Success, Confidence, & Serotonin (or: Cool Things You Never Knew About Cows)


I’ve written in the past about dopamine and how essential it is to your success.

Today I’d like to discuss another brain chemical that can have an incredible effect on your results, even if you are not aware of it.

It’s called serotonin and it’s known as the “confidence” neuro-chemical.

Serotonin gives you the confidence and peace of mind to pursue your goals and achieve whatever it is that you want to accomplish.

When serotonin is flowing, you feel secure, calm, and eminently capable.

Your memory improves.

You become more creative.

You tackle challenges with sharper focus and increased determination.

In other words, when serotonin is at work, you are more likely to succeed.

In fact, the more I learn about serotonin and how it affects our brains—and, in turn, our emotions and behavior—the more I realize how critical this neurochemical is to our happiness and our success.

My goal with this blog post is to explain the following:

  • How you feel when you have plenty of serotonin flowing through your brain.
  • What we humans do—often unconsciously—to get serotonin.
  • What actions you can take to keep serotonin flowing and use it to achieve your goals.

But first, let’s talk about… cows 🙂

I bet you think you know about cows.

You think they are large and lumbering. You think they eat grass and make milk and go “moo”. You think they are peaceful and passive and, well, kind of…dumb.

But did you know that over there, in that grassy pasture at the side of that country road, those cows have actually set up a social hierarchy? That each herd has established a queen cow who gets to graze on the greenest grass at the center of the pasture?

Cows establish this hierarchy the old-fashioned way: by butting heads. Each cow in the herd head-butts all of the other cows. The more a cow wins, the closer she gets to be to the safer center of the pasture. The loser cows, on the other hand, end up at the perimeter of the field, where they make an easy dinner for the next predator.

That queen cow? She wins her crown by beating each of the other cows in head-butting, once. They will not fight again. No rematch, ever. She gets to be Queen of the Cows, and that’s that.

And do you know something else remarkable about the queen cow? She’s got something happening in her bovine brain that the loser cows don’t: Her serotonin flows more often than theirs.

That’s right. Serotonin. That very same neurochemical I was talking about before.

Each time a cow beats a potential challenger to her superior cow status, she gets a rush of serotonin. 1But what is really fascinating is that she will get another rush of serotonin each time she sees a cow she previously bested in head-butting.

Which explains why there is never a rematch, why a winning cow will continue to enjoy better social status, without challenge: Every time that serotonin flows through her brain, she will feel empowered, confident and safe2. Those emotions will compel her to stand her ground, to take the better food, to seek and woo a higher-status bull. (The attraction will be mutual: Her calves will be safer and stronger, with healthier DNA.)

We can learn a lot from cows.

Now, this does NOT mean that I am recommending that you go out and butt heads with your competitors.

Not literally, anyway. 🙂

What I want to do is help you understand how your brain works, so you can get that safe feeling that the winning cow has:

That it’s safe and ok to go out and get what you want.

And that you CAN do it.

If we understand our brains better, we can use them better.

How do we feel when serotonin is at work?

To answer this question, I am going to ask you to do the following simple exercise:

Think about a past success. A time where people looked up to you and appreciated you.

Perhaps you spoke beautifully at an event, or you gave an impressive presentation before your colleagues, or you won an award.

Are you a musician? Think about a time you nailed a Chopin etude at a recital. If you are a runner, how did you feel after beating your previous best time? If you are married, think about how people looked at you on your wedding day.

Alternatively, try to remember how you felt when someone turned to you for advice, or when family, friends or coworkers looked at you with respect.

Allow yourself to dwell on that memory. You should feel a sense of calm, a feeling of competence and security and pride wash over you.

That wave of positive emotion? That’s what you feel when serotonin is flowing.

And you made that happen. Just by thinking about something which made you proud, you raised the serotonin levels in your brain.

Would you like to feel that way again? I will bet that you would. We all would.

In fact, our brains are hard-wired to want serotonin.

We seek it in all sorts of ways, depending on our culture and our value system.

The drive to wear designer clothes or tool around fancy cars or place our calls from the latest iPhone—that’s an urge for serotonin…but so is an insistence on living simply.

The push some of us feel to be thin, sculpted, and fit? The yearning others have to control and dominate? The motivation we have to volunteer and give charity? The impulse to drink the other guys under the table—or, alternatively to remain sober? The trophy wives? The multiple academic degrees?

All of those are ways different individuals strive for serotonin, depending on each one’s subjective assessment of how best to earn respect and achieve status in his/her community.

The point is, regardless of what we do to get our serotonin flowing, when our serotonin levels are high, we feel secure and confident as we pursue our goals.

And in business, those positive emotions can make all the difference.

Think about how much more successful you could be if you could approach every day, every meeting, and every decision with determination and confidence. Think about how much more you could achieve if you felt comfortable asserting yourself, if you had the emotional resilience not be be easily deterred by a setback?

When serotonin is flowing well in our brains:

  • Our focus sharpens.
  • We lead, delegate, and direct more effectively.
  • We are better at problem solving.
  • Our memories improve, as does our creativity.
  • We are more likely to follow through and pursue our goals.

All of this should make it really clear just how critical a role serotonin plays in our eventual success–not just in our businesses, but in everything we do.

Beware: Negative Side Effects

So all we have to do to be successful is keep serotonin flowing in our brains, any way we can, right?

WRONG. It’s not that simple.

Unfortunately, sometimes there are negative side effects to our serotonin-seeking behavior. Though we may successfully get our serotonin flowing, these side effects will ultimately sabotage the very success we are trying to achieve — and they can make us pretty miserable as well.

When a certain behavior triggers serotonin to to flow through our brains, the positive emotions it engenders result in our associating that behavior with feeling good—and our brain, which is wired to want that good feeling, drives us to repeat the behavior.

Voila! A habit is born.

Which is great…except when it isn’t.

What we MUST understand is that there are habitual behaviors which may consistently induce feelings of security and competence, yet are ultimately self-destructive.

These behaviors include:

  • Doom-saying/Negativity. If we initiate a project saying “This isn’t going to work”, then we can celebrate our foresight when we fail. But is failure really a cause for celebration?
  • Complaining. When people listen to us, we feel empowered. But is all the kvetching coming at the expense of actual problem-solving?
  • Busywork/Obsessive behavior: You just spent a whole hour searching for the perfect shade of purple to use for the font on your report. It felt good at the time, but…really?
  • Oppositional behavior. Constant arguing makes us feel like we are in control. But ultimately, it undermines our relationships with our friends and antagonizes our family members.
  • Over-Criticism. We may get a rush from putting others down, but do you want to be the guy everyone wants to avoid?
  • Deflecting blame. Finger-pointing may make us feel strong and safe, but if we don’t take responsibility for our mistakes, we cannot learn from them.

In order to benefit consistently and predictably from the effects of serotonin, we must recognize these negative behaviors in ourselves, understand how they work against us, and have the courage and determination to exchange our bad serotonin-seeking habits for good ones.

If you can do this, I can basically guarantee you will see radical improvement in all aspects of your life—not just your business.

How To Get Rid of Serotonin-Seeking Behavior With Negative Consequences

The following three-step process—which I call “I-A-R”—will set that transformation in motion:

1. I for Identify.

2. A for Acknowledge.

3. R for Replace.

The first step is simple: Identify the problem habit. Does one of the behaviors in the list above sound familiar? If so, congratulations! Take a moment to be grateful that you are self-aware (see “being grateful”, below), and move on to Step 2.

The second step–Acknowledge–is a little more complicated.

It is not enough to recognize a behavior: You have to understand the motivations behind it.

To accomplish this step, you need to acknowledge that your bad habit results from your brain’s hunger for serotonin. You also need to accept that your behavior is self-destructive. You many want to formulate your acknowledgment this way:

When I do X , it makes me feel confident, competent and safe. When that happens, I feel compelled to repeat that behavior. The negative consequences of this habit are A, B, and C.”

For instance, if you can accept that you tend to criticize because it makes you feel superior (That “superiority” you feel? That’s the serotonin talking.)–or that you argue with your colleagues because it gives you a sense of control (That “control”? Serotonin.)–then you are ready for Step 3.

Step 3-–Replace—is where things suddenly get really, really hard. This is where you must replace your negative habit with a positive one.

Unfortunately, your brain WANTS you to keep up your old behavior: Those habits are getting the serotonin to flow, and that feels good.

So your brain is actually going to fight you if you try to stop. It is not going to give up on the serotonin so easily.

That’s why you have to replace the old, bad behaviors with good ones. By actively building an alternative, positive habit, you will ensure that a new supply of serotonin will flow in place of the old one. Your brain will never know the difference. 🙂

Believe me: I know that breaking a bad habit is easier said than done. That’s why I have created a couple of techniques which I hope will make this process easier for you.

The first approach I call “The Neuro-Bucket Technique”, and the second I have named “Chemicals on Demand”– or “COD” for short.

The Neruo-Bucket Technique

The Neuro-Bucket Technique involves some imagination. You have to picture your brain as a bucket of different neurochemicals.3 These include happy neurochemicals (like serotonin) as well as unhappy ones (the kind that make you fearful and anxious).

The goal is to keep a steady drip of serotonin feeding into your bucket, so that you can feel confident and capable as often as possible.

You can do this by building yourself an environment which encourages you to feel good about yourself. If you are surrounded with reminders of your successes and achievements, you will consistently but unconsciously add to your supply of serotonin in your bucket.

Here are some ideas on how to build such an environment:

  • Hang up pictures which remind you of a past success. These could be photos of you finishing a race or winning an award–or even a family picture from a vacation you organized.
  • Put your certificates and diplomas on the wall, and/or display the trophies you have won.
  • Spend time with people who respect you and make you feel good about yourself.
  • Practice gratitude. Remind yourself to reflect regularly on all the amazing things in your life you are thankful for.

All of these “tricks” will create a passive system which constantly feeds serotonin to your reserves. You will feel better about yourself, and all aspects of your life will benefit as a result.

Chemicals on Demand (COD)

Once you have been practicing the neuro-bucket technique for a while, you will start noticing times in your life where you are very low in serotonin.

That’s when you can start using what I call COD behaviors, to immediately stimulate the flow of serotonin – allowing you, in effect to summon positive motions at will.

COD behaviors include:

  • Sharing your opinion and speaking out. The effect is instantaneous: When people pay attention to what you say, serotonin flows in your brain.
  • Listing your past achievements, and/or visualizing a future success. Yes, even imagining being successful triggers serotonin.
  • Delegating to and directing others.
  • Accomplishing a goal. Even completing a small goal will have a positive effect on your sense of competence and well-being.
  • Being kind. We all know how good it feels when you help someone in need. That’s our brain rewarding us with serotonin flow.

Other things which may increase serotonin flow in your brain are:

  • Sunshine. Spending time outdoors has been linked to an increase in serotonin levels.
  • Exercise. Exercise may increase the amount of serotonin by allowing tryptophan—which is a chemical precursor to serotonin–to move from your blood to your brain.
  • Diet. This one is more controversial. Not everyone agrees, but some people say it is possible that eating tryptophan-rich foods may allow your body to create more serotonin. Tryptophan-rich foods include nuts, seeds, legumes, tofu, cheese, red meat, poultry, turkey, pineapple, and eggs.

The Serotonin Grid

We’re almost done. But first, I want you to do a very simple yet extraordinarily effective exercise.

I am not exaggerating when I say that this exercise can be life-changing.

I learned this technique from a friend, who learned it from her brother, who has spent decades helping people change their negative habits into positive ones. He has seen it work its magic with delinquent teenagers and high-powered businessmen alike.

Here’s what you do:

1. Take a piece of paper and draw a simple grid on it, like this:

2. In the top right quadrant, write the words “Do More”. In the top left, “Do Less”. In the bottom right, “Start”, bottom left, “Stop”.

3. In each relevant quadrant in the grid, fill in a small number of behaviors–not too many, because you don’t want to overwhelm yourself.

Choose a few negative behaviors which you recognize are causing serotonin to flow in your brain in ways which sabotage you. Then add positive serotonin-inducing actions which you feel will ultimately help you and increase your chances of success.

When you are done, you should have something like this:

That’s it! Once you have filled in your serotonin grid, keep it on your desk or on your bedside table, as a reminder.

Check up on yourself regularly. How are you doing?

Are you filling your bucket? Is your serotonin flowing?

I hope so. You deserve to feel empowered, capable, and secure.

You deserve success.

One Last Thing

One last thing: I honestly believe the information in this article can make a huge difference.

I am confident that more we understand about our brains, the better off we will be. Serotonin is just one example of a neurochemical we can use to our advantage. (I’ve already written about Dopamine. And I’m sure I’ll be writing about others in the future.)

So if you found this article helpful, please share it with others.

Maybe they, too, can use this material to boost their confidence, enhance their relationships, and vastly improve their businesses and their lives.

Thank you!

1The loser cows will feel the effects of an entirely different chemical: cortisol. In both cows and humans, cortisol is released in response to threat and is associated with stress, fear, and anger.

2On the other hand, each time a loser cow meets a cow who beat her, she will—you guessed it—feel the effects of yet another surge of cortisol.

3I am using this“bucket” as a metaphor for the limbic system, the area of our brain which is responsible for our emotions as well as for the formations of our memories and habits.

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