10 tips to hack your biology and find happiness
Biologically we’re not unlike our animals. We’re fueled by chemicals coursing through our body that work to help us survive.
Our thoughts, feelings, and reactions are driven by these chemicals and our actions and surroundings also work within the feedback loop to regulate the production of these chemicals also.
For example, a deer is grazing on a patch of grass in a clearing in the forest when it notices a shadow move in the trees. It lifts its head and perks up it’s ears. Cortisol starts coursing through its body. Does it need to run? Will it have to fight?
Your manager calls you and asks you to meet you in their office in ten minutes. Your heart rate quickens, your muscles tense, cortisol is driving this reaction. Will you need to run? Will you have to fight?
While cortisol often drives your survival instincts there are other chemicals at play as well. In Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek he labels four of these chemicals as selfish chemicals and selfless chemicals.
Selfish chemicals: endorphins and dopamine
Endorphins: used to mask physical pain with pleasure
In our caveman days, endorphins served to reward physical endurance. Having physical endurance increased your ability to acquire needed resources for survival. In today’s world of convenience stores and airplanes, endorphins aren’t released associated with acquiring food. Instead exercise, manual labor, and interestingly enough, laughing release endorphins.
Dopamine: used to mark progress
In caveman days, dopamine was beneficial because it rewarded our search for food. This helped keep us focus on the task at hand. Each step closer to a goal of getting food was rewarded with a little hit of dopamine. Today we get hits of dopamine from a myriad of sources text messages, level advancement in games, shopping, collecting things, and working towards our goals. This is why trainers really like the “ah-ha” moment when an animal finally gets it and why Candy Crush was such an addicting game. We get hits of dopamine that reward our hard work when we move through our training plan approximations or beat that difficult level.
Selfless chemicals: serotonin and oxytocin
Serotonin: used to promote cooperation
In the caveman days, serotonin was used to reward the caveman for bringing food back to his family, because belonging to a tribe is important. Safety in numbers was a real thing. Today, we get a hit of serotonin when we accomplish something with the support of others or when someone accomplishes something with our support. It’s why even though my passion is working hands on with animals, I’m still rewarded by watching members of my team succeed in training their behaviors. We even have systems built in to all of our social media to help reassure us of this: “likes” on Facebook promotes the feeling of belonging, however the feeling is still virtual. You have to eventually meet in person to transfer those hits of serotonin to true relationship.
Oxytocin: used to promote connection and belonging
Oxytocin is all about the warm and fuzzies. It keeps us connected. Love, trust, and our deep relationships are all rooted in oxytocin. In the caveman days it’s what allowed us to fall asleep at night knowing that our look out would keep us safe from danger. It’s long lasting, but also takes a while to develop and sink in. Oxytocin is the hugging chemical, but don’t worry introverts there are more ways to get a hit of oxytocin than hugging someone.
The problem with cortisol and these other chemicals is that our bodies haven’t quite caught up with the new age we live in. Our bodies get confused between our social media “likes” and real relationships. We can’t tell the difference between a true immediate threat to our survival and running out of oreo cookies. In companies and on teams where we don’t feel safe it’s next to impossible to stop the flow of cortisol and cortisol actually inhibits the production of oxytocin.
Oxytocin relieves stress, increases our interest in our work, improves cognitive abilities, boosts our immune system, lowers blood pressure, and lessens our cravings and addictions. This is why it isn’t enough to be good at your job. Sure you’ll get lots of hits of dopamine from your personal success but just as in everything, balance is incredibly important. We need all these chemicals to keep us working.
So how can we hack the system?
Here are 10 tips for taking advantage of your biology and hacking your chemistry:
- Use dopamine to your advantage by setting visual goals and converting your mission and passions into a vision board.
- You can hack oxytocin with generosity and kindness. When you do something nice for someone you get a hit of oxytocin and so will they. The bonus is that anyone who’s watching also gets a hit of that feel good chemical.
- Take the bear hug challenge. Next time you’re feeling stressed or depleted find someone you love and have them give you a good squeeze. You can read more about it in Ramona Zabriskie’s book Wife for Life: The Power to succeed in marriage. Oxytocin actually combats cortisol, so asked for a big hug from someone you love when you’re stressed does wonders.
- Laugh. Let it out and let it out loud! Loosen up and laugh at a bad joke. Endorphins can even be released if your start with a fake laugh.
- Work together with a teammate to accomplish a task and you’ll both feel the rush of serotonin.
- Use a kanban board to to keep track of your tasks. As you move your sticky notes through the sections of your kanban board you’ll get little hits of dopamine. Watch this video to learn more about kanban boards!
- Exercise! You can get a huge endorphin rush even by taking a brisk walk at lunch time or stopping to do some push ups.
- Oxytocin is also produced when you feel empathetic for someone or something. Harnessing the power of perspective can help you do that. Watch these videos to gain some perspective and help you with your empathy.
- Make a list of why you’re proud of each of your teammates, family members, or friends and share it with them to get the serotonin flowing. For an extra boost share it publicly.
- Spending time each day writing in a gratitude journal is another way to boost all these chemicals. You’ll recall your accomplishment (dopamine), think about relationships your value (oxytocin), and things that make your proud (serotonin).