Last time we had a closer look at the role of the neurotransmitters Oxytocin and Serotonin in experiences that lead to happiness. This time we will focus on how dopamine and the endorphins are produced and what we can do to stimulate their production.
Dopamine produces a sense of excitement about an event that rewards us more than we expected. It can motivate us to take action toward goals, desires, and needs, and gives a surge of reinforcing pleasure when we achieve them. Many of the goals we had before lockdown have had to be postponed indefinitely, like celebratory events, or holidays we planned. So to produce more dopamine, we can focus on goals that are possible given our current circumstances. Is there something that challenges you, maybe something you always wanted to do? It could be learning a new skill, finishing something you previously started, tidying up a specific area, writing a journal, recording memories for your grandchildren. Breaking the task into bite-size pieces, maybe making a start of just a few minutes, makes success easier to reach. Crucial to the process is that we celebrate the achievements in some way – giving yourself a “gold star” obviously won’t work, but doing something you really enjoy after meeting your goal may do the trick.
Although I am all for understanding our challenging emotions and growing through them, we need some happiness to keep us creative in the way we address our challenges. Happiness is associated with some of the experiences we cannot currently enjoy given current restrictions, like going to a party, a night out with friends or a long awaited holiday. If we break it down to brain chemistry, this is when neurotransmitters like oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine and endorphins are released. It may feel reductionistic, but maybe there is something useful to learn here. I have been reading about these neurotransmitters and practical ways (not medical) that stimulate our “happy chemicals”. It is a vast and complicated subject, and in writing briefly about it, I will no-doubt oversimplify. Perhaps it encourages you to find out more detail…
When we are isolated, our oxytocin levels fall. It is related to our sense of belonging. How can we increase our connection with others while keeping our spatial distance in one-to-one conversations? We have grown so accustomed to interacting with whatsapp messages and they definitely have their value, but hearing a human voice in a phone conversation connects us more. A video call where we can see a face without a mask has an even more positive effect. Could we aIso create more group experiences? Our extended family regularly meets up in group video calls, but there are many other options. Uniting towards a common goal is part of belonging. One of the classic ways we usually do this is in supporting a sports team, or belonging to a club with a common interest, or joining a support group around a common challenge. Many of these are now happening online or – in the case of sports – before cameras without live audiences.
For a while I have been wanting to write something about exercise, but I am full of good intentions and little practical experience of regular exercise, so I have asked my friend Vivian Scheepers to do so instead. She is a better role model in terms of including exercise into her own routine and is passionate about children and the role exercise plays in a child’s life. She is currently teaching Sports and Gymnastics for ages 2 – 13 years and adult aerobic classes. In her own words:
Nothing is exciting without a dance…
- Activity requiring physical effort, carried out to sustain or improve health and fitness.
- Activity carried out for a specific purpose.
Some say it’s amazing, I feel good, look good and I want to know that my body is balanced with good eating habits and a good workout.
Yet, others say, “ Aargggh! Why would I do that to myself?”
Whatever your adult mind decides exercise can or cannot be, research demonstrates that it is very important for a child to be active and exercising regularly. It provides a good balance between a healthy mind and body. In fact, we have also learned that they exist together.
I grew up in a home where I was told exercise is not important. All I needed was to be smart and that needed brain power. Later, when I became a mother, I started to learn about gross and fine motor skills. What you do inside the classroom is as important as what you do outside the classroom. On discovering this new information, I realized no child should go without exercise, it should be part of their lives…. Because we all want healthy balanced individuals, right? Therefore, it should not be a choice, rather we should figure out what exercise we like and will continue to do.
As defined above, regardless of what exercise we do, it will require physical effort and is done for a specific purpose. So, how do we make it fun? Well, some of us like to dance, some like to play sports and others prefer strength & flexibility.
The pandemic has made many of us realize we can do this from the comfort of our homes.
It is so easy for us to focus on the negative, especially at this time in history. The news headlines grab our attention with words that play into this human habit and feed our fears: “Jobs bloodbath”, “emergency budget”, “decimating and devastating storm”, “lockdown dictator”, “Eastern Cape battles shortages”.
We also have a tendency to replay our blunders from different angles and regurgitate our mistakes.
Pleasant emotions seem to be so much more subtle than negative ones. Our attention is arrested by numbing anxiety and we hardly notice the passing potential of the positive experience.
According to research in the field of positive psychology, pleasant incidents are more frequent than negative, but it is a choice to let those positive events become positive emotions by giving them more attention. Apparently our perspective is broadened and we become more creative when we are positive. I could certainly benefit from a broader perspective and more creativity right now!
So, I have decided to pause and prioritise those fleeting experiences – the fresh taste of the juicy grapefruit, the warm comforting glow of the open fire, the contagious belly laugh of the toddler, the colourful flower conquering the cracks in the pavement, the smiling eyes above the mask, the polite gesture from the stranger, the effort made by shop attendants to communicate despite the PPE barrier, the reassuring hug of a close family member. Let’s linger a little longer as we think upon these things…
(A poem from the book “Dwelling in Dissonance)
Not an accusation
No verdict expected
Not an attack
A historical fact
A present reality
For participative change
I wrote this poem in 2016 in response to many conversations I had witnessed about privilege, where there was a lot of blaming and shaming going on, and the term “privilege” had become a heavily loaded label, which many people did not want to be associated with. Writing the poem was part of the process of grappling with my own privilege and what I could do with the privilege I have been given. In many ways, things have changed, and yet they have stayed the same.
Given the effects of the pandemic and world-wide lockdowns, and in light of the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement, the division between privileged and disadvantaged has become even starker and I find myself exploring this idea of privilege once again.
I can count myself privileged if:
I am not re-traumatised by the videos that have been circulating for the last few weeks because I do not have previous experiences of racism or abuse
I think I can have an objective or intellectual discussion around Black Lives Matter because it does not emotionally trigger me
I have had the option to ignore these events because they did not directly connect with my world
I take certain things for granted – that others will have the same accessibility to things that I do – language, data, transport, networks, education
In the broader context, am I aware of the fact that my presence changes the atmosphere in a room (physical or virtual)? On a personal note, am I aware of the cost that a friendship with me might mean to a black person – do I know how my black friends’ families and other friends react to their friendship with me, a non-black person?
I may feel overwhelmed by the ongoing presence of systemic racism in South Africa and may think that I am not in a position to make much of a difference…but I (with whatever abilities, skills and personality I have) am placed in my specific setting with a number of people I come into regular contact with. How can I use my privilege in practical ways to move towards a more equal society here so that everyone can flourish more where our circles of influence intersect?
All over South Africa, people have listened and watched with heavy hearts as videos of the events leading to the #blacklivesmatter demonstrations have circulated on social media. The complexity of emotions we are experiencing is too multi-layered for a short article like this. I can only mention a few thoughts, and yes, these are coming from a white South African. I have to own my come-from. Your perspective may be different.
Firstly, I am so aware of the fact that for many of my black friends/fellow South Africans watching these videos, reading people’s comments and listening to talk shows during the last 2 weeks has been re-traumatising. It has brought up pain, anger and feelings of helplessness from past experiences that feel like they happened today. Even in 2020, most black South Africans have their own list of very recent racism they were exposed to, some of verbal, some of physical abuse. Most of them without video evidence. Add to that the generational trauma of our racially-charged past. We stand on ground seeped in hurtful memories and traumas that have not all been honoured or worked through.
And maybe it is in this discomfort that we must stand a little longer. This is not “their” battle (the re-traumatised), it affects everyone, it is every South African’s battle…What could specifically white folk do here in this present moment? *
I was chatting to a friend last week about the effect that the lockdown has had on us. We had hoped that we would have had time to assess what was really important to us, to learn to focus on what needs to change so that our lives display our values, to be grateful for what we have. Despite my friend being one of the most selfless people I know, she confessed that she had realised to her horror that she had become more selfish, rather than more outward looking. She had realised what important things she did not have, and what securities she wanted in the future. These things involve access to the private health sector and the required financial stability that gives access to it.
I could certainly identify. In terms of these longings, we are all on common ground. We don’t want to get sick. We want to be able to earn well enough to meet our needs for nutrition, shelter and health. The two are closely connected.
Taking a bird’s eye view of where we are as a country going into level 3, we also have these two common goals:
Limit the spread of covid 19 – don’t get infected, and don’t infect others.
Get the economy going – get to work, make an income, get others to work, so many of us can make a living.
These two are also interdependent. It feels too obvious to state, but I will any way: keeping infections low is key to keeping the economy open. I may feel I have little influence on getting the economy going, but I actually do have an important part to play:
Some of us are going to be returning to out-of-home work on level 3. After 2 months at home living with uncertainty, some of us may be surprised by our mixed feelings about this next step, with rising anxiety about going back to a daily workplace routine. Given the current circumstances, this is a fairly normal response. What can we do to make this transition as low-stress as possible?
What is the first thing that comes to mind – our biggest concern? If we can address that concern in a practical way, we will have come a long way in alleviating our anxiety. If your friend was telling you about this issue, what advice would you give him/her? I don’t know what your biggest worry is, but hopefully one of the possibilities below will spark some ideas that work for you.
Let’s think this through in a very practical way – what do we know about the circumstances we are going back to…and what changes to daily life can we make now that bring us closer to the daily work experience?
We know what work clothes we will be wearing. If practical, we could start wearing them during the day even now. Those of us who use make-up might want to start doing that again.
If we know what time we need to leave the house to get to work on time, we can set our alarms and practice our wake-up and go routine. This also means getting to bed on time. This may involve our children if they are in grades 12 or 7 (if they are willing to play along!) If we have children of other age groups, what will be happening to them while we are at work? This may land up being a difficult question to navigate – we need to know they are safe.
In a coaching conversation this week, I was told “life is a series of limbo situations”. If this is your experience, it means you know that you have survived previous episodes of limbo. What did you lean on to get through then? How could that be useful now?
In the midst of this limbo we find ourselves in, where so much is uncertain, it may be helpful to focus on the truths we do know.
We do not know when the corona epidemic will be under control, but we know that this too shall pass. Uncertainty in whatever form is an unavoidable part of our lived experience. It is uncomfortable, but it ends eventually. Knowledge is given, wars and pandemics end, and we move on, all be it as changed people.
Worrying feels like you have some control but actually often reduces the energy you have to improve the situation. What is the likelihood that the worst outcome will happen? We’re not all statisticians but often we overestimate the worst scenario and underestimate the many other possibilities, and as a result spend a lot of energy imagining and preparing for the unlikely. If we focus on making good choices in the areas that we have some control over, it can increase our energy to broaden our circle of influence. What are your uncertainty triggers? Sometimes we find ourselves on an ever tightening thought spiral of worst-case what-if scenarios, but sometimes we are influenced by what we expose ourselves to – social media, negative focus of news stories, rumours, speculations, fake news, only communicating with anxious friends. Emotions are just as infectious as viruses! What triggers can you limit?
Let’s explore our emotions a little. We know that suppressing our emotions long-term can make the situation worse. Internalising anxiety and stress can make you physically and mentally ill. It may feel uncomfortable, but it is wiser to allow yourself to experience those difficult emotions and investigate what is going on beneath them. This is where you will find the clues to what it is you need to change. These may be uncomfortable growth points, but they have the potential of bringing you to a place of blossoming joy. But give yourself grace – it may feel quite overwhelming. Don’t isolate yourself in response, we are already distant enough from each other. Reach out to someone you trust to walk this road with you.
We know that when we are in the thick of the problem, we have a limited view of the situation. We cannot see all the possibilities there are, because our vision has become narrowed by uncertainty. A bird’s eye view can reveal a more hopeful perspective, but sometimes we need someone else to listen to us and help us zoom out. What would we think about our own situation if we were watching it on a screen happening to someone else?