Biochemistry of Happiness MEAA Lecture

Hi, I’m Christopher Maloney and I’m here to talk about biochemistry. Specifically the biochemistry of happiness. I know how excited all of you must be, here on a Friday to hear a lecture on biochemistry. Makes your toes twitch with happiness, doesn’t it?

Google doc link of lecture with footnotes

Meet my three friends of happiness

  1. Dopey (Breath and attention)
  2. Smiley (Me and meaning)
  3. Angry (People and quality)
  4. Think of them as the three little dwarves that live in your brain, but not in a Snow White sort of way. More like a South Park sort of dwarf, who will really kick your butt if you don’t pay attention.

SPA to MAA, because frosh kept looking for hot tubs.

Is is MEAA like a cat? Or Ma-A like a singer?

I understand not going with with Big Bang Theory’s Shelton’s MEMA

But what about MAMA?

I know it’s not very cool, but hear me out.

If you had a youth orchestra, it would be YO MAMA.

And if you had a famous cellist come play here, you could advertise:

Yo Yo Ma accompanied by YO MAMA.

That would be really fun.

If you even smiled, I just altered two of the main chemicals I’m going to talk about today, my friends dopey and smiley. We’ll get to them in a second.

Naturopathic Doctor

  1. Doctor of last resort metastatic cancer
  2. Doctor of Chronic Illness that will not get better.
  3. A Jack of all trades in a specialist world.
  4. I have a phobia of needles. I faint, at odd times. If you’re going to stick me with a needle, I will start to hyperventilate, I will think about it for days, I will literally lose my mind. But I can take off your toenails no problem. It’s just me getting stuck that freaks me out.

The average person today has an attention span of less that 8 seconds, and I’ve maybe got seven minutes if I’ve somehow interested you enough. Since many of you are already lost in fantasy, and I’ll lose most of you in about three minutes, I’d like to demonstrate happiness and why we need to constantly pursue it in the next ten seconds.

  1. I need you all, when I say go, to hold your breath for five seconds.
  2. Ready, Go! Five, four, three, how much do you want a breath? Two, do the seconds seem to be getting longer? One, breathe.
  3. That feeling you get when you can breathe is happiness, a washing of happiness chemicals dopey, smiley, and maybe a little angry in your brain. Maybe the next breath feels good too. But in three minutes you won’t even notice your breath. Happiness fades. Change happens. Our brains crave change, they want to pursue happiness.
  4. If you forget everything else I say today, remember that happiness is a moving target because the brain becomes used to whatever is your “normal.” That’s why people who are disabled in an accident and people who win the lottery have about the same level of happiness after a year. They’ve adapted to the new normal.

Your body runs your emotions

  1. Your emotions are based in your limbic system at the base of your brain.
  2. What you think should make you happy won’t make you happy.
  3. Things that are “bad” for you will often make you happy because they represent a win of the body over your stuck up brain.
  4. We can literally wire up your pleasure centers in the base of your brain so that all you need to do to be happy is push a button. When we do this with rats, they will just push the button rather than eat or drink until they die. We’ve all seen stories about people who do this, it’s called doing drugs, and it’s a lot less effective or fun than the electrodes. Human studies of the electrodes have been done for highly unethical reasons, like trying to convert someone who was gay into being straight.
  5. Why don’t we all hook up to electrodes? Because we don’t just want to be happy, we want to feel like that happiness has meaning. We’ll get to that in a bit, but I need to talk about the three main chemicals that are released when you experience happiness.

Meet my three friends of happiness

  1. Dopey
  2. Smiley
  3. Angry
  4. Think of them as the three little dwarves that live in your brain, but not in a Snow White sort of way. More like a South Park sort of dwarf, who will really kick your butt if you don’t pay attention.

Let’s talk about Dopey

  1. Dopey is your dopamine pathway. It triggers your pleasure centers. It’s why you like getting likes, why every successful ap on the phone is set up to trigger minor rewards. It’s also set up to trigger minor delays and occasional random rewards to maximize your dopamine release in your brain.
  2. The same techniques that get you hooked online are the techniques perfected by the gambling industry. They hook you in and keep you playing because you keep getting just enough random dopamine. Dopamine can also be altered by prescription drugs. Abilify, which is used for a variety of reasons in young people, can cause pathological gambling in some people because it alters your brain dopamine.
  3. The reason that dopamine is dopey is that you get to decide what makes you feel rewarded. You literally could convince yourself that getting slapped in the face is rewarding thing. Entire cultures have formed very bizarre social rewards for terrible behavior. So consciously examining what you do for short term reward and gradually altering that behavior is a key to happiness.

Altering dopamine response.

  1. Let’s give a highly hypothetical situation that I’m sure will never apply to anyone in this room. Let’s say you receive social rewards for drinking too much or using drugs.
  2. Stopping drinking or using drugs deprives you of not only that physical response, that physical burst of dopamine. It removes you from your social group, so you aren’t getting your likes, or your texts, or all the online things that you have associated with social reward. You are literally cast out because you don’t engage in that behavior any more.
  3. So to make a permanent change, you need to create a separate reward system. Some people find a social group with meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous. But others need to find another social group that finds fun without using substances.
  4. If you find yourself in that situation, there are always choices. Using far less is completely acceptable as long as you continue to “act” as drunk. You can also claim to already have had enough and as long as you act a little drunk, you’ll be accepted. The social structure is normally based on the appearance of overdrinking rather than overdrinking itself. Dancing anecdote.
  5. Creating alternative activities and moving some members of your group into those activities will buffer your social isolation and continue to provide you with that dopamine response without the “cold turkey” social withdrawal.

Realize that any activity, repeated, will have a gradual decline in dopamine levels.

  1. If you’ve ever played a video game, the first time you do a level, you get a lot of dopamine. The twentieth time, you just want to move on.
  2. Life done the same way all the time is going to be boring. It’s not going to reward you.
  3. Change is necessary simply to maintain your current level of happiness. Welcome it.
  4. Who Moved My Cheese? Talks about how at every level of your life, you need to move on when you’re no longer receiving the dopamine you need to be happy. Do not ignore the feeling that life is blah. Find out what makes it exciting again.

Here are some dopamine producing exercises.

  1. Many people cannot twist their tongues into a u shape
  2. Others cannot talk while breathing in
  3. Others cannot raise just one eyebrow
  4. Very few can lick their elbows
  5. Most people find it difficult to tickle themselves
  6. Many people find it difficult to put their hands together in both directions (with the index fingers reversing positions)

If you can do any of these things, you’re special. Feel that dopamine surge? Social reward yourself every time you do something someone else can’t do. Walking and breathing count.

Proper dopamine levels can be maintained by exercise, sleep, and a variety of foods high in tyrosine.

I’ve wanted to die, and I’ve wanted to live.

  1. When I was 18, my parents divorced. I convinced myself that it was my fault. I tortured myself. Remember my fear of needles? I did that with why I should be alive. Over and over and over again. Until the only thing I wanted to do was die. I made a plan, I started to carry out my plan, climbing up a 150 train trestle in the dead of winter, my hands slipping on the cold bars...spoiler alert, I survived. But it took me years to work through and around all the evil tapes I had created. (I now know the simple solution is to write down the opposite of those tapes and read it to yourself three times a day until it sticks. I literally laughed out loud at myself the first time I said “Every day, in every way, with God’s help, I’m getting better and better.” It took me thirty repetitions before I was willing to even consider it. I spent about three years being deeply philosophical and deeply depressed. Coincidentally, it was the best three years of dating I ever had. People were just drawn to me, and I literally didn’t care.
  2. When I was 45 years old, three years ago, I was diagnosed with colon cancer. I had a 70% chance of being dead within the year. Spoiler alert, I’m still here. But I remember weeping in the car, saying I didn’t want to go yet. I’m not ready to leave. Remember, I’m still the same guy who wanted to go in his early twenties, who spent all my best dating years reading Hume, Nietzsche, and Foucault and ruminating on the nature of existence.
  3. How did I go from someone so unhappy he wanted to end it all to someone so happy with his life that he literally was willing to go through 10 out of 10 screaming pain and surgery to stay alive?

What you think is important may not be important.

  1. Think of the most important thing in your life.
  2. You’re wrong. I’m wrong too. We all get it wrong.
  3. Now, when I say go, let’s all hold our breaths. I’ll be holding my breath as well, holding onto the thing I think is most important to me. Raise your hand when taking another breath is the more important thing. Go.

What you just experienced was a medical term called “patent airway.”

  1. It is why ER doctors aren’t worried about you. You’re breathing, whatever pain you have isn’t a big deal to them.
  2. It’s also an introduction to why your willpower can’t get you through life.
  3. Welcome to the first lesson is figuring out who you are and what makes you happy.

Let’s talk about my friend smiley


  1. Serotonin is a sedating, calming pathway that helps all the parts of your brain. It also affects your gut through fifteen different receptors divided into seven families. Half of them help with depression, half of them can make it worse.
  2. SSRIs are the drugs that keep serotonin in your brain longer. They work on anxiety short term.
  3. SSRIs do not produce serotonin.
  4. As the body gets exposed to more serotonin, it responds less.
  5. SSRIs are not overall very effective long term (a year or more), for many people.
  6. Tryptophan produces serotonin. Adding tryptophan to your diet will increase the effectiveness of an SSRI. Tryptophan is found in all proteins, but particularly in turkey and warm milk.
  7. Serotonin and dopamine are often released together.

As a doctor, I’m an expert in unhappiness. I see suffering of all kinds.

  1. A 17 y.o. Model who hates her body because she thinks she’s too thin.
  2. An NFL football player who hates his life because he lost his girlfriend.
  3. People in paroxysmal back pain that isn’t made better by drugs.

I see happiness and sadness unrelated to physical suffering.

  1. The woman who cried herself into chronic heart failure
  2. The five year metastatic cancer patient who felt no pain.
  3. The man with the Calypso heart who wanted to sail the world.

I see death

  1. A woman so afraid she was on hospice for a year and a half, exhausting her family.
  2. Another woman who died of throwing up rather than cancer. She had nowhere to go when she died because her husband had thrown her out.
  3. A man who passed so quickly the EMTs couldn’t save him. His wife and family celebrated his life and had a party for him.


  1. I thought about talking about endophins or oxytocin, but those are the hormones of pain relief after stress and the hormones of physical closeness. I hope all of you know that physical exercise, just walking for an hour, can be brain altering. I also hope you’re all familiar with the idea of having friends you can touch is way more important than your so-called thumb friends online. Spend time walking with your tribe, it’s hardwired for happiness.
  2. So the third hormone I want to touch on today is your angry hormone. It’s a hormone that is so common online, or when you’re driving, and it’s the opposite of happiness. It’s the “you don’t treat me like a human being, so you should die” craziness.
  3. The hormone is called GABA, or the gabanergic pathway in our brains. We don’t hear as much about it, because a lack of gaba isn’t very recognized. Gaba is normally created for us by a healthy gut. So yes, what I’m saying is that all the trolls online are probably mostly reacting to their own irritated bowels and blaming you for it.
  4. We do have a group that have no GABA receptors in their brains. I did a book on this group, and I have a dear friend who has the lack. He is the sweetest human being, no impulse control. He’ll hug you at a moment’s notice. And then, when you cross him, he’ll tell you he hates you and physically go after you. At least he did when he was six. He’s getting better. But he still seems really immature for his age, because he doesn’t have a working GABA pathway. If you think about it, anyone online who is trashing on another human being is expressing that same immaturity.
  5. Why does a person without enough GABA become angry? They’re trapped. Gaba affects both anxiety and depression. A person feels what they think is inescapable stress, develops a hopeless response, and lashes out. We see this in adults who don’t know what to do to make their own lives better. They find an external reason for their problem and lash out. Responding to their criticisms logically does nothing because you’re not treating the underlying anxiety and helplessness that the person may not even acknowledge. For five years, I spent my time online trying to understand and logically address the concerns of an international group of skeptics. What I found was that logic and science were only the thin veneer over a group of people who were deeply sad to the point of madness. When we say don’t feed the trolls, it’s because they’re crazy. If you wouldn’t try to talk down someone screaming on the street, then don’t try it in online.Oh, and yes, they will die sooner than the rest of us. We have 45 studies to prove it. So don’t worry, they’ll get theirs.

  1. How does Gaba help with anxiety and depression? It sedates both. We have drugs that mimic Gaba (Valium, Xanax, Ativan) in the brain.
  2. We’ve also got an over-the-counter supplement called GABA that doesn’t cross into the brain but affects the whole balance positively in the body. I’ve seen it turn kids who would punch their moms or get in trouble with the police chill out and become “normal.”
  3. We now think that GABA may be more of a factor in severe depression than even serotonin.
  4. Good sources to increase GABA in your diet are beans and nuts. A number of supplements can increase them as well. But remember that your gut bacteria should produce GABA for you. I wrote a book on Tending Your Internal Garden that talks about resetting your gut bacteria safely.

Putting it together.

  1. How do you stay happy? You don’t. Every day you commit to the pursuit of your own happiness. Some days you fail.
  2. How do you get happy? You pursue meaningful goals.
  3. What are meaningful goals for you? I don’t know. Maybe you want to build a pink coral castle in Florida. Maybe to you want to build a cathedral by yourself. Maybe you want to make the most Guinness World Records
  4. What we’re talking about is the quality of your life. In medical terms, we value “quality of life” on or above length of life in many older people.
  5. What is quality? I don’t know. But I know you can know it when you see it. A quality whoopie pie has completely different characteristics than a quality motorcycle. Most of us would know instantly that soft and chocolately aren’t going to help Harley Davidson sell a motorcycle. But zero to sixty in two seconds is only a good whoopie pie trait if you’re planning to throw it at someone.
  6. Knowing yourself isn’t optional. Believe me, I’ve majored in ignorance of myself. To this day I only know I’m happy because I’m humming. My brain is a huge obstacle to my happiness. I’ve always been fascinated by medicine. I love learning about the body. But I told myself that medicine wasn’t an option because of my needle fear. I can do most things, and I suck at some things. But very, very few things are going to get me up in the morning excited day after day, year after year. The thing about passion is to figure out how it can pay you. Do what makes you happy, because you’ll only be mediocre at everything else. If you want to truly succeed, you have to figure out what you’ll do for free, then figure out how to get paid enough to support yourself. That’s it.
  7. What makes you happy? It’s simple. If you currently have something you do for fun, that you obsess about, that’s what makes you happy. If you don’t, then you don’t know what makes you happy yet. Trust me, when you find your thing, I won’t be able to drag you away from it. But for some of you it may be raising small kids, or taking care of old people, or driving truck, or raising tropical fish. You may not have tried it yet.
  8. Once you find your thing, make a big goal that seems impossible. Then make really silly, small goals that you can do every day. Set yourself up for reward on a daily basis, something that is very doable and still meaningful. If you do this for three weeks you’ll set up a habitual dopamine response that will carry you through the tough times.
  9. Say your big goal is to become the next Beyonce. Your small goal should be to learn one thing about Beyonce’s career every day, and maybe sing a scale. That’s it. Not even a song. Just a scale. Everything else is gravy. By singing a little and learning a little every day, you’ll keep yourself focused on your goal without losing hope, without using your willpower to force yourself to do more.
  10. Will it make you better? Yes, but you can still fail. You’ll be primed for a talent competition, for an opportunity to sing. More importantly, you’ll take any failure and use it to learn how to do better. If you don’t fail, you haven’t pushed yourself. But knowing how to reward yourself, how diet can affect your mood, and that you have to listen to your body when it says it’s done with something, will help you find happiness.

Thank you.