Dr. Loretta G Breuning Of the Inner Mammal Institute: “Dopamine (Embrace a new goal)”

Dopamine (Embrace a new goal): Approaching a reward triggers dopamine. When a lion approaches a gazelle, her dopamine surges and the energy she needs for the hunt is released. Your ancestors released dopamine when they found a water hole. The good feeling surged before they actually sipped the water. Just seeing signs of a water-hole […]

Thrive Global invites voices from many spheres to share their perspectives on our Community platform. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and opinions expressed by Community contributors do not reflect the opinions of Thrive Global or its employees. More information on our Community guidelines is available here.

Dopamine (Embrace a new goal): Approaching a reward triggers dopamine. When a lion approaches a gazelle, her dopamine surges and the energy she needs for the hunt is released. Your ancestors released dopamine when they found a water hole. The good feeling surged before they actually sipped the water. Just seeing signs of a water-hole turned on the dopamine. Just smelling a gazelle turns on dopamine. The expectation of a reward triggers a good feeling in the mammal brain, and releases the energy you need to reach the reward. Dopamine alerts your attention to things that meet your needs. How you define your needs depends on your unique life experience. Each time dopamine flowed in your youth, it connected neurons in your brain. Now you’re wired you to meet your needs in ways that felt good in your past.


It sometimes feels like it is so hard to avoid feeling down or depressed these days. Between the sad news coming from world headlines, the impact of the ongoing raging pandemic, and the constant negative messages popping up on social and traditional media, it sometimes feels like the entire world is pulling you down. What do you do to feel happiness and joy during these troubled and turbulent times? In this interview series called “Finding Happiness and Joy During Turbulent Times” we are talking to experts, authors, and mental health professionals who share lessons from their research or experience about “How To Find Happiness and Joy During Troubled & Turbulent Times”.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Loretta G. Breuning, PhD.

Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD is a renowned brain chemistry expert who has devoted her career to researching the evolution of the human brain and the science of happiness and contentment. Her latest book, Status Games: Why We Play and How to Stop was just released this month. In it, Loretta shines a light on a common happiness stumbling block many today face: the brain processes that encourage us to seek higher status. She teaches us how to rewire those connections for more contentment and less stress. She is also founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. Her many prior books on mammalian brain chemistry have been translated into ten languages and cited in major media. She has helped thousands of enthusiastic fans to make peace with their inner mammal.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up around a lot of unhappiness, but the cause was not obvious so I was always trying to figure it out. Sometimes the unhappiness was blamed on me (!), so I was sure there had to be a better explanation. I think that’s why I’ve always searched for hard facts about happiness and unhappiness.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I started writing books about happy brain chemicals after early retirement from a long career as a college professor. I had lost faith in prevailing theories of human motivation after raising kids and teaching thousands of students. So I did my own research and found that happiness is caused by brain chemicals that are the same in other animals. These chemicals (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphin) do very specific jobs in animals, and when you understand the jobs, your ups and downs make sense. I wrote a book about it because I knew the information could help people and it wasn’t mentioned anywhere. Then I just kept creating more resources to find better ways to communicate the difficult facts of our inner mammal.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

Frankly, no one has encouraged me. So, if I’d waited for that, I would be nowhere. Here’s an alternative perspective that worked for me and might help others. I read a lot of biographies and discovered that many famous people in history did not get much support either. They mostly got opposition. We are giving people unrealistic expectations that they should be getting applause for their work. Of course, it’s natural to want support, instead of expecting to be “nurtured” all the time, I tell myself that I will get just what I need. For example, my husband doesn’t understand my work at all, yet he helps meet my needs. So instead of mourning the lack of support, I am grateful for my power to set my own course without the approval of others.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I was fired from the first job I ever had. I worked at a dry cleaners after school, taking in dirty clothes and filing away cleaned clothes. I was suddenly fired after 3 weeks. Apparently, customers had come to pick up clothes before their weddings and bar mitzvahs and their clothes were missing!!! It always traced back to one of my shifts. I had not been paying attention to detail because it seemed like I thought it a “dumb job.” But I could have bankrupted that business with my carelessness. So I’m glad I got the lesson at age 16 that detail matters, even if it’s “boring.”

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I’m working on a new book called, “The Therapy-Industrial Complex.” It’s about the power that the disease model has over our lives. Academic psychology has taught you to see happiness as the default state of nature, so if you’re not happy, you believe that you have a disorder and the healthcare system should fix it. This is false and unhelpful. It has lured people to expect effortless happiness instead of building the skills we need to manage our mammal brain.

I’m also working on a novel! It’s about a college professor who catches students cheating. She invents a clever way to make people honest and it spreads around the world.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  • Independence

When I was in high school, I got the idea that Paris was the happiest place on earth. I thought I’d be happy if I went to Paris. So, I always had a part-time job and saved every penny and bought myself a trip to Europe for the summer after high school. It felt great to me, though I did not do what other kids were doing in high school. My parents were against it, but when I came up with the money, they finally caved. Needless to say, when I got to Paris I was still the same person I’d always been, but it taught me that I can get what I want with many small steps instead of expecting things to come to me.

  • Optimism

I went to Africa after graduate school with United Nations Volunteers. I was aiming at a career in the foreign aid world, but when I was in it, I was stunned by the corruption. Project funds were often stolen by local officials, so projects were at a standstill. Aid workers looked the other way to protect their careers. After a year there learning what I could, I said “this is not the career for me.” I went home without the slightest idea what I would do, but I knew I could find something better. There is always an alternative to going along with corruption.

  • Authenticity

The information in my books does not fit popular trends in psychology. I was aware of potential criticism while writing since I’d spent my whole life in academia. But I decided that I’d be wasting my life if I ignored my own truth and just repeated what everyone else was saying. So, I presented my own view of the facts instead of just trying to please gatekeepers. Admittedly, I did this after having raised my kids and paid my mortgage, and prepared for retirement.

For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of finding joy?

I study the brain chemicals that make us feel good. Dopamine is the chemical that causes the feeling we call “joy.” The mammal brain releases dopamine when you find a new way to meet a need. When an animal finds food after a long search, its dopamine surges. In the modern world, we get food more easily, our basic needs are met more easily, so we look for other ways of stimulating dopamine. Our brain quickly habituates to rewards we have, so it takes new and improved to stimulate dopamine. I’m not saying you SHOULD endlessly seek new and improved rewards, but you do, because dopamine makes it feel good.

We don’t like to admit that our dopamine is triggered by finding a new way to meet needs. We want to think we take joy in higher values. But, in actuality, a walk in the woods can meet your needs for free time, for movement, for feeling special, for socializing. So, the challenge of life is to know how your brain works and then find healthy ways to give your inner mammal what it needs.

Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about finding joy. Even before the pandemic hit, the United States was ranked at #19 in the World Happiness Report. Can you share a few reasons why you think the ranking is so low, despite all of the privileges and opportunities that we have in the US?

We all have ups and downs, so it’s just a matter of perception whether you label yourself as happy or unhappy. But that perception is socially learned. In some cultures, you’re rewarded for saying you’re happy, and in some cultures, you’re rewarded for saying you’re unhappy. Modern American culture rewards you for saying you’re unhappy. It makes you seem deep, and socially conscious, and lets you off the hook for bad choices.

What are the main myths or misconceptions you’d like to dispel about finding joy and happiness? Can you please share some stories or examples?

Serotonin is released when you see yourself in a position of social dominance. We all want to be special because serotonin makes it feel good. The chemical is quickly metabolized, which is why we all want to be special again and again. No one wants to admit this. It sounds awful. But it’s easy to see that animals work hard to raise their social dominance because it promotes their survival, and it’s easy to see that humans do the same. The animal brain is always comparing itself to others, and when it sees itself as one-up, a good feeling is released. I’m not saying we SHOULD do this, but we do. We can’t manage it until we understand it. In the modern world, we don’t try to one-up each other with physical strength. We use moral superiority instead. You can see how people are constantly trying to assert their moral superiority because one-up triggers happy chemicals.

In a related, but slightly different question, what are the main mistakes you have seen people make when they try to find happiness? Can you please share some stories or examples?

One more chemical we haven’t talked about yet: oxytocin. This is called the “bonding chemical” or the “love hormone.” Like the others, it’s quickly metabolized so people are always chasing the good feeling of social connection. So why is it so hard? Animals help us see the truth. They turn to a herd for protection. Each critter is motivated by its own survival. A gazelle avoids a predator by running to the herd. It endangers the herd to protect itself. In the modern world, we have idealized social connection. We expect other people to protect us as if we were children. Then we are disappointed when we see that they are motivated by their own survival. And we don’t see that WE are motivated by our own survival too. The result is a lot of self-righteous disappointment!

What brings animals together is a common enemy, and it’s easy to see how we humans bond around common enemies. Listen to the people around you and you will see that they are constantly talking about the common enemy that binds the group. I’m not saying we SHOULD think this way, but we do. It’s an addiction- the bonding feels good in the short run, but you end up locked in fear of enemies in the long run. A better way is to negotiate mutual support with individuals, so you give support to get support. And to trust that support will be there when you need it instead of having the child-like expectation of constant nurturing. The reality of adult life is that you don’t want to follow the herd every moment. You want your independence. So, you have to find a way to give your inner mammal the feeling of being protected by a herd while you are alone. It’s another challenge we all face. It’s not easy being a mammal!

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share with our readers your “5 things you need to live with more Joie De Vivre, more joy and happiness in life, particularly during turbulent times?” (Please share a story or an example for each.)

You can stimulate more happy chemicals with fewer side effects when you understand the job your happy chemicals evolved to do. Here’s a natural way to stimulate each of your happy chemicals, and avoid unhappy chemicals.

#1 Dopamine (Embrace a new goal)

Approaching a reward triggers dopamine. When a lion approaches a gazelle, her dopamine surges and the energy she needs for the hunt is released. Your ancestors released dopamine when they found a water hole. The good feeling surged before they actually sipped the water. Just seeing signs of a water-hole turned on the dopamine. Just smelling a gazelle turns on dopamine. The expectation of a reward triggers a good feeling in the mammal brain, and releases the energy you need to reach the reward. Dopamine alerts your attention to things that meet your needs. How you define your needs depends on your unique life experience. Each time dopamine flowed in your youth, it connected neurons in your brain. Now you’re wired you to meet your needs in ways that felt good in your past.

Dopamine motivates you to seek, whether you’re seeking a medical degree or a parking spot near the donut shop. Dopamine motivates persistence in the pursuit of things that meet your needs, whether it’s a bar that’s open late, the next level in a video game, or a way to feed children. You can stimulate the good feeling of dopamine without behaviors that hurt your best interests. Embrace a new goal and take small steps toward it every day. Your brain will reward you with dopamine each time you take a step. The repetition will build a new dopamine pathway until it’s big enough to compete with the dopamine habit that you’re better off without.

#2 Serotonin (Believe in yourself)

Confidence triggers serotonin. Monkeys try to one-up each other because it stimulates their serotonin. People often do the same. This brain we’ve inherited rewards social dominance because that promotes your genes in the state of nature. As much as you may dislike this, you enjoy the good feeling of serotonin when you feel respected by others. Your brain seeks more of that feeling by repeating behaviors that triggered it in your past. The respect you got in your youth paved neural pathways that tell your brain how to get respect today. Sometimes people seek it in ways that undermine their long-term well-being. The solution is not to dismiss your natural urge for status, because you need the serotonin. Instead, you can develop your belief in your own worth. People are probably respecting you behind your back right now. Focus on that instead of scanning for disrespect. Everyone has wins and losses. If you focus on your losses you will depress your serotonin, even if you’re a rock star or a CEO. You can build the habit of focusing on your wins. You may think it’s cocky or risky or lame, but your serotonin will suffer if you don’t.

#3 Oxytocin (Build trust consciously)

Trust triggers oxytocin. Mammals stick with a herd because they inherited a brain that releases oxytocin when they do. Reptiles cannot stand the company of other reptiles, so it’s not surprising that they only release oxytocin during sex. Social bonds help mammals protect their young from predators, and natural selection built a brain that rewards us with a good feeling when we strengthen those bonds. Sometimes your trust is betrayed. Trusting someone who is not trustworthy is bad for your survival. Your brain releases unhappy chemicals when your trust is betrayed. That paves neural pathways which tell you when to withhold trust in the future. But if you withhold trust all the time, you deprive yourself of oxytocin. You can stimulate it by building trust consciously. Create realistic expectations that both parties can meet. Each time your expectations are met, your brain rewards you with a good feeling. Continual small steps will build your oxytocin circuits. Trust, verify, and repeat. You will grow to trust yourself as well as others.

#4 Endorphin (Make time to stretch and laugh)

Pain causes endorphin. That’s not what you expect when you hear about the “endorphin high.” But runners don’t get that high unless they push past their limits to the point of distress. Endorphin causes a brief euphoria that masks pain. In the state of nature, it helps an injured animal escape from a predator. It helped our ancestors run for help when injured. Endorphin evolved for survival, not for partying. If you were high on endorphin all the time, you would touch hot stoves and walk on broken legs. Endorphin was meant for emergencies. Inflicting harm on yourself to stimulate endorphin is a bad survival strategy. Fortunately, there are better ways: laughing and stretching. Both of these jiggle your innards in irregular ways, causing moderate wear and tear and moderate endorphin flow. This strategy has its limits. A genuine laugh cannot be produced on demand. A genuine stretch requires a little skill. But when you believe in the power of laughing and stretching, you create opportunities to trigger your endorphin in these ways.

#5 Cortisol (Survive, then thrive)

Cortisol feels bad. It alerts animals to urgent survival threats. Our big brain alerts us to subtle threats as well as urgent ones. The bad feeling of cortisol will always be part of life because your survival is threatened as long as you’re alive. Cortisol especially grabs your attention when it’s not being masked by happy chemicals. You might have a sudden bad feeling when your happy chemicals dip, even though there’s no predator at your door. If you can’t get comfortable with that, you might rush to mask it with any happy-chemical stimulant you’re familiar with. Your well-being will suffer. You will lose the information the cortisol is trying to give you, and your happy habit will have side effects. More cortisol will flow, thus increasing the temptation to over-stimulate your happy chemicals. This vicious cycle can be avoided if you learn to accept the bad feeling you get when a happy chemical surge is over. It doesn’t mean something is wrong. Cortisol is part of your mammalian steering mechanism, which motivates an organism to approach rewards and avoid threats. You need unhappy chemicals to warn you of potential harm as much as you need happy chemicals to alert you to potential rewards. If you learn to accept your cortisol, you will be free from the rush to mask it in ways that don’t serve you. You will make better decisions and end up with more happy chemicals.

See 5 things video here: https://youtu.be/wdvNFMiNCkQ

What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to effectively help support someone they care about who is feeling down or depressed?

Be positive around them and their mirror neurons will pick it up. Their brain does not know how to create positivity until they experience it, sort of like riding a bike. Words can teach you to ride a bike. MIrror neurons affect us more deeply than words.

A small step is enough to trigger a small bit of dopamine, and then you can take another step to get more. So get your friends to focus on small steps.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Everyone knowing that our happy chemicals are not meant to flow all the time for no reason, so nothing is wrong with you if you’re not happy every minute.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

David Attenborough

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My book “Status Games: Why We Play and How to Stop” is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or by visiting innermammalinstitute.org/books/statusgames. You can follow me on YouTube or social media. I’m @LorettaBreuningPhD on Facebook, @InnerMammal on Twitter, and @inner.mammal.inst on Instagram.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

Community//

This Is the Face of Dopamine

by Loretta Breuning, PhD
Community//

Score! Dopamine! Repeat!

by Loretta Breuning, PhD
Community//

The Harsh Truth About Dopamine

by Loretta Breuning, PhD
We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.