Our brain chemicals dictate how we feel at any given moment, which affects what we think, say, and do.
We’re taught to believe that we are a slave to our thoughts and emotions, but what if I told you that you could control your brain chemicals without the use of drugs? Would you be interested?
The connection between mind and body has always fascinated me.
Old school HMP readers know that I’ve promoted the idea that the mind and body are one — as opposed to the commonly accepted idea that the two are separate.
I knew this to be true from my personal experience with changing my mindset and mood by using my body, which I’ll get into more in a follow-up post this week. The reason I haven’t talked too much about it on HMP is because I wanted to have more evidence than my own personal experience to present to you.
In fact, this post is long overdue. Early in 2016, I read a great book called Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t by Simon Sinek, which I highly recommend. In Leaders Eat Last, Sinek provides a scientific look at the “happy chemicals” in our brains:
- Endorphin — the pain-masking chemical
- Dopamine — the goal-achieving chemical
- Serotonin — the leadership chemical
- Oxytocin — the chemical of love
You might be wondering how the title Leaders Eat Last is relevant to this discussion. The answer is simple — people always remember how you make them feel, and great leaders make their teams feel inspired, energized, loved, and confident.
Having an understanding of the four primary happiness brain chemicals is the easiest way to start taking control of your emotions, as well as improving your ability to lift up and inspire those around you.
The 4 Brain Chemicals Known as “Happy Chemicals”
Endorphins mask pain. Centuries ago, when humans were hunters and gatherers, they relied on endorphins to push through long hunts in extreme weather conditions.
Today, we have pain killers to release endorphins when we’re in pain.
We also get a rush of endorphins from intense exercise.
Have you ever felt bad after a workout? Think about it — don’t you always feel better after your workout than before you started?
It’s because of the endorphins.
This is part of the reason that some people get addicted to exercise — they’re addicted to the “runner’s high” you get afterward.
Another activity that releases endorphins is laughter. Have you ever laughed so hard you felt euphoric?
That was the flood of endorphins you got from laughing. Apparently, even the anticipation of laughing, such as going to a funny movie, can increase endorphins.
Perhaps this is why they say “laughter is the best medicine.”
Some other ways to increase endorphins are through the use of aromatherapy with lavender and vanilla, or by eating spicy foods or dark chocolate.
Dopamine is our favorite brain chemical — but it’s also the most dangerous chemical to our well-being.
Dopamine is the sense of accomplishment we get when we get things done, accomplish our goals, or complete a project.
You know that boost you get when you check something off your to-do list? That’s dopamine.
However, one of the problems we face is that tech companies are aware of this dopamine trigger and they use it to make their apps more addictive.
If you find yourself compulsively checking your social media apps, it’s because you’re addicted to the dopamine you get from seeing a notification and checking it. They’ve tricked us into thinking we’ve accomplished something when really we’re just wasting time.
Dopamine is highly addictive and our brains are hardwired to get dopamine whenever we can (because normally it would mean we would be accomplishing something).
This is why cocaine, alcohol, and nicotine are so addictive — they all flood our brains with dopamine.
Serotonin is what makes us feel important and gives us a sense of belonging. People who are lonely and depressed usually have very low serotonin levels. (Most antidepressants boost serotonin.)
This is what compels us to feel like we are part of a group or club, and it’s what boosts our confidence when our status within a particular group raises.
A feeling of significance doesn’t always correlate with being part of an important group. We also get a spike in serotonin when we reflect on past achievements, when we practice gratitude, and when we celebrate victories.
Hence why gratitude journals are so effective for helping people overcome depression and anxiety, as well as improving their overall outlook on life.
Oxytocin creates intimacy, inspires trust, and builds healthy relationships. We get a boost in oxytocin when we orgasm and women get an increase in oxytocin when they breastfeed.
Simply spending time with people we care about raises our oxytocin. Physical contact also increases oxytocin.
We need oxytocin to form strong bonds in our personal and professional relationships. An easy way to boost another person’s oxytocin is to give them a gift.
Doesn’t it feel nice when someone gets you a birthday gift, even if it’s just a thoughtful card? That’s oxytocin at work.
Leveraging Endorphins and Dopamine to Win More
Sinek refers to the combination of endorphin + dopamine as the selfish chemicals because they allow us to get more done.
By exercising regularly, we get the endorphins we need to push ourselves harder and get better. This is one of the reasons I think it’s a good idea to break a sweat daily.
Dopamine drives us to accomplish more, but the challenge is avoiding all of the false dopamine hits, as I call them, because they trick us into feeling more accomplished than we actually are.
You get false dopamine hits from constantly checking social media or playing around on your phone, checking email, or if you’re a blogger, checking your analytics ever 30 minutes.
To keep yourself focused on the right tasks and to win more often, try to limit your dopamine hits from things that aren’t productive and focus on getting more dopamine hits from things that are.
This is also why I think it’s so helpful to keep a daily to-do list, as long as you fill your list with meaningful tasks.
You don’t want to completely avoid dopamine because that is counterintuitive. Research has shown that people with low dopamine tend to have more self-doubt, a lack of enthusiasm, and procrastinate more.
Celebrate your accomplishments often — just make sure your accomplishments are helping you make progress towards your objectives.
Deploying Serotonin and Oxytocin to Be a Better Leader
Sinek refers to the combination of serotonin and oxytocin as the selfless chemicals because they allow us to create meaningful connections with others and experience improved collaboration.
As a leader, you get boosts in serotonin every time others show you respect, admiration, or give you special treatment. That boost in serotonin makes you more confident when solving problems and protecting your group.
This is great up until a certain point — because too much serotonin causes leaders to become complacent and stop following through on their end. Once this occurs, leaders lose the trust of their group and their serotonin plummets, lowering their ability to lead effectively.
Great leaders remain empathetic by building strong connections with their group members. The easiest way to do this is by spending time with those you lead. Not only does it foster better relationships, it makes you more empathetic to their fears, needs, and desires.
Plus, it prevents you from experiencing serotonin overload because it indicates that your time is as valuable as their time.
If you have some free time, you should check out Sinek’s presentation from 99U below. He goes into more detail than this article and he provides some interesting stories and examples to explain these brain chemicals.
If you’re interested in checking out his book, you can buy Leaders Eat Last here.
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What do you think? Do you agree, disagree or have any thoughts to add? Let me know in the comments below.
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