This is Your Brain on Happiness: A Chemical Story

This is Your Brain on Happiness: A Chemical Story

By: Marc Helgesen & the Chems

When I was young, there was a famous series of TV commercials in the USA to discourage recreational drug use. It showed someone frying an egg. The narrator displayed the cooked egg, saying, “This is your brain on drugs.”

We sometimes hear the expression “This is your brain on X” as a way of making suggestions about what various things trigger in our heads.

We hear a lot about brain chemicals: Neurotransmitters and hormones: Dopamine. Serotonin. Oxytocin. Endorphin. And they all impact our feelings and behavior. The problem, of course, is Psychology and Brain Science aren’t Biology or Chemistry. In Chemistry, two molecules of hydrogen coupled with one of oxygen are going to give you water every time. Social sciences, including Psychology don’t work like that. Humans don’t all respond in exactly the same way. (We wish they did. It would make research easier. This is sometimes referred to as “Physics envy.” (Clarke & Primo, 2012). But there are patterns. We know that dopamine is related to memory and motivation, even though a given event might trigger different reactions in different people.

Knowing that, I researched and put together a handout listing six of the chemicals most associated with happiness. I also identified classroom applications likely to trigger positive results. You can find that handout at: Positive chemical, the brain & the classroom.


Marc Helgesen, Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University is author of English Teaching and the Science of Happiness (ABAX) and the English Firsthand series (Pearson). He’s author of 180 books, articles, and textbooks and has been an invited speaker at conferences on five continents. He teaches Positive Psychology in ELT in the MA TESOL program at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies.

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