Pleasure Chemicals in the Brain: Which Ones Matter?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Art of Impossible" by Steven Kotler. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the brain’s pleasure chemicals? How do they affect your overall mood and health? Which pleasure chemicals are the most important for your happiness?

Bestselling author Steven Kotler has done extensive neurobiological research to help individuals understand pathways to success, motivation, and happiness. According to Kotler, your brain’s pleasure chemicals each play a part in making you feel your best.

Keep reading to learn more about your brain’s six pleasure chemicals and why you need them, according to Kotler.

The Six Pleasure Chemicals in the Brain

While there are many neurochemicals in the brain, each serving a different function, Kotler’s research focuses on the pleasure chemicals that come into play when peak performers rise to the height of their capabilities. He argues that peak performers feel motivated to challenge themselves and reach new heights because they find the process pleasurable. The process is enjoyable because it releases six different pleasure chemicals in the brain—thereby rewarding and reinforcing peak performers each time they engage in their high-performance habits:

  • Dopamine: Focuses your attention, making you feel excited and engaged
  • Norepinephrine: Boosts your energy and makes you feel more alert
  • Oxytocin: Promotes feelings of love, trust, and empathy for others
  • Serotonin: Elicits feelings of calm, contentment, and satisfaction
  • Endorphins and anandamide: Induce relaxation by relieving feelings of pain and stress

It’s clear to see how each of the brain’s pleasure chemicals makes high-performance habits feel enjoyable. However, Kotler argues, generating one pleasure chemical at a time doesn’t provide enough motivation to sustain a peak performer’s momentum over the long term

How the Brain’s Pleasure Chemicals Impact Health

While it’s true that these six pleasure chemicals in the brain can stimulate good feelings that reinforce your habits, Kotler doesn’t mention the numerous other ways that they impact your overall health. Therefore, we’ll provide an overview of how your brain’s pleasure chemicals contribute to your physical, emotional, and cognitive health.

Dopamine: Well-known for the role it plays in fueling addiction, dopamine also helps regulate cognitive functions, emotional responses, and physical reactions. Deficient dopamine levels produce numerous symptoms, including cognitive impairment, muscle cramps, diminished balance, mood swings, and fatigue. On the other hand, excessive dopamine levels contribute to stress, mania, aggression, hallucinations, and insomnia. Dopamine dysregulation is associated with mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Therefore, healthcare professionals suggest seeking medical advice before attempting to manipulate the levels of dopamine in your system.

Norepinephrine: This pleasure chemical plays a central role in maintaining your physical, emotional, and cognitive health: It helps regulate your biorhythms, maintains your organs, and helps protect you from danger by initiating your fight-or-flight stress response. Deficient norepinephrine levels contribute to the depressive phase of bipolar disorders, attention deficit disorders, chronic fatigue, and low blood pressure. On the other hand, elevated norepinephrine levels contribute to the manic phase of bipolar disorders, chronic stress, and anxiety disorders. The most effective way to keep your norepinephrine levels in balance is to manage your mental and physical health and reduce your stress levels.

Oxytocin: Commonly known as the “love hormone,” oxytocin plays a key role in various emotional, social, and cognitive processes, such as increasing sexual arousal and satisfaction, promoting positive communication, and improving social memory. However, research hasn’t yet confirmed all of the different ways that dysregulated oxytocin levels can harm or benefit you. Ongoing research suggests that dysregulation of oxytocin in the brain can contribute to envy, aggression, and fear, as well as neuropsychiatric conditions such as autism, schizophrenia, and eating disorders. 

Serotonin: While it primarily stabilizes your mood and promotes happy feelings, serotonin also aids in healing and restful sleep. Deficient serotonin levels contribute to numerous psychological, cognitive, and physiological issues, such as depression, aggression, obsessive-compulsive disorders, poor memory, weight gain, fatigue, and an overactive libido. On the other hand, excessive serotonin levels are detrimental to your health, contributing to digestive problems, involuntary muscle reactions, osteoporosis, and an underactive libido. You can increase your serotonin levels by exercising, meditating, and undergoing light therapy. However, excessive serotonin levels require immediate medical treatment.

Endorphins: Since the main job of endorphins is to relieve physical pain and feelings of anxiety, deficient endorphin levels heighten your sensitivity to pain. Factors that contribute to endorphin deficiency include anxiety, depression, lack of sleep, and substance abuse. You can increase your endorphin levels by laughing, exercising, engaging in creative activities, and undertaking acupuncture treatment. 

Anandamide: Otherwise known as the “bliss molecule” for the role it plays in stimulating happy feelings, anandamide also helps to regulate memory, appetite, pain relief, and sleeping patterns. Anandamide works by binding THC receptors in the brain (THC is the main psychoactive compound in marijuana). Deficient anandamide levels impede your ability to cope with stress, thus contributing to increased levels of fear, anxiety, and depression. You can increase your anandamide levels by eating pure chocolate or black truffles, or by taking (legal) CBD supplements.

Adopt a Positive Attitude to Sustain Your Momentum

Kotler argues that staying positive promotes a continual release of pleasure chemicals in the brain that alleviate stress and help you develop the resilience you need to overcome obstacles and sustain your momentum.

Here’s three tips to help you generate your brain’s pleasure chemicals, according to Kotler’s positive attitude method.

Tip 1: Exercise Regularly and Sleep Well

Spend three hours exercising each week and try to get at least seven hours of sleep a night. Kotler argues that staying active and sleeping well alleviates symptoms of stress and anxiety and increases your ability to maintain a positive state of mind.

How Staying Active and Sleeping Well Promotes a Positive State of Mind

Scientific evidence confirms that good physical health promotes good mental health, thus backing up Kotler’s method. Neurobiology research shows that in addition to improving your physical health, regular exercise releases the neurochemicals GABA, serotonin, BDNF, and endocannabinoids. These chemicals help maintain a positive state of mind by stimulating cognition, regulating emotions, and enhancing self-esteem. 

Regular sleep promotes healthy brain chemistry by flushing out toxins that impair the flow of information between neurons. While you’re awake, your brain and body burn sources of energy such as oxygen and glucose. This process creates metabolic waste that accumulates in your system and leads to feelings of fatigue, stress, and irritability—impeding your ability to maintain a positive state of mind. Sleep allows your body to flush this waste out of your system and restore your energy sources—thus improving your state of mind.

You’re more likely to maintain a healthy exercise and bedtime routine and improve your brain chemistry if you set realistic goals that complement your daily schedule and energy levels. For example, if you naturally rise at 6 am, start your bedtime routine at 10 pm. If you have more energy at midday, schedule this time to go for a brisk walk or a run.

Tip 2: Get in the Zone

Spend two to six hours each week pursuing recreational activities that fully engage you so that you can benefit from the enjoyable advantages that all six pleasure chemicals offer. According to Kotler, the more you practice being fully engaged when you’re not working toward your goal, the easier you’ll find it to be fully engaged when you are working toward it. For example, you feel fully engaged when you hike through the woods, complete jigsaw puzzles, and bake cakes. You spend two hours each week pursuing each of these three activities—totaling six hours of full engagement.

Tip 3: Connect With Friends and Family

Spend at least two hours each week developing positive relationships that you can rely on for emotional support. According to Kotler, the quality of your relationships directly impacts your mental and physical health and overall life satisfaction. Therefore, the better your relationships, the healthier and happier you feel.

(Shortform note: Shawn Achor (The Happiness Advantage) adds further insight into how the quality of your relationships impacts your health and happiness. Positive relationships provide critical physical and mental health benefits that boost your overall life satisfaction: They improve your general health and increase your life expectancy by boosting your immune, cardiovascular, and neuroendocrine systems. They also make it easier for you to overcome stress, maintain a positive state of mind, and achieve success by increasing your levels of energy, engagement, productivity, and resilience.)

Pleasure Chemicals in the Brain: Which Ones Matter?

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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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