Neurochemistry of Happiness

Mahmud Asrul
6 min readDec 25, 2023

The moment I was mind-blown about our bodies was when I read “Behave” by Robert Sapolsky. I’d like to recommend everyone who wants to understand human behavior to give this book a read. In a nutshell, the book questions our behavior — Are we truly in control of our desires as humans, or do our hormones drive everything we want at the micro level? Just imagine the paradoxical thinking that arises when you face this question.

A great book to read.

Are we the puppets of our body’s biological needs?

One of the easy examples is like this, ever felt that uncontrollable urge for sugary snacks like candies and chocolates?

Picture this: your body might be sending signals through the “hunger hormone” called ghrelin, making you crave those sweet treats. And, when you indulge, insulin jumps in to regulate your blood sugar, possibly triggering more cravings.

Now, think about this puzzle: are we just going along with what our body tells us like puppets, or do we have the power to say no and make our own choices? It’s like trying to figure out if our body is making the decisions for us, or if it’s us wanting and deciding on our food. The ongoing battle between what we naturally want and what we decide consciously is a real brain teaser, making us wonder who’s really in control of our cravings.

Understanding why our hormones and human behavior matter in simple terms is like figuring out which came first, the chicken or the egg. To truly get ourselves, it’s important to see if our bodies make us want things and decide for us, or if we, as thinking individuals, are separate from what our bodies want. This exploration helps us see the connection between our bodies and our choices clearly and easily.

The probability of people, when asked what they seek in life, will most likely lead to the root of seeking tranquility and happiness. Let’s explore how our bodies treat these desires and how our bodies act to these desires.

Dopamine vs Serotonin.

This is a game that can leave many people puzzled. When we mention the “happy hormones,” most individuals cite three hormones: oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. Even if they’re not hormones, they’re neurotransmitters, but for this context let’s call them happy hormones.

However, the challenge lies in the fact that for those of us not well-versed in biology, distinguishing between these three hormones can be complex.

We do grasp that oxytocin is associated with love, providing a clear layer that doesn’t lead to much confusion. When we fall in love, oxytocin comes into play.

But what about dopamine and serotonin?

As representatives of the well-known happy hormones, what sets dopamine apart from serotonin? If both are considered happy hormones, does that not imply they’re good for our bodies, then let us pursue both.

DOPAMINE — A neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. When it is transmitted to another neuron, it signals the release of more neurotransmitters, like saying, ‘BRING ME MY OTHER FRIENDS.’

SEROTONIN — Another neurotransmitter linked to mood regulation. When transmitted to another neuron, it helps maintain a balanced mood, acting like it’s saying, ‘NO, I’M ENOUGH BY MYSELF.’

The show begins.

When dopamine is triggered, it asks for more, encouraging the transmission of more ‘friends.’ What happens if we continuously say yes and encourage more dopamine transmission?

There will be an excess of dopamine, prompting our body’s automated system to close some receptors.

But what happens then? Yes, there will be many dopamine molecules floating away without being received.

This is what we experience when we feel numb, endlessly scrolling through TikTok and Instagram for six hours straight, feeling incapable of moving from our beds. Many of us have likely encountered this feeling — the numbness of endless scrolling.

Now, what’s the problem with having too much dopamine? Well, you need to know that with every transmission, there’s a regulatory process that helps balance neurotransmitters, not a literal ‘tax.’ When this regulatory process is overly activated and depletes energy, it may impact other neurons and possibly kill some of the neurons, potentially affecting the PFC (Pre-frontal Cortex). I have created some of my writings deeply about PFC you can check it out here.

To simplify, the PFC acts as a regulator, helping us make thoughtful decisions and preventing us from reacting impulsively, not as a literal separator. If all the neurons in your PFC were to be affected, it could impact decision-making and self-control. You have bad self-control after that peace, I think this might be a reason for us being a great procrastinator lol.

On the other hand, when serotonin is activated and received, it signals ‘It’s enough.’ Now, we can see which neurotransmitter is better positioned to guide our desires, right?”

Every day bombards us with things that set off our dopamine — be it scrolling through social media or devouring a chocolate bar. It’s a back-and-forth with a hormone that, when not kept in check, can leave us in a weird state of endless scrolling with no real satisfaction.

But here’s where it gets interesting — serotonin enters the scene. It’s not shouting for attention; it just whispers, “That’s enough.” Following serotonin, rather than being a slave to dopamine, is like breaking free from chasing quick fixes.

Our time, the 2000s, is all about drowning in dopamine triggers. We’re surrounded by the temptation of instant pleasures, making it hard to tell if what we desire is genuine or just a whim sparked by dopamine

Here are the 7 Key differences by Dr. Robert Lustig author of “The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains”.

1. Pleasure vs. Happiness: Dopamine orchestrates short-term pleasure, akin to savoring a delightful meal. On the flip side, serotonin masterminds enduring happiness, reminiscent of a lifelong journey filled with contentment.

2. Felt in Your Gut vs. Beyond the Physical
Imagine the excitement of winning a game or achieving a personal goal. That exhilarating feeling you get, the rush of energy coursing through you — that’s the visceral pleasure of dopamine.

On the flip side, consider the lasting warmth you feel when surrounded by loved ones or the profound contentment from accomplishing a long-term dream. This enduring joy, rising above momentary thrills, captures the ethereal essence of happiness orchestrated by serotonin.

3. Taken vs. Given: Pleasure is often seized, much like a triumphant moment at a casino. Conversely, happiness is a gift — one experiences it by contributing to a cause, akin to the joy found in endeavors like Habitat for Humanity.

4. Achieved Alone vs. Achieved in Social Groups: Dopamine-induced pleasure is attainable individually, analogous to relishing a slice of chocolate cake in solitude. On the contrary, serotonin-infused happiness often blossoms within social gatherings — like the shared joy of a birthday celebration.

5. Achievable with Substances: The pursuit of pleasure, orchestrated by dopamine, often involves substances such as cocaine or heroin. However, genuine happiness remains unattainable through artificial means; it thrives in authentic connections and experiences.

6. Extremes of Pleasure vs. Contentment: Excessive pleasure, whether from substances or addictive behaviors, captivates with an “-aholic” lifestyle. Contentment, a facet of happiness, is sustainable, steering clear of extremes.

7. Dopamine vs. Serotonin: At the heart of our discussion is the distinction between dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine rules the realm of pleasure, while happiness bows to the guidance of serotonin. These neurotransmitters navigate discrete brain regions, each with its unique regulatory pathways and mechanisms of action. Understanding these subtleties is vital for navigating the intricate landscape of human behavior and avoiding the pitfalls of misdirected pursuits.

At the end of the day, we’re just regular folks following our desire to be good

Our quest often leads us to dream of a better life, but it’s crucial to understand what’s driving these dreams. You know the drill — happiness is the key, and guess what? Contentment is way cooler than just pleasure.

So, here’s the deal: we’re bombarded with choices and desires in this crazy world. But let’s be smart and take the biologist’s advice — go for serotonin, not become a dopamine puppet. It’s like choosing a calm joy over a wild ride.