Imagine you are a hunter in a Paleolithic society getting ready for a hunt. You have the goal in mind and get your first rush of dopamine as you and a group of fellow hunters leave the village. You track the animal for hours. It is tiresome and painful, but endorphins keep you going. Then you sight it, and you get another shot of dopamine. You chase it and eventually get ready for the kill. Adrenaline kicks in as you throw the spear. Goal achieved, and a massive surge of dopamine floods your system. Everyone in your group is excited and congratulates you, serotonin flows freely, and oxytocin reinforces the bonds between the hunters. Once you get back to the village, you get praised again, and again serotonin surges. The tribe feels grateful for the risks you took, and you enjoy the meal together. It’s all chemistry.
In Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek notes the four, what he calls, happy chemicals: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Every time you feel a sense of accomplishment, happiness, joy, it is because of one or more of these chemicals. They make us feel good, and they are crucial to our survival.
Endorphins have one essential purpose, to mask physical pain. If you do a hard workout, it is endorphins that will flood your system to mask the strain on your body to keep you going and feel good about it. If you are a runner, you may know it is a runner’s high. It allows you to go further than you thought you could. You feel good, and you know you can keep going. In the good old days of first humans, this was purely for our survival. If you are hunting a deer, you need to keep going longer than the deer can. In fact, that is how the hunters of the old got their prey. Not with fancy weapons, but with endurance. They chased the prey to exhaustion.
Dopamine gets released when we get things done. It is the incentive to not giving up on a task too early. When you complete a project, the feeling of satisfaction is caused by dopamine released in your body. It feels good, and it motivates you to get started on the next task. That is why you can’t find motivation by sitting and waiting for it. Motivation comes with first small successes and with accomplishing things.
Unfortunately, nature didn’t expect we would have such cushiony lives when we don’t need to do much to get food. So it rewards us with dopamine even when we eat. The idea is that it will reinforce the behavior that led us to get the food in the first place. So sitting in front of the TV eating fills you with dopamine as well as if you were doing some meaningful work done. Not good. Especially considering that dopamine has a very short-term effect and it disappears from the system fast. That is why dividing a larger goal into smaller steps that can be used to track progress is important. Then, with each small milestone achieved, you get a small release of dopamine that keeps you going.
You probably know some people who seem to be addicted to work. It might be dopamine at play. It is highly addictive and unfortunately plays a role in encouraging behaviors that can be harmful, like gambling, alcohol, and drug abuse. They all release dopamine, so you are not only intoxicated with the substance you are abusing but also by the dopamine that makes you feel good.
Why do you think social media are such a hit? They allow us to get a small dopamine injection instantly and frequently. You post something, and you get a like, dopamine shot. You get a text or email, a dopamine shot. You get addicted to the constant stream of small acknowledgments that we matter to someone or accomplish something other people recognize.
Oxytocin is the moral and love chemical. It makes us feel friendship and love. It creates the feeling we belong, we are part of the tribe, that we are not alone. It makes us do the right thing for others. It gets released into our blood when we do something good for others or when others do something for us. It forces us to take care of our family, spouse, children. The significant benefit of oxytocin as compared to the other chemicals is that it is long-lasting and compounding. The more time you spend with someone, the more you are willing to trust them and open up to them. Even only seeing others being helpful to other people can release oxytocin and also make us want to help. That is the whole concept behind paying it forward. The more good you do, the more you want to do, and the more you inspire others to do.
Serotonin is another happy chemical that makes us feel proud. It is the feeling we get when we see others recognize and respect us. It helps us build confidence. It is the feeling you get when you are promoted or when you get your diploma. It is the reward for all the hard work you put into it. You are proud of your achievement. Interestingly, those who genuinely care about you, like your parents, may get the same burst of serotonin and also feel proud. Serotonin is extremely useful in bonding people towards achieving a common goal. We are not alone, and we couldn’t do what we did without others. Serotonin is the reward that others get for supporting us. Our success is their success. It is why concepts like accountability buddy work. We don’t want to disappoint those who invested their time, effort, and emotions in us.
All the happy chemicals can work on their own or in various combinations. For example, imagine you run a marathon. The endorphins will help you overcome pain. Dopamine will motivate you to keep going each time you see a mile signpost. Your friends cheering will fill you with serotonin to give you additional incentive to finish and then be proud of the medal you got representing your hard work and accomplishment. Ultimately oxytocin will make you feel like you belong once you get hugged by friends at the finish line.
The one chemical that is less “happy” but equally important is cortisol. It is injected into our system when in danger and leads to stress and anxiety. It is responsible for our fight or flight response. It gets us ready for action. And it suppresses some of the happy chemicals. It is meant to be in our system only shortly, and after the danger disappears, so should cortisol. And it works when faced with lions. Once we escape or the lion leaves, we are back to happy mode. But today’s society doesn’t have lions who show up once in a while. It has a constant stream of stressful situations in the form of overwork, traffic jams, and a ton of responsibilities we and society put on us. Being constantly in fight or flight mode is exhausting and damaging to our health.
How does it apply to you?
Our body autonomously releases cortisol and doesn’t ask what the source of the potential trouble is. It doesn’t differentiate between a lion and an angry boss. So the reaction is the same. We get stressed and anxious. That’s what a toxic work environment does to us. If we don’t feel psychological safety, we need to be constantly vigilant and ready to fight or flight. And we get no joy from the work we do.
We are still the same when it comes to our chemistry as our paleolithic ancestors. However, the world has changed. The environment we often work in is not as conducive to releasing happy chemicals as it used to be. And so, while we live much more comfortable and safe lives, we don’t have the same surges of serotonin and oxytocin, and we feel miserable. We get most of our happy moments from dopamine, and unfortunately, that is always short-term and doesn’t last.
You need to get more oxytocin into your life as that is a more lasting chemical. You do it by caring for others and have others caring for you. You need to feel you belong. You need to be physically close to others. You need to feel you are part of a tribe. And you don’t get that by spending your time on social media or watching TV.
What is your take on the topic? Do you believe that your life and moods are directed by chemicals? Do you see how your actions and habits influence the chemicals in your body and therefore your wellbeing? What can you do to get back to balance as nature intended?
Photo: qimono / Pixabay.com
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