“If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.” – Abraham Maslow
Maslow’s ‘Hierachy of Needs’ had self-actualisation, esteem, love & belonging at the top of the pile when considering people’s needs to be happy. But, how do we reach ‘being all we are capable of being’? How do we get the extra two hours of productivity a day? How do we stop ourselves from snapping at our colleagues or undermining those that work for us?
During this blog, I want to look at how our four main ‘Happiness Chemicals’ can be better understood and then utilised to make us happier and more productive, or to create happier and more productive environments.
Let’s take a look back to our ancestors’ tribal living and how our biology is for
med to allow us to survive and thrive, as a species. Our ancestors lived in tribes. They didn’t have mobile phones and YouTube extracts of Tony Robbins or MBAs. But, If Damien Hurst were to cut them in half and display them in formaldehyde, they would look exactly like you and me. They used what we now know as the ‘Happiness Chemicals’ to maintain successful tribes and societies. By looking deeper into what these chemicals are, we can get some ‘cheats’ to help us feel better and also better understand our behaviours.
The four main happiness chemicals – Endorphins, Dopamine, Serotonin, and Oxytocin – can all be best described if we look at them in the context of human biology, and try to understand how this is relevant to today’s office or home environment.
Designed to mask physical pain, endorphins were prehistoric humans’ hunting companion. Released when pushing through stamina or pain barriers, endorphins allowed us to outhunt other species and overtake them technologically.
In today’s world, when business people wake up early to jog or lift weights, they are using the same chemicals as their ancestors used to. The exercise releases endorphins, which give a happiness boost throughout the day.
You can be as happy as you want, and utilise as many endorphins as you can get, but if you don’t eat, you die. Early humans didn’t just need painkillers. They also needed the motivation to go out and hunt or look after relatives. Dopamine is a reward chemical that says ‘Well Done!’ for achievement. So, early humans would get a hit of dopamine when they captured dinner for their tribe. Similarly, modern day humans get a kick out of nailing a target, or even receiving a WhatsApp message!
Endorphins and dopamine seem too good to be true, right? Well they are, if there is nothing there to keep them in check. Endorphins run out and dopamine is highly addictive (think of zombies walking down the street while glued to their phones!)
To counter-balance these two, and to stop people chasing their next hit at all costs, oxytocin is released to make us feel safe and happy. Oxytocin is released when we feel our tribe, group, family or office have our back. And most importantly, if the leader has our back. This feeling of safety keeps productivity positive.
To further enforce our feeling of belonging, serotonin is released when we feel significant or important. So, if we think back to our tribe, serotonin is the recognition from leadership that we are important and belong.
“Now, I’m no scientist, but I know what endorphins are. They’re tiny little magical elves that swim through your blood stream and tell funny jokes to each other. When they reach your brain, you hear what they’re saying and that boosts your health and happiness” – Ellen DeGeneres
Now we understand these, how can we use them to improve performance and happiness?
Starting your day with some sort of exercise is just about the best thing you can do to set yourself up to win. When you jog, or do any form of exercise, you are releasing endorphins, which then course through your veins for most of the day. It helps relieve the stress of your commute and make the first couple of hours of your day extremely productive. On its own, it will not create happiness or success, but it is the biggest performance enhancer for work there is.
Similarly, when we understand dopamine, we understand that the need to have tasks and objectives is as human as the thrill of the hunt and the satisfaction of catching dinner was to our ancient ancestors. As such, it is important that you have short, medium and long-term goals, whether they are personal or professional. With these goals in place it is a lot easier to focus on what you need to do at any time and also how to prioritise. These goals come with a large dopamine hazard label as, if left unchecked, you can become obsessed, which is destructive. I trained for the London Marathon and became so obsessed with doing a 19 minute 5k that I ended up tearing my hamstring… pure dopamine!
So, if we are starting our day with exercise and objective setting how are we to make sure that we don’t become obsessed and stress ourselves out? As mentioned above, the key is to tap into our reserves and sources of serotonin and oxytocin.
90% of serotonin is in your gut and the other 10% is in your brain. Your moods are almost completely controlled by the levels of serotonin that you have, so managing them and keeping them as high as possible is a great short-cut to productivity. Your levels of serotonin are influenced by the fuel you put into your body each day. Some foods like carbohydrates give you an immediate boost of serotonin, but then leave you feeling worse afterwards (carb crash anyone!?). Alternatively, if you eat fish and other protein rich meat along with salad and vegetables, you give yourself the best chance to feel positive and happy. Another great tip is to avoid boom and bust caffeine cycles… the high is never worth the low! If you want to boost serotonin in others, then congratulate them on an achievement. It may feel awkward, because they may not respond or they may go quiet. But, secretly they will love it.. go ahead and try it!
Finally, and this one may be out of your control, you need to select an environment, which will offer a safe, productive place to work. You need positive and strong leadership, and a team that you trust. While you may not work with Jürgen Klopp and receive hugs all day long, a nice metaphorical cuddle from a colleague, when they smile and say well done makes all the difference. The only way you can influence this is by giving it out, so you get it back!
Neil Farrell, Managing Director