How Hard Can Hacking the Happiness Molecule Be?

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The other day was a hard day. I didn’t realize it until my husband asked innocently, routinely as we were putting the kids to bed if I had a good day. Before I had a chance to think about it, I answered with an emphatic, “No.” The decisiveness of my response stunned me, and I had to go back and think about what had actually happened during the day that made it so “not good.”

It was a cold day, one of the coldest of the year. I spent the morning distracting my younger two kids from the cheese sticks in the fridge and reading the same picture books over and over again. I spent hours trying to warm our apartment with baking projects, attempting to be useful and creative. It didn’t work. By 11 a.m. I was feeling lonely, disconnected, and isolated. I needed to feel like I was part of a community and not merely the guardian of the family cheese supply.

But what could I have done to feel that sense of community? What can I do to foster it in the future? Paul J. Zak, author of The Moral Molecule and founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and professor of economics, psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University, has some suggestions. He claims that we can “hack” our way into feeling more connected by releasing more oxytocin — the “happiness molecule” — into our bodies. All we need to do is act or be more empathetic.

He makes it sound fairly simple: giving hugs, making eye contact, telling people you love them. Those kinds of things bring people together, improve your relationships, and make you happier. He notes that feeling of being part of a community is a great way to extend your life and improve your health. He even goes so far as to prescribe a plan: “Give eight hugs a day, focus on how those around you feel, and yes, use the ‘L’ word when you can.” (“L” meaning “Love,” of course.)

Fairly simple, right? Or not. To be honest, I’ve considered trying to become one of those “hugging” people before. I thought it wouldn’t be that hard just to reach my arms out so that someone could step into them. But it was hard, almost as hard as it was to look someone in the eye. As much as I wanted to connect with someone, looking them in the eye felt … too intimate. Much as I wanted to empathize with them, I wasn’t sure I wanted them to be able to see all my insecurities — which were undoubtedly staring right back at them. In fact, I quickly reconsidered trying to become a hugger/soul-gazer and tried to regroup.

My next thought was that perhaps I was overreaching. Maybe I needed to start a little closer to home. I have no problem giving my 18-month-old daughter dozens of hugs and kisses a day. And my husband and I put forth a valiant effort at the prescribed 8. But my sons? I could do better there. Not only with hugs but with looking them in the eye, seeing how they are feeling, and then telling them what I see. Keeping that sense of community and connection at home is one of my most important goals in life, and it seems worth the effort to do it, even if it’s hard. Over the past few days I’ve given it a go: putting my arm around them as we read together, giving them my full attention when I ask them how their day was. And though it doesn’t feel completely natural (yet), I do feel like something is happening like I am really seeing them, in hi-def, which is something that has become too rare.

But beyond the walls of my home, there is certainly more I can do. Can I learn to tell my friends that I love them? And have it not be awkward and … too much? There are a select few whose eyes don’t intimidate me, a few whose hugs feel natural and genuine. But I, personally, haven’t been able to pull it off. Still I had to try something. I started small — and possibly cowardly — by pulling out my phone. I typed a text to a friend. I wrote that I loved her. Then I took a deep breath and hit “send.” Immediately, before I even got a response, I felt warm and happy. It seemed like something I could maybe get used to. Maybe something that would even be worth the initial heart-pounding awkwardness to make it more natural and instinctive. And then, of course, I got her response. She seemed happy, too. Note to self: be less afraid to love on my friends.

Finally, I had to find out if it’s possible to develop the empathetic, look-into-your-soul, give-you-a-hug kind of attitude with people I meet on the street. I’m not at all sure to go that far, but I feel like I took a big step recently. My younger two kids and I were standing on a street corner in the freezing cold, waiting for the light to turn so we could cross. I briefly made eye contact with the man standing next to me and smiled. He pulled his scarf down away from his mouth and smiled back.

“You have far to go?” I asked through my partially frozen lips.

“Yes, but I’m catching the B44 just over there. You?”

“Not too far. Just a few blocks. We’re on our way to a friend’s house.”

The light changed, and we walked on in the same direction at different paces. It wasn’t much, but it was a connection, a brief gathering of a community, an opportunity to feel for each other. And, as far as I’m concerned, it was enough. I felt happier — and warmer — as we trudged through the piles of snow. That day felt like it was going to be much better than the one before.

 

photo: Lizzie Heiselt

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