Sunday, February 21, 2016

The 4 Happiness Components - Dopamine, Serotonin, Endorphins and Oxytocin

Happiness Chemicals

"We should concern ourselves, not so much with the pursuit of happiness, but with the happiness of pursuit. You have an obligation to be happy and happiness is everything we experience"

Everyone wants to be happy. We go out of our way seeking things in a complex world in our everlasting attempts to reach happiness and when we get there, we simply require more. It is within our own power and a lot more rudimentary than you think. We are, at the most basic level, made up of chemicals and actually star dust in our origins.

Pleasure and happiness are purely a combination of chemicals and yes perception as well which have a direct influence on our biology. But these are also subject to our individual biochemical blue print and influence from external surroundings.

Within our vast complex beings, there are four chemicals are responsible for our happiness. These are Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin and Endorphins. The production of all of these are located in our primitive portion of the brain in the posterior pituitary gland and central nervous system. These are some of the most important chemicals responsible for well-being and a balanced healthy life.

  • Dopamine is released when we accomplish something or reach a goal.
  • Serotonin is released when we feel appreciated, important or significant.
  • Endorphins are released in response to pain or stress to relief anxiety or depression.
  • Oxytocin is released when we feel safe, have trust-based relationship or being part of a community of some sort. You even get a burst of this with a hug. It increases in females during labor and make them feel more cuddly and caring. It’s referred to as the love hormone and even more interestingly gets suppressed by increased amounts of testosterone. Sex, prayer, meditation charity, parenthood, acceptance, gifts, smiles and hugs are all activities that actually increase our Oxytocin.

Our social behavior, the things we are attracted to or keep doing are positive reinforcements from our brain in order to release more of those chemicals and keep doing what we’re doing because they are working for us. But sometimes, these can be deceiving. Whether it is an expression of love, a poem, a promotion, societal status, money, act of charity, a song, independence, food, addiction, fear, conflict, sex, pain, stress or a conceptual definition of hat is normal. It all boils down to just those and our instinct drives us towards more.

Habits – Our habits are formed by repeated neuropathways in our brain that all lead to the search for food (energy), and sense of security.
These get more established over time and repetition. Our chemistry allows us to create these pathways in our brain and the more they are used, the more established and habitual they are. I know that in our modern society, it is difficult to believe, but our primary daily concern is still the acquisition and hunt for food (energy). Food gives our bodies the necessary building blocks for survival.

Habits are difficult to restructure because they require us to spend energy. This is something our body values a great deal and we’re cautious not to spend it. You might notice that it is more difficult for older people to change their habits or mindsets. When we know something, we feel knowledgeable and important. This give us more Serotonin and worse yet is a question of spending energy. So not only are we giving up the release of the Serotonin that we have at the moment, but we would also need to spend energy to rebuild it. Once we figure something out that helps our survival and well-being, we place a blue print for that and we simply don’t want to change it because it requires us to spend more energy.

There are also a limited number of pathway connections and they get recycled. When we change a habit and replace it with a new one, this is what happens. Our neural capacity is not infinite. While we can change habits, we have to force our conscience brain, the prefrontal cortex, to make a consistent effort to re-wire those pathways. It is suggested that it take 4-6 weeks to create a new habit cognitively. This is the beauty of neuro-plasticity is that it gives us the ability to change.

Nutrition – Our nutrition contains the basic building blocks for the chemicals we need to grow and function. In the absence of a component, we simply cannot produce it.  So there could be occasions where our body is capable and ready to produce it, but it simply cannot. A balanced and nutritional diet is therefore essential to enable us to do so. The highest of dopamine concentrations for example have been found in bananas with levels of 40 to 50 parts. Consuming tryptophan supplements can increase the brain’s ability to manufacturer Serotonin.

Biological capacity – Our biology and biochemical blue print although similar, is different between individuals. Similar to the diversity of physical characteristics between people, our ability to manufacturer and keep in balance the various components also varies. There are some people that are happy by nature and others that subscribe more to doom and gloom; no two people that are the same. Although a limitation sometimes, the best thing you can do is ensure that your body has what it needs to produce what it can.

It is also important to note that this is not a linear relationship, so over production is not necessarily good for you. For example, extremely high levels of Serotonin can be toxic and have potentially fatal effects. Healthy doses of Oxytocin increase fidelity in males, but a high dosage can lead to loosing typical male characteristics which would then make females less attracted. Self-doubt, and lack of enthusiasm are linked with low levels of dopamine, but over production can lead to irrational behavior and extreme unhealthy risk-taking. You might have heard that the key to happiness is moderation.

External factors – What we do day-to-day, who we associate with, how well in-tune with our body’s needs, leisure time are all things we can control and all have an effect on our chemistry. For example, a presentation that goes well at work will impact your levels of Serotonin as well as Oxytocin. So the more of these the better. Another example, are the relationships we choose in our lives and who we spend time with is a key to our happiness because it affects our feeling of well-being, self-confidence and feelings of trust.

Sex and Happiness – Sex helps our body release all four. The activation of the hypothalamus, release large amounts of oxytocin which numbs the female nervous system to an extent that a she doesn’t feel pain — only pleasure. In males, the primary hormone released is dopamine. In evolutionary terms this makes absolute sense. The females feel an incredible amount of pleasure with an absence of fear and anxiety while males feel small bursts via Dopamine release leaving them addicted and seeking more. Brain cells do decline with age especially after 35, but engaging in regular sexual activity helps us keep healthy and grows new brain cells in the hippocampus (learning and memory). Stress and depression actually causes shrinkage in our hippocampus.

Perception and outlook – Yes, our perception has a tremendous effect on our production of chemicals. You can observe this when you get happy after having a pleasant thought or watching old memories in videos or pictures or even listening to a song. There is a direct relationship between what you choose to think and what happy chemicals your body produces. Again, limited by your natural capacity, but can be maximized by your thoughts and perceptions of situations. Positive thinking is a trait that can be cultured to influences biological well-being.

How to get more? The things we do influence our happiness. For example, one way one can control the release of Dopamine by breaking down large goals into smaller chunks of achievable units. This leads to smaller chunks of Dopamine release over time which makes us feel good and continue towards a larger quest. Successful entrepreneurs do this naturally instead of designing overly challenging goals that are hard to reach which may never pay-off and back fire by not allowing our brain to produce (reward us) with anything at all. So consider that personal habits and structure may actually pay off into our happiness bank account. Serotonin can be tricked as well. If you spend time reviewing old achievements or nice memories, your brain will react to that and release Serotonin. Our brain does not know the difference between real or imagined circumstances. Spending reasonable time in the sun promotes Vitamin-D which in turn promotes tryptophan into Serotonin production. Oxytocin can be tricked through hugs, gift giving or charity. Endorphins can be triggered by exercise and laughter. 

So what about drugs or deficiencies? – In certain cases extreme or prolonged stress, malnutrition or a pre-disposed biological insufficiency may lead to situations where your body is depleted from those basic components, unable to produce complex molecules or have established habitual deep-seated neural pathways which are hard to change. In these situations, luckily medical interventions or a pro-longed attention to a special diet can help depending on the severity of the circumstances. Such as effort can help you get over the physical challenge and get on your way to healing.

In summary, outside extreme conditions, you are in control. The combination of the choices you make with your diet, sexual life, your ability to think and make choices, the effort you place in establishing new habits, your bonds with people and relationships, and your outlook are the vital secrets to happiness. Is it easy? No, but it lies in your hands and within your own choices. One word of advice, it takes a long time to cause harm to the body – Nature is slow, but sadly even longer to recover. With patience, it’s possible.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Review of Sapiens and the Origins of Human Kind

I rarely publish a book review, but this one was a must. It started with a talk that I saw on TED which I thought was incredibly interesting. After digging a bit, I learned of the book "Sapiens" by Yuval Noah Harari. The book and message in my view get full marks for innovation. The style and big-picture approach simply resonated and needless to say, I really liked the speaker as well. It’s one of those books that puts your thoughts and many of the things you might already know in context and in a nicely narrated story backed by scientific findings, historical and archaeological facts.

In my everlasting pursuit to keep up with multiple disciplines including history, biology, computer science there are two aspects that were always very clear to me when it comes to creativity.

1. Ability to "Connect the Dots" lead to creativity
When you look at today’s science and the past few hundred years since the era of the Renaissance, one cannot help but notice an undeniable trend used by scientists for leveraging the work of others and connecting the dots. In fact, one can almost claim that some of the life changing theories and discoveries happened because of their collective abilities to do so. Even Einstein’s Special Relativity and the birth of modern physics are not an exception here. An interesting documentary describes the predecessors to Einstein and how their work culminated into the great work from Einstein in 1905 and subsequent years. This in no way meant to belittle the efforts and innovation there, but simply emphasizing the relevant importance and value placed in our ability to survey the broader landscape, learning about the work of others and being able to draw conclusions from those based on diverse perspectives; It is creativity at its core. 

2. Inter-discipline is a necessary ingredient for creativity
The idea of a lone scientist with a narrow focus and restricted perspective discovering some ground breaking invention is more-or-less a myth. Just before World War II with the arms race and science at its peak popularity, you can observe a trend of inter-disciplinary collaboration and more breakthroughs being born faster than any other time in history. The atomic bomb is a perfect example of this where physicists and chemists were working together closer than ever before once Lisa Mitner and her colleagues split the first atom and nuclear fission. It took only some 20 years to the nuclear bomb (not that this is good, but pointing out the speed at which this was materialized)

Although this is somewhat of a contemporary example, the Renaissance era scientists who were typically nobles or from well-to-do families who didn’t need to worry about the bottom of the Maslow's hierarchy of needs, typically spent their time to engage in the study of multiple fields. It was not uncommon to combine philosophy, physics, chemistry, arts and music. These were at the heart of the industrial and scientific revolution.

The best part about the manuscript for me is Yuval’s ability to both connect the dots and include cross disciplinary findings and then weaving them into an attractive story. He eloquently stitched it together and covered the entire history of our species and how we interacted with our environment. 

Some of the key take-away points: 
  • Although insignificant in our humble beginnings as a species somewhere in the middle of the food chain, we have evolved to be the most powerful and destructive force on earth. Our ability for tools-making, an evolutionary cognitive revolution characterized by some genetic variations some 50,000 years ago and our ability to develop language, collaborate among strangers and larger groups allowed us to be on top of the food chain and rule the earth today.
  • The single most important aspect about being human that separates us from all other life forms is our ability for imagination. This imagination allowed us to create “stories” and in sharing those beliefs/stories, they allowed us to collaborate in large numbers. Some of the most successful stories include: Money, Corporations, Religion, Nationalism, Human Rights, Capitalism and Communism etc. 
  • Collaboration is difficult beyond the limits stated by Dunbar’s number of 150 individuals due to our cognitive biological capacity for comprehension, information retention and ability to maintain trust based on direct interactions. However, it was our very ability to create fictional imaginative stories that enabled us to extend our physical and mental limitations and collaborate with complete strangers in large numbers. 
  • For millions of years, we were not the only homo species, but have been so for more than 10,000 years since the demise of our closest descendants, Neanderthals. Memories of us not being alone have long faded and with it came the belief that we’re special for some reason.
  • The waves of migrations out of Africa over time, interactions and interbreeding with sister species were key to our current success, but also a testament to the negative effects we had on the environment, ecosystem and life on earth. If we as a species were to disappear in 50 years, all other life forms will likely flourish. We’re inflicting extensive harm on the world.
  • We inadvertently and systematically wiped out other species including sister homo ones. The mass extinctions and archaeological record of the mega-fauna concurred exactly to the arrival of homo sapiens to new lands (Islands, Australia, Americas, etc). Ecological tragedies time-and-time again are proven and preserved in the ecological record. Humans wiped out some 50% of the large species long before they invented writing or the wheel – it’s not a new phenomena and we should not believe tree-huggers that maintain that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature.
  • At the individual level, our skills and potentially our intelligence about what we need to know to survive in the world is getting smaller and smaller with modern civilizations. It is likely that our brain capacity may have shrunk as well.
  • We have for thousands of years and continue to interfere with the process of natural selection. Although it was a humble beginning through the process of domestication and agriculture. Today, this has taken a new twist through genetic engineering that may be by-passing natural selection entirely. Magnified exponentially by the advancement in technology in the past century, we may be viewed as gods who will create and modify life itself.
  • Our daily activities and nuclear family structure along with our social dynamics have changed permanently with each revolution. There is no going back such as it was with the transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculture for example. One of the primary reasons for our inability to go back is to continue to support the ever growing population and comfort level.
  • The synthetic evolution of homo sapiens happened very quickly aided by technology that we, ourselves did not have sufficient time to biologically adjust for that change and neither did our ecosystem and living forms who are sharing the world with us. No one, not even ourselves were prepared for it. Lions as an example, have evolved over millions of years slowly to place them where they are today allowing them to adjust as well as their ecosystem.
  • The technological revolution has permanently changed us and we are heading towards becoming a God-like species that is able to make decisions about our genetics, sexual characteristics, behavior and every details about the world around us. In the absence of catastrophic natural disasters or human self-annihilation accidents, we’re more likely to become just that – a God. Consider that today, we’re almost Cyborg-like creatures with nearly permanent extensions and appendages to our biological system (glasses, devices, medical interventions, prosthetics, etc.)
  • The only animals that will survive humans are humans themselves along with the slave animals and plants that we control.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Top 10 TED Talks for Entrepreneurs from Inc.

A wonderful collection from Inc. "Top 10 TED Talks for Entrepreneurs" from Bill Gates, Edward Snowden, Larry Page, and the inventor of the World Wide Web converged on the year's hottest topics.

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