The 5 Chemicals of Happiness

Originally published 23 Feb 2014

Leadership is not a rank, leadership is not a position, leadership is a decision, leadership is a choice – Simon Sinek

How is it that people can be happy at work? What is the ground on which we can build great relationships, and what destroys this? These are two questions I pose to people when introducing Introduction and Organizational Psychology. Simon Sinek has the answers, through 5 chemicals he explains, with passion, how great leaders operate. He dissects our chemistry and lets us understand how we should look at leadership in light of these findings. Inspired by the 99U talk featured below, I write this article.

Johnny Bravo

The talk starts with an example of Johnny Bravo, an A10 Warthog pilot who heroically flies through a warzone time and time again to protect the troops below. The weather is bad, there are no good maps, and he even leads another plane down the clouds when his ammunition has run out. What does he have to gain? nothing! In the military, people who are willing to sacrifice themselves are rewarded with medals, in business this is the other way around. People dare not to go against the rules or make the extra effort. Our way of doing business does not take into account the way we reward our bodies and how we should reward behavior.

Our happiness is mainly driven by 4 different chemicals. Two of these are completely selfish, you do not need anyone else to get them. The other two are the ones that we need to create great leaders, these are the chemicals that let us connect to others and build relationships. Let’s examine each one of them separately.

1. Endorphins

Endorphins are responsible for masking pain. When you go out for a run you will feel good in the beginning, feel great at the end, and feel the pain only a while after running. This has two goals, 1) to make you enjoy the (long-term) positive activity you are engaging on, and 2) destroy the link between the pain and the activity (the pain comes later). Endorphins are active during many activities, this includes laughing (you are convulsing your organs, remember those times you laughed until it started hurting – you ran out of endorphins).

2. Dopamine

Dopamine lets you reach your goals, it is the getting-things-done chemical. It has evolved from the constant search for food we encountered many thousands of years ago. Nowadays it is responsible for us writing down to-do lists. Most people are visually orientated, and seeing we have corporate visions we can assume companies face the same.

Dopamine is highly, highly, highly addictive. It is activated via alcohol, nicotine, gambling, and even cell phones (yes really). We wish to reach goals, to check things off lists, and therefore we are easily distracted when working on longer tasks. The indication of ADD and ADHD has increased by 66% over the last decades, but since it is inherently biological (a problem with the frontal lobes) we can conclude the increased diagnosis has to do with our environment.

Having too many goals in your company can be a bad thing. People will do anything to reach them (anyone remembers the Milgram experiments), and it can lead to the destruction of relationships. The amount of dopamine should be balanced and when unbalanced can lead to very ineffective behaviors.

3. Serotonin

Serotonin is the leadership chemical. It is responsible for pride and status. Because of serotonin, we have public awards and we do not give away a diploma via the mail but have a commencement ceremony. Higher levels of serotonin will lead to increases in confidence, not only with yourself but also for others (via mirror neurons).

The problem with serotonin is that we can easily trick the mechanism. We associate status with how much money you have, this is why we wear the label on the outside of our clothes. We therefore try and achieve things that have no goal, for which there is no pride to be gained via meaningful contributions.

Serotonin is also responsible for people working together in a hierarchy. The alpha’s (the ones with the power) enjoy the favours given by the rest of the group. At the same time, a large cost is imposed on the leaders. It is their responsibility to protect the group from outside danger, you control the safety circle. As a leader, you cannot have self-interest and you should be willing to sacrifice yourself for the group. Being a leader means not working less, but working more.

4. Oxytocin

Oxytocin helps to create human bonds. It is responsible for friendship, love, and trust. You can stimulate oxytocin by physical acts like hugging, and behavior such as generosity. This does not work with money, it only works when you genuinely give something valuable away, such as time and energy. Generosity is accepted when you give something non-redeemable. People who witness acts of generosity themselves also experience the positive effects it has.

The more you exert these behaviors, the more you will want to do it. Oxytocin is however not addictive and even prevents people from addictions. It can increase your health, longevity, problem-solving skills and creativity. It does take time to develop (when dating you will not marry a girl within 7 days, but will probably within 7 years).

5. Cortisol

Cortisol is responsible for stress and anxiety. It is an antagonist of happiness. From a biological perspective, it is a sensible chemical, it starts the fight or flight response. Glucose is pumped into your muscles, your heartbeat increases and you scan your surroundings. On the social level, you automatically alert others and get them in the same state. This state also shuts down growth and the immune system.

The problem with the cortisol is that it should be shut down immediately after an emergency has passed. But in our lives nowadays this does not happen. Our dopamine craving centers have created situations where there seems to be an emergency every few seconds and our health deteriorates. Oxytocin is blocked, and we take the problems from work back to home with us. Simon Sinek states that jobs are killing us, and that this is the leader’s fault.

Putting it All Together

Happiness is caused by 4 chemicals and prevented by 1. Endorphin and dopamine let us mask pain and reach goals. These two selfish chemicals are managed by serotonin and oxytocin, the chemicals responsible for connection, love, and trust. When cortisol is activated the positive effects of the latter two soon cease to exist. A great leader knows how to prevent this. He creates a space where trust is the norm, where people are acutely aware of the why of the company, and stress is kept as low as possible. People should have goals, be recognized for good work and always have the support from the company. A great leader balances the hormones sensibly!

Leadership Lessons From Simon Sinek

Leaders are responsible for 2 things:

  1. To determine who gets in – start with WHY
  2. To decide how big the circle is – Only the C-suite or the whole company

Leaders can build trust by trusting others, when you have (and you should have) interpersonal contact with the people around you, there is no time to be in contact with everyone, delegate trust!

It is the shield that matters, not the sword – Simon Sinek

References & Further Reading: