Leverage those neurotransmitters! (Practical advice for CEO’s, teachers, and parents.)


You may think this is merely a disgusting display of tuna-fish baked into a fish shape. But it is actually a picture of my five-year-old’s hard-won dopamine, seratonin, and oxytocin.

I’m currently consumed with Simon Sinek, an author/speaker who just might have been the ESTJ lovechild of Brene Brown and Jeff Bezos. Anyway.

Sinek practically applies social psychology research to the realms of business and leadership. To his pseudo-mother’s touchy-feely delight, he concludes that motivation and effectiveness require authenticity, safety, and connection. Sinek would also make his absent* father proud because he investigates the concrete behavioral effects of specific neurotransmitters and holds up graphs depicting long-term bottom-line.

(*Bezos is busy modeling the successful running-of-an-empire while direct-depositing fat child support checks. Brown is meanwhile whispering the lyrics to You are My Sunshine and rocking Sinek’s cortisol levels down from frantic-abandonment to a calm-slumber.  Duh.)

So. Here are some take-aways from Sinek’s uniquely well-rounded wisdom:

1) Facts:

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. It surges after we mentally acknowledge that we ACCOMPLISHED something. It also surges when we engage in a compulsively addictive behavior (from gambling to checking our phones). That last part SUCKS because a lot of these addictive behaviors eventually habituate us to the easy-and-repetitive-dopamine surge, numb us to other joys, and lead us to “unproductive” at-best and “empty” at-worst.

Suggested behavior:

Intentionally incorporate non-addictive ways to give yourself dopamine (checking off a to-do-list), and physically remove yourself (don’t use willpower alone) from the harmfully addictive sources of dopamine (ie charge your phone in your kitchen instead of next to your bed.)

Leaders/parents can only leverage dopamine if they allow others to actually accomplish tasks independently (no micramaging the account or tying your 6 yr old’s shoes.) AND false-dopamine is not “hollowly-administered” (only give em the trophy/praise when they EARN it through hard-won efforts/practice. Celebrating “non-effort” is a confusing neurological pairing of “easy-stuff with reward,” which eventually erodes the impact of the “reward.”) In a perfect world, the dyslexic kid who worked his butt off to read at a level G would be granted the “A,” and the whizz-kid who stayed at a level K because he never picked up a book, would get the “C.” The same concept of pairing dopamine-with-hardest-won-growth is terrifying in the workplace that is consumed with short-term outcomes, but well-known to produce exponentially positive results in the long run.

2) Facts:

Seratonin is a neurotransmitter that we get from moments of “power,” “status,” or “recognition from others.” We get it when we feel we have pleased others or derived a sense of assumed legitimacy. (I think many high-up executives or politicians are seratonin junkies. Also: Serotonin is why Oprah feels like a rockstar temporarily when she puts on her heels with the red soles.)

Suggested behavior:

Good leaders* leverage the motivating power (good feelings are positive reinforcement) of seratonin surges. They don’t send “thanks” emails- They personally legitimize the contributions of others in meaningful ways that convey adequacy and status within the community. I.E, they have a face-to-face conversation, complete with a smile and a discussion about career trajectory. Good leaders are also aware of times when their own seratonin-seeking may lead to relational alienation and insecurity/lack of safety. (Those red heels? Never in a neighborhood where houses have been decimated by a flood or people have been impoverished.)

Like dopamine, there are dangerously addictive (easily-won, immediately-reinforcing) ways to derive serotonin that can eventually be detrimental to well-being. Be aware of consumerism and workaholism in-particular. Diversify the avenues through which you derive seratonin; Also, diversify the types of feel-good neurotransmitters you seek. (Like, if you make $40,000 a year and have a $100,000 collection of Christian Louboutins, shoe-buying may be your only avenue to receiving positive brain-chemicals.)

*By “leader,” I mean everyone from parent to teacher to CEO.)



Endorphins surge when you brains are trying to protect our bodies from feeling pain. We feel it after a run, when we laugh (so our stomach muscles and squished organs don’t hurt), and it feels absolutely exquisite.

Suggested Behavior:

Lift some weights, watch some comedy, and go for a run. Give your employees opportunities for the same. Obviously. (Ok, so I’m slacking on this part of the post now because I don’t have much time to write and the last two chemicals are way more important than endorphins.)



Oxytocin is the most rewarding brain chemical, but it is indeed the hardest-won (particularly in our anxiously-detached, electronic-obsessed, cortisol-raging, relational culture).  It’s what happens when we safely connect with others, emotionally or physically. A dose of oxytocin can be achieved through a hug, a handshake, by engaging in an act of genuine generosity/kindness, or even by witnessing the generosity/kindness of another person. The point is, engaging with others (in emotional-and-physical-safety) is a prerequisite for deriving oxytocin. People who more frequently experience oxytocin surges not only benefit from increased psychological well-being (belonging, positive self-concept, purpose etc), but they experience better health and ultimately longevity.  (This is probably why studies have historically shown that married people live longer. HowEVER, I came across a more recent study that said otherwise, and I’m pretty sure cortisol from changing cultural/economic factors is partly to blame. Anyway.)

Suggested behavior:

Sinek obsesses over the need to lose the electronics and just TALK, face-to-face preferably, but via phone if necessary. AWKWARDNESS BE DAMNED.  (Those with social anxiety, this is why getting help to be able to shift from avoidance-of-perceived-danger to safe-engagement is vital to well-being. Isolation from genuine connection can eventually turn into an oxytocin-deprived depression.) I would say that this is as applicable for executives in the office as it is for spouses and parents. Presence matters. Sinek says that a boardroom meeting is no place for a cell phone, because the culture of bonding-in-safety (for a few minutes before the meeting starts, during breaks, etc) is overshadowed by a culture of staring at gadgets with a bunch of strangers. I wonder if the same can be said about families, and if we are all deprived of oxytocin as a culture. A lot of our emotional struggles as a society may be rooted in the realities that adults and children alike are stretched and stressed, and we are all relieving tension through avenues that feel good temporarily but preclude opportunities for oxytocin (from social media to solo-porn). When was the last time you had an oxytocin surge because you engaged with another person in a present and meaningful way? Asking to pass the remote or telling the kids to “hurry-up-we’re-late,” or asking your coworker “when-will-the-report-be-in,” do NOT COUNT.



Cortisol is a stress hormone. It happens when we don’t feel safe. There are a million societal realities that contribute to the constant buzz of cortisol through our brains and bodies. (Terrorism, economic collapse, lay-offs, car accidents, cancer, shootings, etc.) But there are also relational sources of “unsafe:” Invalidation, silent-treatment, diminishing, physical threats/domination, neglect, over-criticism, unchecked blame and anger, etc. Sinek talks mostly about the neglect of disconnection in the workplace: we are motivated by money, not by a sense of belonging to something meaningful, because we are ignored at best and scared-of-getting-fired at worst. Cortisol precludes the backbones of motivation: clarity of thinking, self-efficacy (dopamine), adequacy (serotonin), and purpose/belonging (oxytocin ). But neglect is just the most common cortisol-elevating condition in our workplaces and in our homes: Overtly compromising psychological and physical well-being, by resorting to everything from from verbal belittling to physical abuse, also skyrockets cortisol and precludes clarity, adequacy, and output (not to mention takes a toll on our physical health).  Just consider this finding which has been replicated time and again: Traumatized children don’t learn. They just don’t. People with elevated cortisol, due to feeling NOT SAFE, cannot neurologically move past hyper-vigilant-protection-mode to clear-and-present-learning-mode. No further explanation necessary.

suggested behavior:

Sinek talks a lot about the systemic/cultural contributions to high cortisol levels in the workplace. He places the responsibility to cultivate a climate of “safety” squarely on the shoulders of the business’s leaders. The same could be said about political leaders, school leaders, and family leaders. We have an obligation to “rule” in a manner that cultivates emotional safety (adequacy, belonging) and physical safety (safe touch, warmth, nutrition, etc). This means establishing expectations/limits without resorting to fear as the motivator. This is reflected in the research on negative long-term psychological outcomes of spanking (fear is physical safety and rejection), invalidating environments (fear is abandonment and rejection), learned hopelessness/helplessness, and authoritarian parenting in general (rigid, ruling-by-fear). Kids and adults alike can’t obtain emotional awareness, regulation, cognitive clarity, self-soothing, and mastery of self and skill, when they are simultaneously flooded with cortisol. The better method for business leaders  and parents alike, is to cultivate the expectation of certain rewards, through interactive behaviors, over TIME: dopamine (mastery), serotonin (authority-pleasing and status, granted as earned by a status-deserving-leader), and oxytocin (acts of connection, interaction, and generosity, repeated constantly) are nature’s automatic motivators. Then, these hard-won neurological reactions to relational experiences,  become the basis of respect and growth. Not cortisol-inducing fear.

However. Leaders managing the  work/school/family environment S can only get us so far. We all run on cortisol sometimes. Whether it’s the account executive who just lost a parent or the kid who forgot his backpack at home, cortisol is a reality of life. Therefore, good leaders are aware of this and incorporate ways that individuals can be aware of their stress and behaviorally reduce cortisol levels. Schools and businesses are teaching mindfulness, allowing for exercise opportunities, and even offering yoga breaks and stress management retreats.  Parents are becoming aware of our kids’ unnecessarily hurried childhoods and intentionally making tonee for unstructured play and exercise; we are researching the effects of family dinner and bedtime stories and teachings kids to breathe slowly. Good leaders acknowledge the destructive realities of cortisol and offering tools to reduce cortisol  is what excellent leaders do,

Ok, that took wayyyy longer than I expected to write, so now MY cortisol is surging!  So guess what?! I’m hitting publish even though I didn’t proof-read because I’m chasing a dopamine-rush associated with checking this article off my to-do list!



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