The Moral Molecule

Neuroscience and economic behavior

My Favorite Ways to Raise Oxytocin

Here's my top 10.

After a dozen years studying the role oxytocin plays in human behavior, I thought I'd share an answer to the question I am most often asked about oxytocin: How can I raise my levels? As the paperback version of The Moral Molecule hits the shelves, this seems an appropriate time to unveil my top 10 list.

Before I can tell you how to raise oxytocin, we need a short neuroscience digression. The effect of oxytocin, like other signaling chemicals in the brain, is more dependent on changes than absolute levels. Oxytocin helps us respond appropriately to our social environment by changing amounts in the brain second by second. So, rather than focus on oxytocin levels that are near zero for most people without a positive social interaction, the question is how can one increase the surge in oxytocin when interacting with others and thereby increase our empathy and compassion towards them.

Neuroscience digression two. Because oxytocin is so ancient (a precursor can be traced back at least 400 million years to fish), natural selection has found ways to utilize it in both brain and body. Unlike almost every other neurochemical we make, animal studies have shown that the change in oxytocin after a social interaction as measured in blood reflects changes in oxytocin in the brain. Thus, if an activity causes a spike in oxytocin above baseline as measured in blood, then a corresponding spike is likely occurring in the brain. It is brain oxytocin that is most responsible for its effects on behavior, and blood gives us a window into what is occurring in the brain.

The ways to raise oxytocin listed below are based on measuring changes in oxytocin in blood in humans. Many are from my lab, but some come from other labs. Variations in protocols and the moderate sample sizes for human studies inhibit comparing the reported average changes in oxytocin across published works. Instead, I'm listing the ways to raise oxytocin in order of my personal favorites.

10. Listen with your eyes. Instead of being glued to an electronic device, give the person with you your complete attention. Watch their face and listen to what he or she is telling you.

9. Give a gift. Our first human oxytocin studies showed that receiving gifts raised oxytocin. Why not make this a regular practice? The key is not to expect a gift in return, just surprise someone for no reason.

8. Share a meal. Eating moderately is calming and helps us bond with others. Including a glass of wine is fine, too. You can increase the effect by following #9 and making the meal you share a gift. 

7. Meditate while focusing on others. My lab has found that a form of meditation called "metta" in which one focuses on loving others is better at fostering social connections than standard mindfulness meditation.

6. Soak in a hot tub. I love to do this with my kids. The warm temperature and time together offer the ability to connect with them. And, we all look goofy when wet so this is even more fun.

5. Use social media. OK, you are doing this anyway. 100% of the people I have tested using social media had an increase in oxytocin. Just don't forget to see your Facebook friends in person, too.

4. Ride a rollercoaster or jump out of an airplane. Many activities that are moderately stressful and done with one or more other people raise oxytocin. My recent tandem skydive produced a greater than 200% oxytocin spike. Try being a single rider on a rollercoaster and you'll experience an immediate bond with the person next to you.

3. Pet a dog. This one doesn't always work unless the dog belongs to you, but if you identify as a "dog person" any old dog will raise your oxytocin. Once oxytocin is up, you'll connect you better to the humans around you, too. The dog won't complain, either.

2. Use the "L" word. Tell those around you that you love them. Oxytocin is the love molecule so it is part of our evolved biology to love others (both "philia" and "eros"). You've got to put it out there to get it back. Yes, this means with friends and even at work.

1. Eight hugs a day. We have shown that touch not only raises oxytocin, but it reduces cardiovascular stress and can improve the immune system. Try telling people that you hug rather than shake hands and see what happens when you give others the gift of oxytocin.

Studies show that the more one releases oxytocin, the easier it becomes to do so. That has certainly been my experience practicing these oxytocin-releasing activities. If you can do all ten of these, you'll be an oxytocin master.

Paul J. Zak is a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA.  His book The Moral Molecule will be published in 2012.

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