Over a meal with family or friends, have you ever had that sense of feeling right? That you like being there, you feel safe and included, and believe that these people are looking out for your welfare?
Hopefully, you regularly do.
That’s oxytocin being released.
Oxytocin, the trust and social-bonding chemical, is created not only in the brain but by independent neurons in the heart – to create harmony and understanding. Oxytocin binds families, teams and cultures together, making people feel happy and trusting. It is designed to create lasting human relationships and collectively reduce cortisol levels by making people feel safer together.
The signature feeling of oxytocin is belonging.
Oxytocin orchestrates our social behaviour, enabling us to find our support and to want to give it to others. The foundations for creating positive social connections in later life are laid down early through body and eye contact with our parents. At that point in our lives, if we are lucky, oxytocin levels are as high as they will ever be.
In the absence of oxytocin, however, and where there is stress, conflict or a parent or guardian leaves, cortisol levels rise and our young selves unconsciously feel the threat of isolation, instinctively knowing that we need our ‘group’ or ‘family’ for survival.
If, as children, we do not have the experience of having our needs met by adults, or the social aspects around us are not explained to us by members of our group, we find it harder to find our support in later life.
We are less likely to give and receive support, ask for help and seek to resolve conflict, and more likely to go it alone, fall out with people and feel unrewarded by social situations.
We all have our social quirks, and learning about ourselves as social beings is part of growing up. When people upset us or we don’t like working with them, if we can ‘lean into’ the difficulty and work to resolve conflict, rather than isolating ourselves, we stand to create some of the strongest supportive bonds we will ever have.
Oxytocin levels fluctuate in relation to our perception and processing of social information – whether we are in the ‘in group’ or ‘out group’, whether we feel safe or threatened. It is released when we trust someone; it enables us to feel responsibility to others and facilitates social bonding.
Too much, and we may be overly dependent on relationships and lack the ability to make independent decisions; we may also want our group to be exclusive or elite.
Too little, and we may feel isolated; we might not build professional relationships or know how to use our networks for support.
In times of stress or during extended periods of working long hours, we are also less likely to reach out, and more likely to become isolated.
We need people in our social group who care about us and watch out for us to help us get through those difficult times. We also need to be able to boost our own levels of oxytocin, which we can do by empathising with others in order to create harmony or manage conflict.
To quote Paul Zak, “When someone shows you trust, a feelgood jolt of oxytocin surges through your brain and triggers you to reciprocate.”
LIFE HACK: Send a text right now to someone who is in your thoughts and with whom you haven’t spoken in a while. You may ask how they are doing, ask for their advice, or offer to help. You just boosted your oxytocin level. Notice how you feel happier – even better when they reply!
Oxytocin is part of the winning chemical cocktail for Flexibility. An important part of flexibility is being able to work with and live alongside diverse groups of people and create excellent relationships and collaborations.
We can always get better at ‘loving thy neighbour’, and a growing consciousness about oxytocin will enable us to use its incredible bonding power to greater effect.
When we share stories that let people know a bit about us, show that we understand others and are able to negotiate and compromise for the greater good, oxytocin is released in ourselves and others, building trust.
Oxytocin is crucial to good teamwork because it is part of the emotions of liking, loving, pride and feeling included. It is a ‘feel- good’ chemical: with it, we feel stronger together, which also contributes to feelings of confidence – the confidence we derive from being part of a social group.
Paul Zak’s extensive research, published in Harvard Business Review and in his book, The Trust Factor, reports that in organisations that share information broadly and intentionally build relationships, and where leaders ask for support, there is 76 per cent more engagement, people have 106 per cent more energy, they are 50 per cent more productive, 29 per cent more satisfied with their lives, have 13 per cent fewer days sick and 40 per cent fewer cases of burnout.
He has tested oxytocin levels in the bloodstream of thousands of employees across many industries and cultures and has shown that trust and purpose reinforce each other, creating a mechanism for high oxytocin levels over a longer period. Robust networks and finding support, therefore, are part of our happiness and a cornerstone of our resilience.
To boost oxytocin on an ongoing basis, commit to these five things:
Smile at Others More Often: Smile to yourself, feel the serotonin boost. Smile at someone else, feel the oxytocin boost. When they smile back, feel the dopamine boost.
Eat with Other People: Eating together is a common and wonderful event that most societies and cultures use to promote social bonding. Sharing food and drink itself releases oxytocin that binds people together.
Take a Fitness Class: Fitness classes such as aerobics, Zumba, yoga, Pilates, step and spinning are social and enjoyable; book yourself in for one per week to boost your oxytocin while raising your fitness level. Make sure it is a class that is at your level, otherwise your dopamine will drop, motivation will evaporate and you won’t want to go again.
Talk Through Problems You’re Facing: Oxytocin levels change as we assess the quality of our social bonds. When cortisol rises, we tend to feel isolated because all we can do is focus on our problems. We either lean too heavily on people or cease to ask them for help. Reaching out, being honest and engaging in constructive communication are vital to raising oxytocin levels, and being well- bonded drives cortisol down again.
Visualise Your “Tribe”: In times of stress at work, when you feel there is little time to connect with people outside of the essential work conversations, take a moment to think about your support team. See their faces in your mind’s eye encouraging you. Notice the ‘feel-good’ oxytocin boost as you think about them.
Oxytocin is like social ‘dark matter’: when it is present, it is an invisible force binding us to each other and we feel supported and connected. When it is absent, it is the cause of great disconnection and loneliness. It draws people together in the face of challenges and disasters, temporarily obliterating social and cultural divides, driving our ability to empathise and ensuring the survival of all humanity. The absence of it drives people to war, taking them so far apart that they can no longer feel for each other.
In the microcosm of our own lives, knowing this enables us to be more physically intelligent. We can influence how we interact socially by noticing and managing the rises and falls in our oxytocin levels. By increasing them at critical moments, we can improve our contribution to our families, groups, societies and cultures while finding the support for ourselves that is crucial for our resilience.
About Companies in Motion
There are over 80 easy to use techniques and tips to build our Physical Intelligence -- the neuroscience-backed approach to detecting and actively managing the balance of eight key chemicals in our bodies and brains so that we can take charge of our body, brain, schedule and life. You can read about all of them in our new book, Physical Intelligence: Harness Your Body’s Untapped Intelligence to Achieve More, Stress Less and Live More Happily by Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton available from Simon and Schuster. (Order here.) (Multiple translations will be available later in 2019.)