had it all figured out. So I would say that’s my thing. I go somewhere and in 24 hours I have it figured out.

SHY: So you’re adaptable?

LGB: I call it urban orienteering, like sense of direction.

SHY: Who is your real-life superhero?

LGB: David Attenborough. He’s so cool. He has done a lot of the nature videos and his voice may be very familiar to people. But what I couldn’t believe was that he’s not just a talking head! He invented the whole concept of nature videos – back in the 50’s, when you had to go to Africa to get an animal, it took 5 different plane flights and you had to bring all your water with you. Since then, he’s done everything including inventing all the cameras that take these close-up and nighttime photos of animals and underground photos of animals. All our knowledge of animal behavior is thanks to him. And the coolest thing is, he’s 89 years old, and he still has a new BBC special every year. He’s such a hero.

I forgot to tell you the big thing about him, though. He talks about the conflict between animals, and it’s become politically incorrect now. Everybody is saying that animals cooperate. The thousands of years of human knowledge that animals fight with each other and steal food from each other is now taboo. Nobody talks about it. But he talks about it.

SHY: What is something that you do every day that you wish everybody else did?

LGB: I don’t watch the news. The news puts everything in the worst possible light in order to create a sense of crisis. So it’s designed to get you to focus on the bad guys that the journalists think are the bad guys, and to not see the good. It may create a sense of bonding and solidarity among people who watch the same news that you watch. But it gives you a sense of crisis because it trains your brain to think, “Oh no, this! Oh no, that!” And you just don’t see the good because you haven’t trained your brain to take in the good.

SHY: So then how do you stay informed?

LGB: I read books. And if the books don’t tell me what yesterday’s crisis was, then fine. And if people think I’m dumb because I don’t know what the latest crisis is, well, okay. So some people will think I’m dumb.

SHY: Do you think that’s true of all media: newspapers, TV, the Internet?

LGB: Yes. Of course a person can be somewhat selective, and maybe you have in mind that a person could find non-crisis-themed information on the Internet. But it would be such a needle in a haystack that you’d have to be having a strong positive navigator to find it.

SHY: How would you like to be remembered?

LGB: The explainer of mammal brains.

SHY: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you think is important for people to know?

LGB: If a person is feeling sort of a sense of crisis right now, what’s the first thing they can do? That thing about turning around the Titanic – that first turn is the hardest thing because it’s not even visible. So that first step is effectively to do nothing, because in the moment you’re feeling bad, your cortisol is telling you do something because your survival is threatened. And in that moment, the do something that you’re going to do is the thing you’ve done before. So in that moment, to do nothing, rather than to rush into the thing you’ve done before, is quite hard. But it frees you. And again, we said the higher brain has very limited power. But the one power it does have is to veto Plan A, which gives your two brains working together time to generate a Plan B. So if you could accept your cortisol and say, “Okay, I’m feeling really crappy right now. I’m going to just accept that I’m feeling crappy right now and not rush to a solution.” And if you actually wait 20 minutes, your body will metabolize the cortisol, and then you’ll be more capable of seeing it in better perspective rather than just seeing the negative. But it’s very hard to go for 20 minutes without triggering more cortisol and getting into a loop. So if you could prepare yourself with an activity that will not frustrate you to do for 20 minutes, when you’re frustrated, then that gives you more power.

SHY: Do you have any activities that you recommend?

LGB: Sometimes I find that reading a book is great. But then sometimes the book gets you frustrated. Watching a comedy show while exercising is my favorite. If I have a boring task at work, I save it. I’ll say, “Someday when I’m frustrated I’ll do this.” Because it’s sort of mindless but it’s not frustrating. And sometimes I’ll get a wonderful letter from a reader and I put it aside, and I’ll read it when I’m frustrated.

Liked this? Check out our review of Habits of A Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin & Endorphin Levels

Written by Sasha Graffagna

Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning has spent her life helping people understand and optimize their mammal brains AKA our “inner animals.” She’s done so as the founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and most recently as the author of Habits of A Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin & Endorphin LevelsAs much as we loved the book, there’s a lot it doesn’t go into – which is why we decided to interview Dr. Breuning about our lingering questions.

SHY: What inspired you to write Habits of A Happy Brain?

Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning: Well, I grew up around a lot of conflict and I, like most people, struggled to understand why there was so much unhappiness around me. I read lots of self-help books. I had this idea that I would do things different with my kids. Then I noticed that my kids were struggling and other people’s kids were struggling too. So I was very motivated to understand the brain. And in all my reading, I kept coming across little bits of information about the animal brain and I said, “Wow, this explains everything!” Animals are not in this ideal blissful state all the time. The core mammal brain that we have in common with them produces frustration, and that frustration has a higher purpose. It constantly prods the animals to take the next step to survive and that’s why we’re here.

SHY: So you wrote the book to understand this mammal brain?

LGB: I wrote the book to explain it to others, because I felt like I understood it, and I would talk to people and no one seemed to get what I was saying, so I felt like I needed to explain it in a very in-depth way.

SHY: We have this mammalian brain, but also a higher brain; how much of us is mammal? How much isn’t? Is there not a higher conscious?

LGB: We have this cortex and prefrontal cortex that we hear a lot about. I think about it as a reserve tank of extra neurons. So compared to animals, we have a lot more ability to store information. But we still have the same needs and drives to do what it takes to survive. It’s just that we make more complex decisions with more information about – will this really promote my survival in the long run or not? A lot of writers have given the impression that there’s a war in your brain between the good part and the bad part, and I think that’s very misinformed. Because the information part of your brain got wired when you were young to look for information that makes you happy. That’s how the brain works. That’s how you learn to survive. This is the way to get food, and this is the way to danger. So throughout life, we build on the circuits we built in youth, and they were all driven by the mammalian part: the happy brain chemicals. So what is the higher brain? It’s really nothing but a veto power. Your prefrontal cortex can say, “Don’t do that. That’s not going to work out well.” And then your higher brain doesn’t have a next step. It goes back to your mammal brain to look for Plan B. So your mammal brain is always telling you, this is good for you, and this is bad for you. And that’s really emotional. This is good because it’s linked to your happy chemicals. This is bad because it’s linked to your unhappy chemicals.

SHY: Your argument, then, is that humans are essentially animals, and in order for us to lead happy lives we need to understand that animal part of us.

LGB: I’m not saying this in a controversial way, like we should act like animals. But we have an animal brain with extra stuff added on.

SHY: My understanding is that the major unhappy chemical we experience is cortisol. Is there anything else?

LGB: That’s what I focus on. People talk a lot about adrenaline, and some people like adrenaline. They go out of their way to get thrills. So it’s a complex thing. But basically, cortisol is the alarm signal that signals pain. So in the simplest animal like a reptile, cortisol is just pain. So the bigger the brain, the more you can see everything related to every possible source of pain. Even pain next year, pain 100 years from now. And then social pain is what mammals evolve. So in the mammal world, if you’re excluded from the herd, then you’ll be eaten by a lion. So in the human world, if your boss raises his eyebrow by one millimeter, your mammal brain may interpret that as a survival threat and it triggers your cortisol.

SHY: In your book, you talk specifically about the 4 happy chemicals of serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins, and you give us various ways to boost each of those chemicals. Out of those chemicals, is there one that gives us more happiness than other? Is there something in particular we should focus on?

LGB: I don’t think so. I think that a balance among them is valuable except endorphin. Endorphin is the brain’s way to mask pain, and it creates euphoria. So endorphin creates a euphoria that masks pain, but it’s only triggered by real physical pain. So it’s not a good idea to trigger pain to get it because that’s obviously unsustainable. Laughing triggers a little bit of euphoria, and I think exercise. They’re all valuable because, for example, the social chemical, people often call it oxytocin, that creates a feeling of social trust among people – if you leave that out and just go after dopamine, that would be the example of a person who gets a lot done but doesn’t have a deep sense of security. But alternatively, the person who just likes to have a social reinforcement around them all the time but doesn’t get anything done doesn’t feel good either. So we really need both. In the modern world, we mostly have our food needs met and we have some basic sense of social protection, so serotonin turns on when you feel special. And this is what people sort of obsess over. Everyone wants to feel special. No one wants to admit it. Everyone sees when other people are special, and they don’t like that a bit. But the slightest threat to your ability to be special feels like a survival threat. Because in a state of nature, if you’re less special during mating season, your genes die. So that’s why it feels like a death threat, even though consciously you’re not trying to reproduce and you would never admit that you wanted to be special.

SHY: Are there happy chemicals that in general people are better or worse about increasing in themselves?

LGB:  So let’s say when I was young, one person had a lot of success with social bonds. So that built neural superhighways that say this is what to do to get social bonds. Another person had a lot of success, let’s say, being competitive, being special. Another person had a lot of success accomplishing goals. So whatever makes you happy when you were young, because you’ve got the chemicals, it built a pathway in your brain that is how you get more. Your brain tells you this is what you’ve got to do to be happy. You don’t really know the other ways as much just because you didn’t wire them in.

SHY: Some people are good at raising dopamine; others are good at oxytocin. Is there a gendered difference? For example, women tend to be more social and men tend to be more goal-driven. 

LGB: I don’t really see it that way. I think they just learn different ways to go about it. So for example, if a woman wants to be special or in the one-up position, she could be. Frankly, I personally am more focused on goals and not on social rewards. So it could be my personal experience. But when women focus on social rewards, it’s not just an end in itself. They also have in mind that they want the dopamine and the serotonin out of the social interaction. For example, a party could be a goal. So that would be an example of: I want to throw a big party. So it seems like it’s a social goal, but it’s also stepping towards a goal. And if I want my party to be more special than your party, for example, that would be a serotonin example in the social context.

SHY: At the end of the book, you talk about how we sometimes ruin our own happiness by focusing too much on what went wrong and forgetting about what’s right, and I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.

LGB: I just got back from a trip to India. On one hand, it’s very overwhelming because the streets are full of motorcycles and it’s loud and full of diesel and you almost get run over every two feet and the pollution is so bad that if you just look towards the end of the block where you’re going to cross the street, it’s buried in a white haze. And the sky is the same color as the Taj Mahal so you can hardly see it. It’s really spooky. But then I had to keep reminding myself how much better India is than it was in the past. There were no hungry people around me. There were no sick people around me. There were no security threats around me. And it’s so hard for our brain to notice improvements because we’re always focused on the next threat.

SHY: What’s a daily life example of that?

LGB: Let’s say I have this dream of getting a certain promotion, and I work a long time towards it. And then the promotion goes to someone else. So that feels very devastating. Now, my brain searches, because I’m feeling bad, for all the bad information. You can see why it feels bad. The dopamine is lost, because I don’t have a goal. I’m not stepping towards a goal. Plus the specialness is lost. So now my brain looks for bad information. I watch the news and I say, “Wow, everybody feels the same way as me. We’re all not making any progress towards our goals. We’re all denied specialness. We’re all having a horrible life and just about to be wiped off the face of the earth and never to be heard from again.” So it’s easy to think that way because our survival is threatened as long as we’re alive. We are going to die. We will have survival threats as long as we’re alive. So we have to work hard to find something good to feel about our survival because it’s so easy to see the negative. So the good would be, for example, although I didn’t get that promotion, I have this job that five years ago I would have thought too good to be true. Maybe I have a great relationship. Maybe I have a great friendship or a great living space that five years ago, I would have been thrilled to have. But once you have something, your brain takes it for granted. And there are the most amazing monkey studies on this. When you first get something, and when you want it and you step toward it, it triggers a lot of dopamine. But once you get it, you don’t get the dopamine anymore because dopamine is there to record new information about how to meet your needs. Once you’ve recorded the information, the dopamine stops. So that’s why life is frustrating. But that’s also why we’re here today, because our ancestors kept trying to survive.

SHY: You’re saying that it’s important for us to look on the bright side, essentially, right? What about this idea that if you are upset, being with people who are also upset makes you feel less alone and helps you deal with it more? Would you not agree with that?

LGB: I do; this is the fascinating thing about how I said we want all of the chemicals. So if I hang around with other people who feel out of sorts, and then I feel social bonds – when those people get together, they hate everybody who is taking and succeeding at certain steps. So now, I don’t get the dopamine pleasure of succeeding at those steps, and now my oxytocin is at risk because if I take those steps to feel better, I’m going to lose my social bonds. And this is an unfortunate myth that people get into. My book talks a lot about a vicious cycle and a virtuous cycle. So it’s very easy to get into a vicious cycle where you know one way to feel good, and when you over-repeat that one way, you end up feeling bad. And when you feel bad, you only know one way to feel better, so it gets worse. And so I explain how to create a virtuous circle.

SHY: Why 45 days? Is the assumption that once you do the 45 days, the habit will be ingrained?

LGB: So here’s the way I explain it. Imagine your brain is a jungle of neurons, and imagine you’re in the jungle, and you can take a superhighway that’s already built through the jungle that leads to someplace that you don’t want to go.  You want to take a new path through the jungle that leads you to some beautiful place that you imagine. But to take one step in a jungle where there’s no trail, it’s incredibly hard work. So imagine how hard it is to slash your way through the jungle. With each step, you’re like, “This is crazy. Why am I doing this? It’s so hard. I could just take that road, even though the road goes to the bad place.” So imagine you go through all that work of slashing your trail, and then the next day you go back, and the trail has grown over, and you have to work just as hard. But if you slash the same trail every day for 45 days, you establish it. You could imagine, if you cut plants back every day, you’ll establish a trail. And that is still going to be like a small trail compared to the super-modern paved highway. And in real life, your 45-day new habit is a small trail compared to this habit that you built up from happy chemicals during your early years because that’s a super highway in your brain that’s myelinated, but you can do it. And if you’re wondering why I get the 45 days, I was in this Kundalini yoga class, and they told you to fold your arms and try to fold your arms with the opposite arm on top. It’s so hard that you feel like you’re not even connected to your own arms. And they said it would take 45 days, if you do that every day, to rewire yourself so that the top arm feels natural. And I love that because that shows the rewiring challenge even when there’s no emotional baggage connected to it. In other words, I wasn’t wrong for having done it the old way. That was just an accident of how I got wired. And now I can find my power and I can build new neural pathways. But in adulthood, it’s a lot harder than we think, even though it happens effortlessly in youth.

SHY: And so then once the 45 days are up and you have this path through the jungle in your book you talk about how it’s important to start with one habit and not try multiple ones at once. So after the first 45 days, can I just go ahead on day 46 and try a new one, or should I wait a while?

LGB: Oh I would absolutely go and do a new one. And what I suggest is do a new one in a different category. I suggest you do your first project in an area that you feel like you’re already good at, just so you build confidence, and your second one in an area where you feel like you don’t have a big foundation, because your brain will really benefit from getting a little bit more of a chemical that you’re not getting much of.

SHY: You say that happiness can be boosted with these simple habits. It seems to me like your book is geared towards people who aren’t thrilled with their lives but aren’t severely depressed. So I was wondering who this book is meant for. What counts as happy? What counts as not?

LGB: I don’t make broad statements. I really leave it totally to the reader to decide that yourself because that’s what provides the motivation to keep trudging to the 45 days. I could say what’s unhappy is to feel powerless. To feel like I can’t do anything about where I am. It’s not my fault. I’m a victim of circumstance so there’s nothing I can do. Because so much of our negative feelings are just a re-triggering of old circuits. And even our happy feelings are a re-triggering of old circuits. So you can build new circuits. Then, you can constantly make more informed decisions about which circuits are worth building. And again, I don’t make any general statements about which circuits are worth building. I really leave that to the reader.

SHY: Going back to this idea of not getting what you want and grieving – is it better to not grieve then?

LGB: I really think we are not designed to be happy all the time. So I’m certainly not saying you should focus yourself on this mountain of ecstasy and judge yourself against that. Our happy chemicals are only designed to be released in short spurts. And then they turn off as soon as they turn on. So much of our frustration is caused because when it turns off, you think, “What did I do wrong? What’s wrong with my life?” When you know that, “No, that’s how it works. It just turns off. After your dream comes true, you get a little happiness, and then it doesn’t happen anymore.” Then you realize there’s nothing going on with you. So grief: when you’re getting a lot of your happy chemicals from one particular thing, and that thing is no longer available to you, then it’s a fact that your happiness is gone. You have to build new circuits. And new circuits are harder to build. So I’ll give you a very simple example. If I love hot fudge sundaes, which I do, you can imagine it’s very easy to build a hot fudge sundae circuit. Because in a state of nature, it has survival power. Now if I want to build myself a circuit to get pleasure out of something other than hot fudge sundaes, it’s not going to be as easy because it doesn’t have the “oomph” of the natural survival value. And so the equivalent with grief would be if I fall in love with someone. Anything related to reproduction has more survival value than anything else you could do. Because in a state of nature, if you reproduce and then you die, your genes are passed on. So our brain is naturally selected for whatever repeated your genes. So once I lose that person that I built that connection with, in a romantic sense, it’s very hard to build alternative circuits. But once you understand what your brain is doing, then it’s much easier to not judge yourself, to not judge other people, and to say, “This is hard, but if I keep stepping towards it, I can do it and there’s nothing wrong with me.”

SHY: What is your real-life superpower?

LGB: When I was young, I grew up around a lot of conflict. I was very nervous, and the conflict of normal child life and teen life overwhelmed me. I couldn’t deal with it. Maybe I hadn’t learned the skills. So I did my own thing a lot. And when other people were planning their graduation parties, I was planning my trip to Europe. As soon as I graduated, I went to Europe. I earned all the money myself and went against my parents’ will, so it wasn’t like I was some spoiled kid who was sent to Europe. The bottom line is that it felt so good that the next time I had a problem, I started planning a trip. So that’s been my coping mechanism. So I’m always planning a trip. And my superpower: I can find my way around anywhere. Like, one day, we were in Hungary, in Budapest. And if you’ve ever been there, the Hungarian language has nothing similar to English. Other countries at least you understand toilet or something. The first few hours, we were sort of adrift. Then 24 hours later, we felt like regulars. We had it all figured out. So I would say that’s my thing. I go somewhere and in 24 hours I have it figured out.

SHY: So you’re adaptable?

LGB: I call it urban orienteering, like sense of direction.

SHY: Who is your real-life superhero?

LGB: David Attenborough. He’s so cool. He has done a lot of the nature videos and his voice may be very familiar to people. But what I couldn’t believe was that he’s not just a talking head! He invented the whole concept of nature videos – back in the 50’s, when you had to go to Africa to get an animal, it took 5 different plane flights and you had to bring all your water with you. Since then, he’s done everything including inventing all the cameras that take these close-up and nighttime photos of animals and underground photos of animals. All our knowledge of animal behavior is thanks to him. And the coolest thing is, he’s 89 years old, and he still has a new BBC special every year. He’s such a hero.

I forgot to tell you the big thing about him, though. He talks about the conflict between animals, and it’s become politically incorrect now. Everybody is saying that animals cooperate. The thousands of years of human knowledge that animals fight with each other and steal food from each other is now taboo. Nobody talks about it. But he talks about it.

SHY: What is something that you do every day that you wish everybody else did?

LGB: I don’t watch the news. The news puts everything in the worst possible light in order to create a sense of crisis. So it’s designed to get you to focus on the bad guys that the journalists think are the bad guys, and to not see the good. It may create a sense of bonding and solidarity among people who watch the same news that you watch. But it gives you a sense of crisis because it trains your brain to think, “Oh no, this! Oh no, that!” And you just don’t see the good because you haven’t trained your brain to take in the good.

SHY: So then how do you stay informed?

LGB: I read books. And if the books don’t tell me what yesterday’s crisis was, then fine. And if people think I’m dumb because I don’t know what the latest crisis is, well, okay. So some people will think I’m dumb.

SHY: Do you think that’s true of all media: newspapers, TV, the Internet?

LGB: Yes. Of course a person can be somewhat selective, and maybe you have in mind that a person could find non-crisis-themed information on the Internet. But it would be such a needle in a haystack that you’d have to be having a strong positive navigator to find it.

SHY: How would you like to be remembered?

LGB: The explainer of mammal brains.

SHY: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you think is important for people to know?

LGB: If a person is feeling sort of a sense of crisis right now, what’s the first thing they can do? That thing about turning around the Titanic – that first turn is the hardest thing because it’s not even visible. So that first step is effectively to do nothing, because in the moment you’re feeling bad, your cortisol is telling you do something because your survival is threatened. And in that moment, the do something that you’re going to do is the thing you’ve done before. So in that moment, to do nothing, rather than to rush into the thing you’ve done before, is quite hard. But it frees you. And again, we said the higher brain has very limited power. But the one power it does have is to veto Plan A, which gives your two brains working together time to generate a Plan B. So if you could accept your cortisol and say, “Okay, I’m feeling really crappy right now. I’m going to just accept that I’m feeling crappy right now and not rush to a solution.” And if you actually wait 20 minutes, your body will metabolize the cortisol, and then you’ll be more capable of seeing it in better perspective rather than just seeing the negative. But it’s very hard to go for 20 minutes without triggering more cortisol and getting into a loop. So if you could prepare yourself with an activity that will not frustrate you to do for 20 minutes, when you’re frustrated, then that gives you more power.

SHY: Do you have any activities that you recommend?

LGB: Sometimes I find that reading a book is great. But then sometimes the book gets you frustrated. Watching a comedy show while exercising is my favorite. If I have a boring task at work, I save it. I’ll say, “Someday when I’m frustrated I’ll do this.” Because it’s sort of mindless but it’s not frustrating. And sometimes I’ll get a wonderful letter from a reader and I put it aside, and I’ll read it when I’m frustrated.

Liked this? Check out our review of Habits of A Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin & Endorphin Levels

Written by Sasha Graffagna

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