Our “Feel Good” Chemical Wiring
Our body has a range of feel-good chemicals that are released to reward beneficial behavior by making us 'feel good' or giving us a 'high'. Each of these chemicals are triggered for different reasons. Dopamine and Oxytocin are the most prominent of these. There is a wonderful talk titled "Why Leaders Eat Last" by Simon Sinek as well on this topic.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is associated with a lot of functions in our body. But it's role of being a pleasure and reward neurotransmitter is what is often discussed. In reality, dopamine signals feedback for predicted rewards. So, if a person finishes a task, he anticipates a reward, and hence gets a spike in dopamine. That is why we make a to-do list and strike it off as we finish it - it gives us a huge spike in dopamine. The problem is, dopamine is very highly addictive - you progressively need more and more dopamine because the same amount just doesn't give the same feeling. And the lifestyle and habits in today's world only worsen the problem. We live in a world of multi-tasking and constant distractions. Each distraction signals our brain to release more dopamine because we paid attention to it (and hence finished a task). No wonder we have short attention spans and concentration levels. Unfortunately, one can see it's effect in the business world as well as in our children. We are increasingly more focused on results... getting addicted to bonus numbers or grades and not investing in the process. If numbers are so important, its easy to be tempted to cheat and use unethical means to achieve them. We are also guilty of often commending the results or performance of our children rather than the effort they put in (Read my post on Growth Mindset). The process becomes less important than achieving the result, which produces a dopamine induced high.
Thankfully, our own chemical make-up comes to our rescue. Oxytocin is a hormone which also acts as a neurotransmitter. For decades, animal studies have shown that oxytocin is important for social interactions and is part of an adaptive system that allows us to coordinate our behavior with our social situation 1. Oxytocin is released when we experience feelings of love, trust, friendship and a sense of safety. Physical ways of showing affection - shaking hands, hugging and so on release oxytocin in our bodies. There is a spike in Oxytocin when we exhibit kindness and human generosity - when we do something good for someone without expecting anything in return. Research has also found that merely witnessing acts of generosity also increase the levels of oxytocin in our bodies. It is believed that oxytocin is what the best leaders experience when they are leading their organization / society forward. The more oxytocin you experience the more generosity, creativity, better problem solving skills and better immune system you experience! And best of all, it is known to help fight the addictive effects of dopamine.
So how can we put this to use? By understanding how Dopamine works, we can also understand how to reduce some of it undesirable effects. One way to reduce dopamine addiction is to change the way we praise our co-workers and our children. By shifting the focus on the process and the effort/learning (instead of the performance and the numbers), we can greatly reduce the constant need for dopamine. Simple changes like reducing screen time and other distractions and replacing it with unstructured down-time also help. This gives more time to synthesize and process information, which is not only crucial for learning but also for managing stress. And lastly, engage in activities that increase levels of oxytocin and promote its positive effects. So go ahead and do something nice for someone without expecting anything in return, hug your child, or take part in your community activities. By consciously choosing certain behaviors we can 'feel good' and do great for ourselves and our society instead of becoming victims to 'feeling good' in an addictive way or making unethical choices.
1. Oxytocin acts against the background of our histories and emotions. So, a person's responses to Oxytocin also depend on their mindset.↩