“There’s a happiness movement going on,” my friend told me at lunch the other day. My first thought was, What’s a happiness movement? My second thought was, Oh…that explains why I’ve been seeing so many articles about happiness lately….
It didn’t occur to me until after she mentioned it, but I suddenly realized that my RSS reader has been inundated with articles on how to find happiness recently. My friend had a pretty strong reaction to this trend – mostly finding the advice given to be full of sweeping generalizations and meaningless affirmations.
Where’s the specificity?
After lunch, I went back to work to get started on this article – which was originally supposed to examine ways to “hack” our brains so we can make better financial decisions without constantly battling between want and should. And wouldn’t you know, when I started my research one theme kept popping up: happiness.
So it turns out that my goal of writing about brain hacks to create better financial habits is going to inadvertently jump on the happiness trend bandwagon. The good news is, the advice I found is specific. In fact, I learned quite a lot about the brain and how you can intentionally produce happy chemicals to create positive habits in multiple areas of your life – all in just 45 days. How’s that for specificity?
45 Days to Form New Habits: It All Starts with Neural Pathways
As advanced we may be as a society, our brains are still wired to focus on one very basic thing: survival. And it turns out our brains identify “good” feelings with safety and “bad” feelings with danger. The problem is, we can easily develop habits that are bad for us in order to feel good – which makes that which is good for us actually feel bad.
This all takes place in what are called “neural pathways” in our brains. Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D. authored a book called Meet Your Happy Chemicals and describes more about how neural pathways work:
“The electricity in your brain flows the way water flows through pipes, finding the path of least resistance. If you’ve built a nice big channel in your brain, electricity will go there. If you’ve found something that makes you feel good, it will light up when you feel threatened. To do something different, you have to build a new neural pathway first.”
In other words, if we developed some bad habits to make ourselves feel good (for example, emotional spending), then changing those habits will actually trigger our brains into thinking something is wrong since we can no longer do the feel good habit we’ve created. (Suddenly I understand why it’s so difficult for me to give up my weekly pint of ice cream…)
But these habits can be broken – as long as we’re willing to be okay with feeling “bad” in the process (long enough to actually change the bad to good). Scientifically, this is said to be doable after 45 days of resisting old habits to form new ones. While that may sound like a pretty long time, it’s really not so bad when you think of what it can do for your life!
Are you an emotional spender? You can change that in a month and a half of diligent work on your brain!
Do you fear your debt, causing you to ignore it rather than make a plan to pay it off? You can overcome that fear to create a debt payoff strategy that you can stick to in just 45 days.
For a lifetime of change, 45 days (or a month and a half) doesn’t sound like so much after all! But in order to make this work, our brains have to build those new neural pathways – creating a path of low resistance to allow our brains to make the right choices.
How to Produce the Happy Chemicals in Your Brain
In her book, Meet Your Happy Chemicals, Dr. Breuning talks about the “happy chemicals” in our brains, focusing on dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. In the book, she describes how we can use these chemicals to escape the cycle of happy habits that are actually bad for us by building new happy habits that are actually good. It’s not always easy – in fact, it can often feel like we’re fighting against what our brain wants. But if we spend 45 days focusing on creating one new habit at a time, then we can kick those old habits to the curb.
Below are the happy chemicals Dr. Breuning discusses and how you can use them to create positive changes in your financial life.
Dopamine is the chemical that’s released when you reach success. It doesn’t have to be a big success – it could be as simple as reaching a milestone on a larger goal. The chemical “turns on” when you see something you want (in my case, that pint of ice cream). But you can divert it from bad habits like that to good ones by celebrating your achievements.
How to trigger dopamine to reach financial success:
Since dopamine is released when you reach success, you can trigger this happy chemical by reaching success in your finances. The key is to create small milestones that you can reach sooner rather than later instead of focusing on the larger goal which could take years to achieve. Don’t just think about the next possible milestone. Break your large goal into milestones that you know you can reach every few months, thus regulating a continuous release of dopamine.
For example, if you’ve got a years-long debt payoff schedule ahead of you, break it down into smaller milestones such as reaching 25%, 50%, 75%, and 100% of your target debt account. Celebrate each milestone to help get you closer and closer to your ultimate goal.
Serotonin is the chemical that’s released when you feel important. There are many unhealthy ways to make ourselves feel important. Creating less obvious but healthier strategies to feel this importance will keep your brain feeling good and in survival mode without having a negative impact on your life.
How to trigger serotonin to reach financial success:
One way to trigger the release of serotonin is to build your financial knowledge. This will boost your confidence, leading to feelings of importance. If you want to take it to the next level, consider helping others expand their own financial knowledge. This will boost your confidence even more and you can help others in the process. (Just make sure to explain that you’re not a financial professional and always have your peers defer to a professional for more complex financial issues.)
Bonus: there’s always more to learn about how to optimize your finances, so there’s not going to be a shortage of opportunities to build your confidence and serotonin!
Oxytocin is the chemical that’s released when you feel trust. This is important because at one point in history survival was dictated by the social circle people were a part of.
How to trigger oxytocin to reach financial success:
You can trigger oxytocin by finding an accountability buddy. This should be someone you’re willing to share the specific details of your finances with: both the goals and struggles. By creating a safe place of trust with this person (free of judgement), you’ll not only trigger the happy chemical oxytocin, you’ll also improve your chances of financial success.
All goals are easier to reach when there’s someone in your corner cheering you along, as well as someone who you know is holding you accountable to reaching those goals. We can always rationalize to ourselves if we falter or stumble, but a good accountability buddy will hold you to the expectation that you’ll do what you set out to do and that expectation can keep you motivated when the going gets tough.
Endorphins are happy chemicals that prevent you from feeling pain – released at times when you would be feeling physical pain. Not surprisingly, this is the chemical most known for being released during a workout.
How to trigger endorphins to reach financial success:
You can trigger endorphins by aligning your financial and fitness goals. The endorphins released after a workout can give you a “high”, so after a workout could be a good time to assess your financial goals for the week. You can use the fitness high you’re on to motivate you further to stay steady on your financial goals.
What’s even better, endorphins released after a workout lead to both a feeling of happiness and empowerment. Ever have that feeling that you can conquer the world after a really good workout? That’s the perfect attitude to have as you work to achieve financial success as well!
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Triggering Happy Chemicals to Build New Habits: Take it Slow
While some of these happy chemicals and strategies to produce them are inherently intertwined, Dr. Breuning advises focusing on just one for 45 days (preferably the one you’re already least capable of). And remember – during that 45 days you will have moments of unhappiness. That’s okay! The human brain needs a balance of chemicals – so the ebb and flow of happy to uncomfortable, motivated to dejected might be necessary. Focus will help you surpass bad feelings to create good ones and harness them to achieve productive ends.
To wrap up, here are some of the changes you can start working on now to trigger more of those happy chemicals. Pick just one to get started on your first 45 day journey!
1) Give yourself small challenges that you can attain quickly as part of your larger goal to produce more dopamine.
2) Build your knowledge and even help others so you can feel confident to produce serotonin.
3) Find an accountability buddy that you know and trust to produce oxytocin.
4) If you falter on any goals, do some sort of physical exercise like running or yoga to produce endorphins and get the good feelings flowing so you can get back on track.
45 days to change a life…that’s what I call empowerment! The capacity to change is in your hands – all you have to do is get started.