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The Brain’s Role in Positive Feelings

The Brain’s Role in Positive Feelings

Everything we think and do is influenced by the brain. The brain controls our conscious and automatic life processes like eating or breathing, and it controls the finer parts of life such as thought and feeling. Much of the brain’s role in action, behavior and thought relies on the function of neurotransmitters. Molecular Cell Biology[1] explains neurons communication: “Synapses are the junctions where neurons pass signals to other neurons, muscle cells, or gland cells. Most nerve-to-nerve signaling and all known nerve-to-muscle and nerve-to-gland signaling rely on chemical synapses at which the presynaptic neuron releases a chemical neurotransmitter that acts on the postsynaptic target cell.” Neurotransmitters are chemicals that bridge the gaps between neurons and ensure the continuation of signals to and from the brain. Much of what we feel is influenced by dopamine, endorphins and hundreds of other types of neurotransmitters. The brain dictates how we feel, and these chemicals tell the brain what to dictate. This does not remove our individual agency from thoughts and feelings. It instead lets us recognize how our thoughts and actions impact our neurotransmitters and vice versa.

Dopamine’s Role in Positive Feelings

Dopamine is perhaps the most well-known “feel good” brain chemical, or neurotransmitter. Because of the role it plays in the reward system, in encouraging actions that feel good and discouraging those that don’t, it was long thought to be the end-all, be-all cause of addiction and other bad “habits” that are continued despite the harm they do. Now scientists recognize that much more than feeling good comes into play when addiction is involved. Dopamine and other brain chemicals levels are constantly changing, as the University of California, Berkeley[2], explains, “the flow of different neurochemicals in the brain will vary at different times.” However for some individuals, this flow is always lower, and they do not experience positive feelings as often or as strongly as other individuals. If they turn to drugs like OxyContin that promise quick boosts in dopamine levels, they may be doing so to avoid lows rather than feel highs. Individuals dependent on drugs or alcohol also begin to use them for the same reason. As the brain adjusts to the presence of increased dopamine stimulation, it produces less natural dopamine or responds less well to the dopamine that is present. Drug use becomes a matter of not feeling bad rather than feeling good, and as it continues even avoiding feeling bad becomes less and less possible. Despite this drug use continues, suggesting that there is more to addiction than dopamine. Addiction has environmental, genetic, social and other causes that do influence brain chemistry but are not dependent on the function of just one neurotransmitter.

A behavior like addiction can change brain chemistry for the worse, so it stands to reason that other behaviors can change it for the better and create positive feelings. Berkeley agrees, explaining, “When people consciously practice gratitude, they are likely getting higher flows of reward-related neurotransmitters, like dopamine. Research suggests that when people practice gratitude, they experience a general alerting and brightening of the mind.” Gratitude is just one practice and mindset that increases the presence and function of dopamine in the body and brain. This is why learning to take the time to appreciate things, both little and big, is often a part of addiction recovery and recovery support groups. The more positive thinking is practiced, the more it becomes a regular part of brain function and contributes to positive feelings.

The Role of Endorphins in Positive Feelings

Endorphins are another type of neurotransmitter that influence positive feelings. These neurotransmitters can function on both mental and physical health levels. Individuals struggling with pain of any type often turn first to powerful opiate drugs like OxyContin. As stated above use of these drugs can actually result in fewer good feelings and in disrupting the brain’s ability to create or experience pleasure. They also disrupt how the brain manages pain. Endorphins are the neurotransmitters most responsible for how we perceive pain, and they can be created by a host of positive experiences or thoughts. According to Scientific American[3], “These pain-relieving chemicals are created in response to exercise, excitement, pain, spicy food, love and sexual orgasm, among other things…These endorphins raise our ability to ignore pain.” When endorphins are present, the brain is better able to tolerate pain. When drugs do not disrupt this positive loop of feeling better and therefore participating in actions that cause the healthy release of more feel-good chemicals, the brain can fulfill its role of creative positive feelings.

Ending Addiction and Finding Positivity

Addiction comes to be marked by more lows than highs, while a drug-free life has an unlimited potential for positivity. If you are ready to find a healthy, balanced and drug-free mind and body, call our toll-free helpline. We are here 24 hours a day to connect you to the positive, healing and professional resources you need for long-term recovery.


[1] Molecular Cell Biology. 2001. Web. 28 Oct 2015.

[2] “How to Trick Your Brain for Happiness.” University of California, Berkeley. 26 Sep 2011. Web. 28 Oct 2015.

[3] “Why Laughter May Be the Best Pain Medicine.” Scientific American. 14 Sep 2011. Web. 28 Oct 2015.