The Moral Molecule

Neuroscience and economic behavior

The Top 10 Ways to Boost Good Feelings

Lab-tested methods to raise oxytocin, and feel better about yourself and others.

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The "love molecule," oxytocin, is the chemical foundation for trusting others. Activated by positive social interactions, it makes us care about others in tangible ways, and it motivates us to work together for a common purpose.

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: 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.

But first, a short neuroscience digression: The effect of oxytocin, like other signaling chemicals in the brain, is more dependent on changes than on absolute levels. Oxytocin helps us respond appropriately to our social environment by changing its 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 better question is how can one increase their level of oxytocin when interacting with others and thereby increase empathy and compassion towards them.

Another neuroscience digression: 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 the brain and the 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 as measured in the blood, a corresponding spike is likely occurring in the brain. It is brain oxytocin that is most responsible for effects on behavior, and blood oxytocin 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 sources. 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 simply 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. So 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, making this even more fun.

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

4. Ride a roller coaster 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 roller coaster and you'll experience an immediate bond with the person next to you.

3. Pet a dog. This 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. The dog won't complain, either. And once your oxytocin is up, you'll connect better to the humans around you, too. 

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. With friends, too, and maybe 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, too. 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 in practicing these oxytocin-releasing activities. If you can do all 10, 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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