The same hormones that drive our romantic behavior significantly influence our political decisions: endorphin, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. By understanding the way in which these hormones work, we can become better citizens, create more harmonious societies, and avoid destructive results in life, love, and politics.
The dilemma that currently affects love and politics is best summarized by a quote from Alain de Botton:
“Silicon Valley is very much romantic and very much believes in helping us find the right kind of person. And if you look at the technological tools that have appeared over the last 15 years, an enormous number are designed to increase our choices and to try and direct us towards this person called ‘the right person.’ This emphasis on rightness and this notion that, with a superior algorithm we will get to a person with whom there will be no friction sets us up rather dangerously for the reality of love, which is that everybody is a different person. We’ve all come from a womb in which we didn’t have to speak, in which our needs were met automatically, and it takes a good, long time, a good 50 years or so, before we realize that we have actually left that environment and that no one can fully understand us. I would be wary of utopian experiments with matching. What we really need are apps and bits of technology that teach us patience, that teach us resourcefulness, that teach us forgiveness, that teach us humor. To date, that hasn’t happened at all.” Alain de Botton
Alain de Botton points to a flaw in our dating culture that also affects our political decisions. Because we focus on the wrong happiness hormones, we have developed a fascination with finding the ideal partner that sets us up for unrealistic expectations and, as a result, leads to destructive decisions. When we are dissatisfied with the current state of our relationships, we blame the incompatibility of our partners, end the relationship, and start the same cycle with someone else. We focus on short-term goals that we can cross off our list instead of making things works with the people who are already in our lives, denying ourselves the opportunity to create a sense of belonging, never feeling truly satisfied.
Our political decisions suffer from a similar flaw: we focus on popular but egotistical short-term goals like lowering taxes or increasing social security payments, never asking ourselves whether these goals can create constructive societies in the long run. Consequently, large groups of people feel ignored by society, voicing their frustration by supporting destructive ideas and creating a platform for demagogues.
Just like we all know that we would be happier in a harmonious relationship, we all know that we would be happier in a harmonious society, but we are similarly unwilling to put in the work necessary to get there. Because we focus too heavily on short-term goals, we create destructive consequences in the long term. In both cases, better managing our happiness hormones can create better long-term results.
Let’s start by analyzing our four essential happiness hormones and how they affect our behavior. Once we understand the process, we can adapt it to our voting decisions. Like everything we do, voting is driven by emotion. To make better voting decisions, we need to tie them to better emotions. But how can we do that in a realistic, achievable way?
How do happiness hormones influence our romantic and political behavior?
Our desire to do what makes us happy is a desire to do what triggers happiness hormones. While all happiness hormones feel good, our bodies produce them in reaction to different events and on different timescales. We behave differently, depending on which hormone we focus on. Fixating on short-term happiness hormones causes us to act like junkies and make bad decisions – in life, love, and politics. Since our happiness hormones developed in an evolutionary environment that was entirely different from the modern world, we are inherently vulnerable to forms of junky-like behavior.
Mishandling our happiness hormones creates astonishingly similar effects in love and politics, and anyone who has ever made a mistake in a relationship or acted unwisely after a breakup will immediately find ways to use the lessons they learned through these experiences to make better voting decisions and know what to believe.
The four happiness hormones are:
Endorphin and dopamine are selfish chemicals – we can get them on our own. Endorphins are designed to mask physical pain. When our ancestors suffered an injury while fighting a wild animal, endorphin suppressed the pain and allowed them to escape. Once the endorphin rush wore off, our ancestors experienced the full pain of their injury and began to rest and recover.
We all know one form of the endorphin rush as the runners high. Runners push their bodies until they experience physical pain masked by endorphins. This is also why laughing feels good. The muscle movements of laughing hurt our inner organs, but endorphins rush in to prevent any pain – we feel better. Since there is no significant damage to our organs, we experience no downside and enjoy laughing as much as we can. When we laugh for too long, though, the endorphins wear off, and we feel the unmasked pain.
Endorphin is an important hormone, but its effect on relationships and politics is limited – voting and choosing a partner have nothing to do with physical pain. Therefore, we will focus on the remaining three happiness hormones.
“It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.”
Dopamine rewards us for accomplishments. It helps us get things done, and it is why winning games and crossing something off our to-do list feel good.
Our ancestors needed dopamine to have a reason to search for food. If they only searched for food when they were hungry, they might not have found something to eat right away and starved to death. Dopamine motivated them to store food in advance. They went hunting and gathering every day because they wanted to bring home food and enjoy the happiness of crossing the task off their mental to-do list.
Because dopamine is strong but wears off quickly, it is highly addictive. We get it from alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, cellphones, etc. – everything that is, for so many of us, tough to put down. We get a quick dopamine rush, but we soon need the next one.
Dopamine can trick us into pursuing a succession of short-term dopamine rushes over long-term happiness. Aside from drugs, the most prominent example of this addiction is the pursuit of more and more money. We start with the goal of $1,000 and achieve it. The dopamine rush wears off, and we want $5,000; then $10,000, $100,000, and so on. Stuck in a rat race, fulfillment eludes us. Eventually, we sacrifice our relationships, ethics, and other aspects of our lives to get more dopamine.
Luckily, there is no need to pursue purely dopamine-driven goals. All we need to get dopamine is something to cross off our to-do list, but the type of list is unimportant. By creating constructive, overriding life goals, we create better short-term goals. We receive the same dopamine output but avoid junky-like behavior and do what produces long-term happiness hormones.
Instead of trying to become millionaires, we are better off aiming to be financially comfortable. Making enough money to pay all the bills and enjoy a peaceful life is something we can cross off our list more easily and regularly than making that first million. We get more dopamine while also experiencing the long-term happiness hormones that come from knowing that we can provide for our families.
Our daily lives know many similar examples where dopamine wants to trick us into neglecting rewarding but vague, distant goals in favor of less rewarding but concrete short-term goals:
- We prefer material goods over people. The pursuit of material goods has significant advantages for dopamine addicts. Material goods are always available, never moody, and rarely hurt us. Once we have found a way to reliably receive dopamine from looking at our phones, cars, and TVs, we have a stable system. People are more difficult. When we rely on our partner to remember our anniversary or our friends to invite us to a party, we might receive no dopamine at all.
- We prefer a life of isolation to a life of relationships. Other people frequently ruin our short-term goals. We want to pay the bills, but our kids want to play catch; we want to cuddle with our partner, but they want to work; we want to go on vacation with our friends, but they want to stay home. Our goals remain on our lists; others denied us our dopamine. The resulting frustration can trick us into thinking that we were much better off on our own – when nobody destroyed our dopamine acquisition plans . We isolate ourselves and lose the ability to gain the long-term happiness hormones that come from contact with others.
- We prefer affairs to true love. Every new conquest provides a dopamine rush. When we become addicted to this rush, we never get the fulfillment that comes with long-term relationships. Long-term relationships provide a deeper sense of fulfillment because they rely on different hormones, but unless we surrender the sure thing of the next dopamine rush, we might never get there.
Understanding our tendency to focus on finite short-term strategies as a dopamine-induced addiction, we gain the power to take a step back and reevaluate our focus. We need short-term strategies, but if we sacrifice important long-term strategies in their favor, we destroy our lives like any other addict. We ruin friendships, relationships, and our health to receive a momentary pleasure.
Even when we avoid dopamine’s obvious traps, tricky problems remain. We might set long-term goals or even life goals but pursue them for the wrong reasons. Instead of fighting for what could make us truly happy, we chase what provides the most dopamine-driven goals along the way. For example, we could set ourselves the goal of traveling to every country. Every time we cross another country off the list, we get a rush of dopamine. We also feel good when we save money, buy equipment, and read travel magazines. We get a dopamine rush when we buy an outdoor jacket, thinking that it is the first accomplishment towards a life of independence and freedom.
Dopamine-driven goals are empty. Unless our goals include a social component, a sense of community and belonging, they will leave us without a sense of love, trust, and fulfillment. These feelings create the long-term happiness that comes from sensing that we are in the right place, doing what we are supposed to do. Dopamine is laughter, but laughter fades quickly. Most of would gladly exchange laughter for contentment. Dopamine alone is unable to help with this task.
When we travel every country in the world simply for the sake of it, we will be disappointed when we achieve the goal. There will be no great, ever-lasting dopamine rush; there will only be the same dose of dopamine that we got for every step of the way. We will feel the effects of focusing on one happiness hormone while true fulfillment takes a combination of all four. If we shared the trip with our partner, on the other hand, things would be different. The social component allows us to experience long-term happiness, too.
We all have achieved goals that left us dissatisfied. We worked hard, but when we got there, we thought to ourselves, ‘Is this all there is to it?’ These were dopamine-driven goals. Regardless of the size of a goal, as long as it is dopamine-driven, the payoff will be the same as if we remembered to buy milk. We sometimes assume that goals that require much effort will provide a higher emotional reward – but this rule fails with purely dopamine-based goals.
Higher rewards are a result of the two other hormones we have yet to consider – serotonin and oxytocin. Dopamine is a powerful ally when balanced with these two hormones. Unbalanced, it is destructive. To understand how to create a balanced system, let’s start with serotonin.
Serotonin is connected to status and pride. When we receive an honor, a compliment, or public recognition, we feel better because we get a hit of serotonin. First and foremost, though, serotonin is a social hormone. We also receive serotonin when someone we like does well. When our friends, family, and peers win a prize, get promoted, or marry, we feel just as happy as if we were the lucky ones. Friends and family help us to be happier and experience serotonin more often.
Serotonin reinforces relationships and strengthens bonds. Because we feel good when others do well, we want to contribute to their success. Good sports teams not only want to win for themselves, but they also want to win for their fans, their coaches, their teammates. Serotonin motivates them to work harder for others than they could ever work based on purely dopamine-based goals. Similarly, in good relationships, we not only want to grow and improve for ourselves, but we also want to do it for our partners. We trust them to guide us in the right direction.
Serotonin helps relationships in three ways:
- We feel proud when our partner accomplishes their goals. When our partner gets a promotion, serotonin motivates us to be happy for them rather than feel threatened by their improved status.
- We support our partners. Because we feel good when our partners achieve their goals, we help them get there – even if that means surrendering our own goals. Serotonin helps us compromise.
- It allows us to forgive. When our partners talk to us about a difficult issue, serotonin helps us take pride in them having the courage to put their best foot forward. Instead of considering criticism as an attack, we think it’s great that they seek to improve the relationship while knowing full well we might react with anger.
Serotonin is an important hormone – but it is also unreliable. Our serotonin system developed in an evolutionary environment that was fundamentally different from the world in which we live today. In small groups as hunters and gatherers, the only way of improving our serotonin levels was helping others directly or indirectly by providing food. Today, we can simply buy a big house, follow the newest trend, or take up a fashionable hobby, and we get serotonin and dopamine.
We can trick our hormones by buying things or doing hip activities that raise our status in the eyes of others. The feeling is similar, but we do not reinforce a relationship. Sometimes we might even end or avoid relationships to pursue status driving activities. We accumulate more material goods, more exciting stories to tell, and more stylish clothes, but unless these things are connected to a relationship, they fail to make us truly happy. This is why happiness is only real when shared.
In a relationship, serotonin requires two things:
- We must make sure that our partner gets enough serotonin. Our partners feel connected to us when we take pride in their accomplishments, and they can take pride in ours. When they get a promotion, celebrating with them in some form is important. When we get one, we should allow them to celebrate with us. In personal relationships and society, we must provide others with the ability to feel connected to our successes. When we deny them this ability, we lower their serotonin levels and force them to get their happiness from selfish, short-term focused dopamine-driven goals.
- We must tell our partners what they need to do to provide us with enough serotonin. We feel serotonin when someone celebrates our success. But it might not always be clear what we consider a success. Promotions and other obvious successes are rare events, but we all have small successes every day. When our partners celebrate our first attempt at baking, our clumsy self-made gifts, and our nervous compliments, we feel that they truly get us. A few initial successes of this type sometimes trick us into thinking that someone could get us completely – which is impossible. We have to tell our partners when we need them to celebrate with us. If it is a great success for us to go a week without losing our keys, they will gladly throw some confetti for us.
The other effect of serotonin is that we expect those with whom we share a strong serotonin bond to treat us in special ways. Evolutionary, when a good hunter wanted us to continue to take pride in their catches, they had to share a part of their food with us. We would reward them by watching their children while they were gone and waking them in case of an attack at night. Serotonin brought the group closer together.
If we want our partners to be proud of our accomplishments, we have to include them. That doesn’t mean that we have to do everything together, but we must allow our partners to share in our success. Our accomplishments are theirs, and it is important to show our gratitude for their help and support. Again, this is easy for occasional great successes like a promotion. But it is more difficult for the smaller, more common successes.
If we always dreamed about driving the Pan-American Highway alone but our partner wants to come along, we should at the very least say something like ‘honey, I know you don’t like this, and I completely understand, but I have to do this.’ We must find some way of making this our thing, of sharing the success with them. When we tell our partner that we are doing this regardless of what they think, we destroy their serotonin levels and rob them of the ability to take pride in our accomplishment. Often, a few kind words are enough.
Serotonin is also important for a healthy society. If we gave $1 Million to anyone who saved a life, would you mind? But what would you say if we gave $1 Million to anyone who ruins companies for their personal gain? Conflicts between poor people and wealthy never arise from the money itself. They arise when this money is made in selfish ways and when it is not shared. Serotonin explains why. To create harmonious societies, we need a form of taxation that considers serotonin, a form that does not exclude a group from society.
When we rob people of the ability to feel serotonin in relation to society, we force them into the arms of destructive ideas. Contributing to the success of these ideas and sharing the goal of overthrowing a society that has forced them out with others, these ideas can provide the serotonin levels that we are unable to receive from society.
“Individual freedom, when it’s not connected to some sort of community, or friends, or the world outside, ends up feeling pretty meaningless.” Bruce Springsteen
Oxytocin makes us feel love, trust, and security – it is a bonding hormone. We know that a person we relate to oxytocin has our back and we want them close. Oxytocin makes us happy, reduces addiction, and increases creativity.
Oxytocin feels great. A full dose of oxytocin makes us feel as if we are where we are supposed to be, doing what we are supposed to do. Where dopamine creates a short-lived boost of happiness, much like a laugh, oxytocin, and serotonin create a more long-lasting sense of deeper happiness, fulfillment, and contentment. We can’t laugh all day, we can laugh despite being sad, and we can quickly go from laughter to sadness, but contentment stays with us for the entire day.
In an ideal world, we would build our life around our oxytocin driven goals and then work our way down to more short-term goals. We would be content and happy, crossing short-term goals off our lists that aid our long-term goals.
Unfortunately, oxytocin has a downside: it takes time and energy to get it, and we need someone else cooperate with us. To keep the oxytocin levels of our partners high, we can’t just say nice things, buy things, or send an email. We have to take the time to sit down and make a present, walk the talk, and invest out time and energy in things that are important to our partners – without expecting anything in return. Then we have to be lucky enough for our partners to do the same things for us.
Oxytocin-driven goals can eventually be highly rewarding. At first, though, we get no oxytocin from them. For example, assume that you want to enter a long-term relationship. You must go on many dates, find someone who is compatible with you, and bond with them. And you probably have to endure a few tough setbacks. The initial phase is brutal, the goal is vague and distant, and we need the help of others ever to get there. At first, it is much more redeeming to find someone to have an affair. We get some oxytocin in combination with a lot of dopamine. Rejection and breakups deny us both.
Focusing on oxytocin-driven goals in life, love, and politics provides three main advantages:
1. We can better deal with other people’s dopamine-driven actions
Life is full of frustrations. Other people let us down, and we let others down. To create harmonious relationships and societies, we must be able to handle these inevitable frustrations with love and kindness instead of anger and resentment. Oxytocin-driven strategies help with this tas.
When we consider our partners’ behaviors selfish, they probably lapsed into dopamine-driven goals. We want our peace, but they call us anyway; we want to talk to them, but they are busy on their cell phones. By reacting angrily, we make the same mistake. We focus on a dopamine-driven goal – stopping our partners from nagging us or getting them to put their cell phones down – while ignoring our own oxytocin-driven goals, for example understanding and caring for our partners.
There can be good reasons to focus on short-term goals. Maybe they need to talk to us because they are in deep distress, or maybe they focus on their phones because they are nervous. Since most of us would prefer a dose of oxytocin to a dose of dopamine, we can more effectively dissolve these situations with understanding and kindness. True love means searching for the loving motivations behind our partners’ difficult behaviors, and oxytocin helps us get there.
Similarly, when someone disagrees with our political opinion, oxytocin helps us to appreciate their courage to discuss the topic. They seem to truly care about the issue, and we know how important political discussions are to harmonious societies. Focus on the shared goal of a harmonious society, we react constructively and avoid destructive emotions such as anger and resentment.
2. We create a reinforcement cycle
The biggest advantage of oxytocin is that it reinforces itself. High oxytocin levels motivate us to be kind to others, and when we are kind to others, we get more oxytocin. The more we do for others, the more we want to do. For harmonious relationships and societies, we need high oxytocin levels, and the rest will take care of itself.
We can get the initial dose of oxytocin that starts the reinforcement cycle from being friends with ourselves. When we accept our strengths and weaknesses, react kindly to our mistakes, and forgive our failures, we receive the initial dose of oxytocin that can start a snowball effect. True happiness starts from within, but it ends on the outside.
Our partners and society must allow us to have this type of relationship with ourselves. When they force us into a situation in which it is impossible for us to be friends with ourselves, we might never enjoy the initial dose of oxytocin that gets us to focus on long-term strategy. Instead, we become vulnerable to destructive ideas that can fill our need for oxytocin by providing a great leader and other supporters with whom we can feel a strong connection.
3. We focus on infinite strategies
Oxytocin helps us to focus on our infinite strategies. For example, when our partner proposes to go on vacation alone, we might oppose the idea. Dopamine drives us to bring up the issue whenever we can. We want to cross the issue off our list. When we give in to this urge, our partner will soon grow tired of us and our endless discussions. We hurt the relationship and might even force them to drop out.
When we understand our hormones, we know that dopamine wants to trick us into pursuing a quick fix and that we create better results by focusing on an oxytocin-driven strategy. We explain to our partners how we feel while at the same time making clear that we will completely support them nonetheless. From this perspective, we can set ourselves oxytocin-driven short-term goals that provide us with just as much dopamine as discussing the issue. We can leave them space to plan the trip, get excited about their destination, and pamper them if they get sick shortly before the trip. These strategies allow us to maintain our high oxytocin levels while simultaneously getting dopamine.
Similarly, oxytocin fosters tolerance in societies. Knowing that we can disapprove of another person’s behavior while simultaneously supporting their right to execute this behavior fosters tolerance towards people of different sexual orientations, beliefs, and worldviews. This tolerance, in return, allows these people to feel included. They receive oxytocin and are free from the need of supporting destructive ideas as an alternative source of happiness.
How happiness hormones affect our voting decisions
Emotions heavily affect our voting decisions. For example, imagine voting for Hitler. While we can probably list millions of rational reasons why this would be a bad idea, the first feeling we get is emotional. We feel disgusted, repelled, and then explain our emotions with rational arguments. We say that we would never vote for someone who started a world war or who committed mass murder. While all of these explanations are true, they are only the tip of the iceberg. The fact that Hitler is a mass murderer is one of our reasons to never vote for him, but it is only one of many. It would take days to explain them all, but our initial feeling of disgust is much quicker, much more intuitive.
All our voting decisions are similarly intuitive. We want to feel good about the people we vote for and would never vote for someone if we have a bad feeling about them. This is where our happiness hormones come in. If we want to feel good about something, we have four ways to get there – endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Endorphins are out of the question – voting has nothing to do with masking physical pain – but depending on which of the other three hormones we focus on, we create very different voting decisions.
Dopamine-driven voting decisions focus on the short term – we want to check something off our list. Since most of society’s problems focus on the long-term, dopamine is a bad guide to political decisions. We act on dopamine when…
- We want to stick it to someone,
- We want to show our protest,
- We want to pay fewer taxes ourselves,
- We want to higher social security payments for ourselves.
We can cross these things off our list. They are concrete, near, and attractive. Unfortunately, they also block our view on long-term issues. Similar to a relationship, good politics require us to deal with short-term problems in a way that aids our long-term goals. When we focus too heavily on the short-term, we might chase dopamine-driven goals while destroying our long-term future. Democratic societies are especially prone to populist attacks that appeal to purely dopamine-driven goals such as paying less or getting more, which can destabilize the entire political system.
The difficult task is shifting our political focus from dopamine-driven goals to goals based on serotonin and oxytocin without becoming utopian or losing all grip on reality. How can we realistically refocus our voting decisions on the long-term when they provide much less initial satisfaction? We will focus on the answer to this question in future articles. For now, the important point is that, similar to an oxytocin-focused approach to our love lives, voting decisions based on oxytocin are often initially less satisfying than dopamine-driven goals. Short-term goals such as tax cuts promise perfect bliss in the form of new TVs, new cars, and new houses – things we would very much like to have. A harmonious society, on the other hand, is distant, vague, and we need the help of others ever to get there – a much less attractive goal.
How happiness hormones can give rise to demagogues
Requiring us to value a system of checks and balances over individual people and issues dear to our heart, democratic societies are counter-intuitive to our happiness hormones. When some of us feel disenfranchised, society no longer satisfies their needs for oxytocin and serotonin, leaving them with a gap they somehow need to fill.
The democratic process in itself is unable to accomplish this goal. It is vague, distant, and its rewards are mostly immaterial. Most of us rationally support freedom and human rights, but when we are in dire need of serotonin and oxytocin, freedom is an unsatisfying source.
Demagogues, on the other hand, can provide us with plenty of serotonin and oxytocin. We can feel a strong bond with them and other supporters, and we take pride in their rise to power, providing us with oxytocin and serotonin. Because we want to feel good, charismatic demagogues motivate their supporters to do things they would normally refuse, including supporting destructive political ideas and ignoring their moral compass.
To create constructive democratic societies, we must provide all members with the serotonin and oxytocin that destroys the environment in which destructive ideas blossom. This means two things:
- Every member of society needs to feel the support of the other members and their willingness to share their good fortune with them.
- Every member of society needs to feel the happiness of others for their good fortune.
Simply put, harmonious societies find ways of sharing the good luck of their winners in a way that helps their bad-off members without forcing the winners to feel used. We must find ways of handling our happiness hormones in a way that automatically leads democratic societies to create this outcome.
How can we manage our happiness hormones to make better political decisions?
To improve our voting decisions, we must focus more on goals driven by oxytocin and serotonin than by dopamine. This type of discussion would not eradicate opinions – there would still be conservatives, liberals, social democrats, and so on. The difference would be that we arrive at our opinions by focusing on togetherness, which increases our willingness to compromise. We know that others are similarly focused on doing their best to make this society work and that they are therefore not an infinitely evil threat. The result would be a more harmonious society that robs destructive political ideas of their breeding ground.
As unachievable as this goal might seem in the current political environment, there is historical precedence. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and many others – they all rejected the idea of revenge and violence, even when these others attacked first. Emphasizing togetherness over momentary personal victories, they abandoned dopamine-driven goals in favor of goals motivated by oxytocin. How did they do it? And what motivated their followers to support them?
Just like couples that focus on serotonin and oxytocin have a higher chance of finding long-term solutions that work for both partners than couples that focus on dopamine, political discussions that emphasize our bonding hormones will lead to more harmonious societies.
We will focus on how to achieve this goal and the obstacles in its way in future articles.
- A dopamine-driven lifestyle ultimately leaves us dissatisfied because we lack serotonin and oxytocin. We either chase unachievable goals, or we feel dissatisfied when we reach our goal. It’s better to plan our lives based on oxytocin driven life goals. In this way, we receive oxytocin and serotonin while also getting the dopamine that comes from crossing something off our to-do list.
- The same four happiness hormones that affect our romantic lives also affect our voting decisions. Consequently, they suffer from the same vulnerabilities as our romantic lives. We are prone to overvaluing dopamine-driven goals, hurting ourselves in the long run.
- When we rob members of our societies of the ability to experience serotonin and oxytocin in relation to society, we force them to focus on dopamine-driven goals. Vague goals like democracy, human rights, and harmony are unable to provide this hormone, but a strong leader with whom the disenchanted feel a strong personal connection can provide dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin – which is why some of us will support him.