High on life?

In my last blog, “Beam me up to my frontal lobe,” I mentioned self-made natural “happy drugs” (e.g., serotonin and endorphins) and how these are created via positive emotions such as joy, excitement, and happiness. You might ask, “Why should companies care?” Any company crushed under the weight of increasing insurance premiums might find value in knowing these chemicals are essential to a sense of well-being, supporting restful sleep and a well-functioning immune system.

They, along with the other naturally produced “happy drugs” like the neurotransmitter dopamine, may be a free ticket to the cerebral cortex, where creative solutions and proactive action originate. Scientists at Vanderbilt University have reported that proactive people have higher levels of dopamine in their brains. Dopamine is known to be up-regulated (increased) by serotonin.

Before you decide to screen all your new employees for dopamine levels, you have a few other options. Your nervous system as well as those of employees can be trained to make these highly desirable chemicals more frequently. NIH researcher Candice Pert wrote in her book Molecules of Emotion that “humans are wired for bliss.” Teaching people to tap into that wiring by generating these chemicals on demand can be a healthy and potentially profitable chemistry project for organizations that need even more proactive thinking and action.

We may be wired for bliss, but if you take a look around many organizations, it’s obvious that there must be a lot of faulty wiring because most people believe they are wired for pain and stress. The challenge is that most people have not experienced the full-blown high created by generating their own happy chemicals: They have no idea there is a powerful, free, and natural alternative to being in pain and feeling stress. Even if they have experienced a natural high, they have no idea how easy it is for them to take control over their natural highs and reproduce them on demand.

What happens when people are in pain or feeling stress and want to “get out of it” but don’t know how to create a natural high? It is possible that they may try to make themselves feel better by overeating, taking drugs and alcohol, zoning out in front of the TV, and/or taking out stress on others in undesirable ways at work.

Do these habits and behaviors relieve their pain in the long run? They may be a temporary stress detour, but ultimately they offer little long-term relief, so the answer is no. These behaviors (for the most part) do not increase the body’s ability to sustainably produce the “happy chemicals” needed to truly “de-stress” the body.

In order to evaluate the potential of self-made happy drugs, I started a little chemistry project of my own. While I was coaching in prison, it occurred to me that being “sober” was not a strong enough “high” to be an alternative to drug and alcohol addiction. Something had to replace the strong positive feelings created by drugs. So I told inmate participants I would show them how to be “high on life.”

I taught them guided meditation and several other techniques useful for generating a homegrown soup of happy drugs that create a “natural high” moment. Studies have shown that the same parts of the brain are active when people recall a time of happiness as when they are actually in a happy experience. Therefore we can generate positive chemistry just by thinking about a positive experience. Remember Promega founder Bill Linton, whom I referred to in my last blog? He gets high every time he thinks of a challenge.

With a little bit of fine tuning, meditation sends a person on a natural high that delivers fast access to the cerebral cortex for powerful answers to challenges he or she may face. In addition, I taught inmates the types of internal dialogue and beliefs (like Linton’s beliefs) that contribute to a natural high and increase problem-solving skills. I also taught them the beliefs to avoid – ones that induce fear-based, reptilian reflex states of stress.

I observed that the more time inmate participants invested in using techniques to enter this “natural high,” the more powerful their problem-solving skills became. The more challenges they successfully solved, the more excited they became about solving problems. The natural high began to feed on itself as they spent increasing amounts of time accessing problem-solving and action centers of their brains. Through those new experiences and by increasing positive chemistry to override old fear-based reflex chemistry, they learned how to control how they feel. As I mentioned in my first blog, groups of men started solving challenges faster than some corporate leadership groups.

A defining moment of my little experiment occurred while an inmate was experiencing that natural high. At that moment I asked him, “How does this compare to crack cocaine?” The first time I asked the question, I panicked because I assumed cocaine was the ultimate end-all-be-all experience for addicts. I had no idea what I would do if the response was, “Cocaine is better.” I needn’t have been concerned. The routine answer I have received from numerous cocaine abusers is “there is no comparison to cocaine. This is better and is more sustainable.” I was astounded at the consistency of that response.

What does cocaine do in the brain? It makes dopamine hang around longer, which creates the high. It seems likely that some people who get excited when taking proactive action may be feeling a mini version of a cocaine high.

There are a few more pieces to this happy chemistry project required for more sustained “high on life” feelings that I’ll share in future blogs. For now I can say that people who have “high on life” skills tend to spend more time in happier states and are more aware (conscious) of their actions as well as more likely to engage in proactive action in organizations. Learning “high on life” skills to free minds and rewire behavior also enhances people’s health and well-being even while they are taking on new challenges.

The question I have is this: If it is true that humans can be rewired to generate their own happy drugs on demand and that these can stimulate more action while promoting well-being, how many fewer people would need Prozac?

High on life. Let’s all have more of that.