The 4 happiness chemicals (+1)

We’re back to Simon Sinek (from Start With Why) , with a video I’ve watched too often to not write about it. This one is a presentation about ‘Why leaders eat last’, an analytical and biological – yep, that’s right – approach to leadership, organisations and the ‘happiness chemicals’. (Remember kids, hugs not drugs) Explained in a simple and relatable way, Simon talks about how these different chemicals make us happy, make us strive, alert us to dangers and how we create bonds of trust, among others.

Here’s the video, take a seat and strap yourselves in! Below you’ll find a ‘short’ list of the chemicals and their effects, as explained by the inspiring Mr. Sinek.

The dopamine list

Powerful stuff, eh? The information on its own is interesting enough but could be a bit much. Not if you have Simon at the helm though, who explains it in a witty, clear sort of way that makes it so easy to understand and digest. This makes it very special indeed. I think it presents a great insight into how the human body works and how we can use that information to our advantage. I have since renamed my to do list to ‘The dopamine list’, as a simple reminder. Checking off things on such a list truly feels great. Perhaps it is a placebo kind of effect but I’ve enjoyed those lists – and the crossing off – more since I’ve given it this new name.

The chemicals

It amazes me that all this stuff is in our bodies and clicks and ticks the way it does, it just works and has done for ages. Often during the video it didn’t even feel real, like it was some sort of presentation about the future. In fact it’s ancient and deeply ingrained in all of us. The fact that it’s as old as pretty much life itself makes me feel small and profoundly part of nature in the same breath. All the chemicals are there to help us survive, they are the reason we’re not extinct. For the sake of dopamine shots, let’s cross them off one by one. Starting with ‘the selfish chemicals’ at 5:00.

Masking physical pain, so we had the tenacity to chase that Mammoth and the ability to run a marathon or lift big nowadays. It’s all for the sake of endurance, we can keep on going.  The bonus is that your body feels good for having done it. Interestingly, it is also what happens when you’re laughing so much it hurts; your body has simply run out of endorphins to mask the fact that it’s painful.

(07:58) Designed for you to get shit done. It’s responsible for the good feeling you get when you find what you’ve been looking for, or when you achieve a goal of any size. This is what, back in the day, made us get up and look for food preemptively instead of waiting for hunger to kick in. Dopamine is highly addictive if unbalanced (alcoholism, careers, gambling and phones*) but it’s highly useful when in balance. Making to do lists and crossing things off feels good for a reason, you get a shot of dopamine because you got stuff done and the body rewards you for it.

*The way we interact with our phones also presents us with shots of dopamine. The messages and likes give us a small boost, which is why we like it so much. Every ping or buzz is potentially a small boost of ‘a good feeling’.  When we check our phones 100 times a day it just means we are looking for another shot of dopamine. It’s a sneaky addiction that is becoming all too common, I’ve dealt with it myself.

Go for a run and get stuff done. It’ll get these two chemicals buzzing around in your system, they’ll make you happy and you don’t need anyone else to get them.

(~14:15) Serotonin is what you get when you’re in a safe environment with people whom you trust and who trust you. It’s why we created tribes to be safe from external dangers and had alpha leaders that drove us forward. It’s the ‘leadership chemical’, also responsible for the feeling of pride and status. We need the recognition of others to feel good, which is why we have award and graduation ceremonies where we invite our peers. The best bit is that when you receive a surge of serotonin from getting your award or diploma etc., your peers in the audience also get a shot of serotonin. It is about creating a bond of trust with parents, friends and coworkers. You want to make them proud. Shouting “Hi mom!” on live tv also works, I guess 😉

But, you can trick serotonin. By buying things that ‘give you status’ you also receive a boost of serotonin, which feels good but it doesn’t build on anything. It is a short boost which cheats the system because there is no relationship, there is no trust, it is not the real deal and will not bring a feeling of (long term) fulfillment.

(27:27) “The best chemical of all”. It’s the feeling of love, trust, friendship, unicorns and rainbows. It’s the reason we like to hang out with our friends, we don’t even have to do anything, just being with them is enough for the oxytocin to do its work. It makes you feel safer. “One way to get it is physical contact, hugging for instance, feels wonderful.” It is also why shaking hands and physically greeting someone is important. Furthermore, it is the feeling you get when you perform an act of kindness or see someone else do it, you both get a boost of oxytocin when this happens. (With acts of kindness, time is the equal commodity, money doesn’t work) True connection and interaction to people is what makes this tick, which is why telephone calls > emails any day of the week when it comes to building relations.

“The more oxytocin you have in your body, the more generous you become. In other words, the more you do, the more you want to do! It gets better; lots of oxytocin in your body inhibits addiction (dopamine), it makes it harder to get addicted to something.”

(38:48) It’s the feeling of stress and anxiety. It alerts you to danger and is designed to keep us alive. It’s the first stage of fight or flight and makes us hyper-attuned and ready to go. In this period of anxiety, other body systems are shut down for the cortisol to work. Which is why cortisol shouldn’t be in your body for too long, it’s supposed to be in and out. That’s why longer periods of stress are so bad for you and tend to affect other areas of your body and life. “This is why happy people live longer!”

He also emphasizes the fact that there are people in organisations who do not feel safe and are therefore, not happy in the workplace. It is both up to them and definitely the leaders to make them feel safe and protected. We recognise their ‘alpha status’ but duly ask for equal respect, trust and security the other way around. “This is what it means to be a leader. Leadership is not a rank, it is a decision and a choice. If you decide to look after the people on your left and right, you have chosen to become a leader.”

So far the chemicals. I meant for these to be pretty much bullet points but I lost control halfway through and excitedly kept on typing. While I’ve tried to include the most important bits there’s plenty more to see and hear in the video. Either way, these chemicals are not only interesting, they are a part of our body/mind team. (We share these chemicals with all social mammals). Remember, our bodies are trying to repeat activities that are in our best interest, which are making us feel good.

Hope you find it interesting and can use it to your advantage! I’m sure I triggered a few by writing this, either way I’ll get some by satisfyingly crossing it off my to do(pamine) list. 😉


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