Chapter 23: Serotonin, Optimism, and Cooperation

“There is something at once sobering and absurd in the extent to which we are lifted by the attentions of others and sunk by their disregard.” — Alain de Botton (1969)

Competition, Defeat, and Brain Chemicals

For the last 60 million years, the dominance hierarchy has been the primary regulator of primate life. This requires monkeys and apes to spend a great deal of their mental energy making estimates about how they stack up relative to each member of their group. But how do animals reliably make these sorting predictions? As this chapter will explain, it has much to do with fluctuations in brain chemicals, especially serotonin. Animals that win fights or spats increase their serotonin levels while losing animals lower those levels.
In all of us, serotonin contributes to feelings of wellbeing, happiness, relaxation, and self-confidence. It increases the expectation of social dominance and causes animals to stand up for themselves. When humans or primates take supplements that increase serotonin, they have reduced stress responses to external threats such as pictures of fearful and angry faces. There is reduced serotonin production in panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and depression. In simple terms, low serotonin causes the trivialities of life to terrorize us.
In adult primates, serotonin levels are more causally related to dominance than body size or testosterone levels.1 In fact, dominant male monkeys have up to twice as much serotonin in their blood as non-dominant ones. Similarly, humans in leadership positions have higher serotonin levels than their subordinates.2 One study found that fraternity officers average 25% higher serotonin levels than other frat members. The same pattern is seen in the military, where higher-ranking officers have more serotonin, and in corporate America, where higher-ranking employees have more and executives and CEOs have the most.
When a dominant primate is overthrown, usually after a fight, its serotonin levels plunge while the replacement’s surges. During most exchanges between people, there are few overt hostilities. Covert factors such as level of relaxation and verbal fluency determine each person’s relative status. If you come across as tenser than the other person, chances are you both perceive this. After the encounter, your serotonin may lower while theirs rises. Being snubbed or getting negative feedback causes serotonin to drop as does becoming aggressive or angry. On the other hand, successful social assertion results in the release of serotonin.
Every primate in a troop knows its status relative to every other animal, just as high school students give remarkably consistent rankings for the popularity of their classmates.3 In other words, our brain’s limbic system paints the world as one big popularity contest. Whether you think others perceive you as having high status is the decisive factor influencing your serotonin level. In other words, if you believe others hold you in low regard, your serotonin may stay low. Because our brains are wired to derive self-worth from others’ evaluations, we need to push back against our biology.
Many social insect species are born into a caste, either the aristocracy or the working class. However, a mammal is constantly negotiating its status. Do you want to be renegotiating your rank every day for the rest of your life? If not, you will have to change your mindset. You need to develop a healthy sense of self-esteem that others cannot push around, but also that doesn’t involve putting others down or even putting yourself above them. What would it take for you to have optimal self-esteem? Let’s explore that in the next activity.

Serotonin and the Ego

“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, all those who humble themselves will be exalted.” — Jesus (c. 6 BCE – 30)

The human ego is a specialized neurological system found in all primate brains that causes us to analyze whether we should be more or less insecure and, consequently, whether our serotonin should be lower or higher. The monkey that thinks more about their place in the hierarchy has more objective notions about their station and the social appropriateness of their actions. Consequently, a monkey that is highly concerned with its ego may do well relative to the other members of its troop. Hence, the ego is sometimes referred to as the “monkey mind.”
In primates, serotonin level is also a fertility indicator. The most dominant males have the most offspring. Individuals that excel in status-seeking contribute more to the gene pool. Thus, we are self-conscious and ego-obsessed today because it was good for our ancestors’ reproductive success. But as modern-day human beings, we are not looking to maximize our number of offspring or even our sexual partners. What we really want is to be happy without being controlled by our egos. So again, we are at odds with our biology.
The egotistical thoughts that you experience are not you, and you have little control over them. Realize that the negative, conceited thinking going on in your head likely has nothing to do with your aspirational self, your true self. These thoughts that you think are “yours” are generated by your brain’s instincts to be endlessly competitive. The social concerns you find yourself ruminating about come from this monkey mind and the way it has been programmed by the other monkey minds you have interacted with up until today. The real you is not concerned with reputation and comparison. The real you, who is now gradually taking over your thinking process, is not even interested.
Because this instinct is so strong, status is most people’s ultimate goal. This means that they have no overarching ambition in life other than to increase their sense of status relative to the people around them. Once you see this clearly, you can become motivated to choose goals other than the one that natural history selected for us. To disconnect from your ego, you must stop feeding it. Make your goal to starve it in the following exercise.

In Activity 23.1, I asked you to pretend to be superior to everyone, and then in activity 23.2 I asked you to be inferior. Surely, we are neither. But we can intentionally take the best aspects but none of the negative aspects out of these two extreme scenarios (see Table 23.1 below). Unfortunately, many people take the worst from both scenarios and develop a personality as pernicious to themselves as others. They can neither take criticism nor compliments well. They are boastful but also engage in abusive self-talk. They love to argue with and gossip about others but can’t stand up for themselves when it counts. They apologize when they shouldn’t and often don’t apologize when they should. Rising above this kind of behavior is as easy as accepting your shortcomings and being comfortable and calm when confronted with them.

Our Brains Ration Serotonin

If animals are self-interested survival machines, then why don’t their brains maximize serotonin production? It would undoubtedly be a simple adaptation. Animals have not evolved to do this because it would be dangerous to be a non-dominant animal with a dominant mindset. If you are an animal losing a fight, it is actually beneficial to lower your serotonin because it makes you act submissive, shielding you from further harm and retaliation. When researchers artificially raise serotonin in a non-dominant ape, it will act dominant. Merely acting dominant convinces the other monkeys that it is dominant, but only for a few days. Before long, it will be tested, exposed as a pretender, and likely injured in the process.
Your mammalian brain does not release serotonin and other mood-boosting chemicals (dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins) whenever you want. It uses them to reward you for accomplishing specific survival criteria. It releases them in spurts when unconscious brain circuits perceive an improvement in survival and reproductive prospects. Most people are frustrated by their inability to fulfill the stringent requirements used by their neurochemical guidance system. Frustratingly, the criteria for attaining happiness chemicals are usually held just beyond our reach, making it nearly impossible to win and thus impossible to be happy. This is why using our cortex to try to pry serotonin from our subcortex (limbic system) often leads to self-destructive status-seeking.

Illustration 23.1: A. One wolf (left) asserting dominance over another (right) with a threat display. Note that the teeth are bared, the ears are flattened forward, and the hackles are raised. The submissive wolf lowers its head, presses its ears backward, splays its legs, and turns away to appease the dominant individual; B. Similar body language is seen in cats; C. A mother chimp protects her baby.

A signal that is constantly on has no informational value. Consequently, our serotonin levels have evolved to fluctuate dramatically and subside quickly. Humans spend their entire day trying to boost their mood from a brain trying to ration the relevant chemicals for the proper circumstances. To transcend this, we need to choose to feel satisfied with precisely the amount of social power we already have. By being fully content with whatever level of dominance you currently have, you give your unconscious the same level of security that comes with being an alpha. When other people see this healthy, non-dominating self-satisfaction, they will instantly respect you.
Changing your outlook on your wins and losses is essential. Otherwise, no number of victories will satisfy your serotonin system for long. Take pleasure in past accomplishments, no matter how old. Think about all the hard work you have put in over your life and feel good about it. Focus your attention on the small triumphs you have every day. Once you learn to celebrate each win for a bit longer, you will not find yourself hurried into the next risky scheme for serotonin. Rather than focusing on the most shameful or embarrassing moments, concentrate on the laurels that stick out in your mind. We need to take responsibility for coaxing our brain’s happiness chemicals to change rather than waiting on the world to change.

Serotonin, Abundance, and Gratitude

“…all things work together for good…” — Romans 8:28

Low serotonin promotes fear, fleeing, and submission in many animals, from reptiles to insects. Even crustaceans such as lobsters utilize serotonin to establish hierarchy. We share a common ancestor with lobsters over 500 million years ago. This shows how ancient our status system is. In fact, it goes back to worms.
In the microscopic roundworm, C. elegans, serotonin acts as a signal that follows the discovery of a new grazing area. When the worm finds food, serotonin acts to slow down its incessant burrowing and activates the muscles used for feeding. Depletion of serotonin in these little guys makes them act as if they were in a low-food environment and causes them to travel faster in their search for food. It also suppresses mating and egg-laying. Across species, depletion of serotonin convinces animals that they are experiencing food scarcity. This action of serotonin caused scientists to reframe its purpose more broadly. It is now conceptualized as an indicator of the availability of natural resources.
We have discussed how serotonin indicates social rank in primates, but rank is just a special case of serotonin’s broader significance: resources. High-ranking primates have high serotonin levels because they have priority over mating and food. Just as with the worm, serotonin convinces them that it is okay to relax and take advantage of the opportunities available to them. In a sense, primates are just hairy, four-legged worms whose social lives have grown more complex. Self-subordination is just the strategy of a worm that has become convinced that resource availability is low in the current environment.
This knowledge enables us to easily sidestep status as a means for attaining serotonin. Instead, we can go to the primordial root of serotonin release: feeling like the resources in our life are abundant. The magic button for increasing your serotonin and happiness does not lie in putting other people down. It is found in cultivating gratitude by focusing on the resources available to you.
Scientists have found that gratitude stimulates the brain’s pathways involved in reward, social bonding, and positive appraisal.4 It facilitates the recording and retrieval of positive memories.5 Gratitude stimulates serotonin release, the parasympathetic response, and the actions of the vagus nerve. Feeling thankful counteracts tendencies toward social comparison, narcissism, cynicism, and materialism. Let’s accomplish all of this by expressing gratefulness daily.

Common gratitude-building exercises include thinking of one thing to be grateful for every day, writing a letter every week thanking someone who helped you, or simply using the word “grateful” during conversation once a day. Exercises like these are some of the most effective happiness enhancers known to psychology.6 When you do this, permit yourself to feel enthusiastic, starry-eyed, and naively idealistic.
Keeping a gratitude journal has shown significant clinical benefits.7 Simply writing down a few things that you are grateful for one to three times per week can raise serotonin, increase life satisfaction, and reduce depressive symptoms. Gratitude journaling has been well researched and validated far beyond anecdotal self-help.8 Numerous studies have shown that journaling for just a few weeks can create dramatic positive changes in brain activity that remain for months. The clinical results have been shown to rival those of antidepressants. The scientific justification for focusing on gratitude is so strong that it encouraged the Program Peace Gratitude Journal, which is available on the website. But you certainly don’t need that to get started.

As a few examples, you may find yourself grateful for the earth, the moon, the stars, the sun, the ocean, rain, animals, pets, friends, your talents, skills, and unique qualities, setbacks that have made you stronger, your senses, fond memories, your favorite songs, movies or shows, foods, the marvel of electricity, the world’s food supply, and all the kind souls out there. I feel especially grateful for the generations of people who made sacrifices for the rights and freedoms we enjoy today, as well as those who made the innovations that resulted in our modern technology and our extensive knowledge base.

Raise Your Serotonin through Cooperation and Creating Value

In primates, domination of others is not the only way up. Brute physical strength and fighting prowess are only partial factors in determining status relationships. Social bonds, friendships, past feats, and examples of helping others count as well. Most primates will support or even fight for those that helped them in the past. This is why an open conflict between two primates is usually decided by who has the most allies.
It is also important to note that dominance does not equal influence. The dominant ape is often not the most liked or even the most influential politically. Dominant primates have fighting prowess, boldness, and a characteristic that ecologists call “resource holding potential.” But this does not necessarily make them trusted or revered. In fact, the oldest group members, not the alpha, are usually the most influential. Apes will approach influential members to moderate spats, make decisions, or seek comfort.
Dominant individuals are fit to be revered to the extent that they serve the interests of those that revere them. If you want to be justified in being calm and nonsubmissive, you must promote positivity in the lives of those that allow you to remain so. Thus, the next time you notice an urge to belittle someone, remember that bonding with them instead will provide a larger, more sustainable neurochemical boost to happiness and esteem.
Because our biological past also rewards camaraderie, teamwork, and solidarity with a boost of serotonin, there are many healthy ways to get an ego boost from others without bringing them down. It’s our job to think creatively about positive ways to interact with others rather than being destructive.
It is usually the youngest and most immature of adult primates that are preoccupied with establishing dominance. Senior group members are less nervous greeting each other and are more concerned with confirming partnership and cooperation than securing dominance. We love people who cooperate, reinforce our confidence, and raise our status. Consequently, if you want to be loved and held in high regard, then work on raising other people’s status in their own eyes as well as in the eyes of others. Offer valid and specific compliments, help them argue their point, align your goals with theirs, stand up for them, laugh at their jokes, and beam zygomatic smiles at them.
The higher a chimp’s rank, the more likely it is to support inferior parties during disputes. High levels of serotonin cause us to have compassion for and side with the underdog. Dominant apes routinely break up fights, usually intervening on the side of the weaker party. They especially defend the young, the wounded, and the old. In many primates, the alpha male and female play a control role, where they mediate equitably, restoring peace and security. Interestingly, it has been found that the most dominant schoolchildren tend to intervene in playground fights, protect losers, and share more with classmates. It appears to be some form of natural noblesse oblige that we lose sight of as adults.
Monkeys choose to share with one another frequently, both in the wild and in captivity. However, they do not share out of fear of reprisal. We know this because the most dominant monkeys are the most generous, which is part of what earns them their increased status. The best way for low-status individuals to improve their status is to prove their value to the group. Similarly, humans gain status by developing a skill that benefits the community. This is why we should be useful rather than pretentious and entitled. Don’t be the person working on their wardrobe, biceps, or tan. Instead, be the person people go to for help with their problems. Don’t focus on status threats. Focus instead on expanding your influence and significance to your community. Gain status not from physicality, offensives, and violations, but collaboration, contribution, and earned esteem.

Serotonin Inhibits Fear and Aggression

Serotonin makes many animals from a range of different taxonomic groups less fearful in response to perceived threats. Much of this is due to its actions at the amygdala (the brain’s fear center discussed in previous chapters). By default, the cells of the amygdala are quieted by the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA. This makes it so that the brain’s panic button must be pressed firmly for it to actuate. This inhibition has been called the “GABA guard.” It is why something surprising must happen for you to become scared.   

Serotonin further excites GABA-producing cells in the amygdala, increasing this tonic inhibition and increasing your threshold for getting scared. This is why antidepressants like Prozac, a drug that increases serotonin levels at the synapse, decreases amygdala activity. This is also one of the reasons dominant animals are not unnecessarily aggressive. Their amygdala and sympathetic system are difficult to highjack. The stress hormone, cortisol, acts in a way that is opposite serotonin. It inhibits GABA cells in the amygdala, disabling serotonin’s ability to calm the amygdala.9           

Keep in mind that not only is the amygdala the brain’s fear center, but it is also the area most implicated in the initiation of aggressive acts. Thus, high-stress animals are more aggressive while animals with high serotonin levels are less aggressive. This is why, as discussed in Chapter 2, alpha individuals are not combative but friendly. The alpha chimp grooms others more, shares more of its food, and patrols the perimeter to keep its friends safe. As you might expect, artificially elevating the serotonin in a monkey’s brain makes it groom and share more. It is more capable of prosocial behavior because its amygdala has been bound and gagged. To me, this strongly suggests that being stuck in fight or flight keeps us from acting altruistically and civil-mindedly.         

When serotonin levels are low, animals show signs of being irritated.10 The threshold for taking offense drops, and fatigue and crankiness rise. Low serotonin chimps pick fights and take unnecessary risks. For instance, monkeys with low serotonin are more likely to jump between distant tree branches and lash out in anger. Similarly, studies have shown that low-status men are much more likely to aggress by yelling, insulting, or using violence. While these behaviors are meant to increase dominance, they often lower status because they result in estrangement. When you find yourself being aggressive, acknowledge that you probably wouldn’t be as threatened if your serotonin levels were higher.        

Now you understand the neurological mechanism for why serotonin-depleted animals are more belligerent: their amygdala overreacts to anxiety-provoking stimuli, increasing their heart rate and breathing, making them feel cornered. Low serotonin is one of the best predictors of impulsive hostility in mammals.11[iii] Antisocial behavior in humans also increases with decreasing serotonin. This is why feeling rejected leads to aggression. I think the take-home message is clear. We should avoid destructive rank games. We should comport ourselves with the composure of an alpha monkey with nothing to prove, in the company of equals. Adopting this as a lifestyle may be the most successful strategy to achieve sustainable happiness.

The Healthy Dominance Mindset

“Never depend on the admiration of others. There is no strength in it. Personal merit cannot be derived from an external source.” ― Epictetus (50-135)

When a baboon ignores the status hierarchy, the members of its troop will kill it. Similarly, if you flout the status hierarchy, you could alienate yourself from others. Therefore, I don’t recommend that you completely ignore or go against it. I do, however, recommend reinventing yourself as a cool-headed alpha. It all starts with a little imagination.
It can be helpful to internalize the mindset of being everyone’s parent. Parents usually feel like they don’t owe their kids submissive displays. Given that a healthy parents’ dominance of their offspring is not based on competition, but on a desire to teach and guide, imagine yourself to be the Mom or Dad to every person in the world. I’m not asking you to patronize people. Just be as relaxed as you would be if everyone was your child and you were the only adult present.
You want to be a good parent, even to a bad child. In Japan, mothering has been described as “patiently molding the intractable.” Children and infants can be inherently stubborn, but this is best countered by persistence and patience. Even mother chimps reprimand misbehavior without bearing any grudge. They offer reassurance and comfort after disciplining their young. They do this naturally. Use this philosophy with adults. Adults can be as tricky and immature as children, but rather than aggress against them, patiently mold them. Be a father or mother figure. Like a good parent, act permissive yet authoritative.
Just as a good parent doesn’t owe their children submissive displays, neither does a warrior owe their fellows submissive displays. They are too busy either risking their life or resting. Take on the rugged exterior of a special forces commando, a mythical god, or a legendary hero. You have corrupt governments to topple and dragons to slay. You have no interest in minor squabbles and infractions. When you are with friends, envision yourself as a champion who has just bested a mythical monster, like the Minotaur, Jabberwock, Medusa, or Cerberus. Now that you, the gladiator, are resting between feats, you do not have the time or energy to raise your eyebrows, hyperventilate, or smile nervously. Feel free to rest between your heroic efforts. Given the chance, you would do the selfless, intrepid thing, so take the hero’s poise and grace for yourself right now.

My Experience with Serotonin Supplements

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.” – Viktor Frankl (1905-1997)

I used to be clinically depressed. As a preteen, I cut myself with knives. As a young adult, I put a gun in my mouth on a few occasions. I sat on a 20-story rooftop ledge intending to jump a few times. I never followed through with suicide though. I would tell myself that I wanted to tie up a few more loose ends in my life before I fully committed. I know what serotonin depletion feels like and that a person is willing to do almost anything to escape it.
I have never been to a psychiatrist and thus have never been prescribed an antidepressant, but I have taken an over-the-counter nutritional supplement called SAM-e. It is similar to other mood enhancing supplements like 5-HTP, L-theanine, and Saint John’s wort and is available at most drug stores. I took SAM-e for two months in my late 20s because I wanted to find out what high serotonin levels felt like. I wanted to experience happiness for a few weeks to understand it and attempt to recreate it later after going off the drug. Without question, it made me a joyous, more composed person…while it lasted.
Like an antidepressant (e.g., Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, etc.), SAM-e increases serotonin availability at the synapse. In doing so, it also fortifies the GABA guard mentioned earlier, inhibiting the amygdala. It takes two weeks for SAM-e to elevate mood appreciably, but I felt that I noticed changes with the first few doses. I felt lighter on my feet, happy-go-lucky, and less stymied by social concerns. I completely stopped worrying that other people might think that I looked too calm.
After 14 days of taking it, I woke up in the middle of the night feeling euphoric. I had been slightly scared of the dark since childhood, but suddenly I felt completely safe in the dark. I walked through my home without turning on any lights. I found myself sitting on the carpet in the darkest places and reveling in my fearlessness. I stayed awake for three hours, just walking around outside in the shadows, feeling intensely happy. Interestingly, even a single course of antidepressants can end phobias, lifelong bad habits, negative quirks, and antisocial behaviors. Since that night, I have not been afraid of the dark.
That Wednesday night from 2 to 5 am was a vertiginous and ecstatic experience. Nothing remarkable happened, and I was all by myself, but it was the happiest night of my life. All my social status concerns disappeared, replaced by pure excitement for the things going on in my life at the time. I didn’t realize it that night, but I was filled with pure gratitude.
I continued to take the drug for six weeks. On it, I was less abusive but more insistent and decisive. I was demanding of people but direct rather than passive-aggressive, so people complied. I would say exactly what was on my mind without sugarcoating it. People liked me more, respected me more, and treated me like I was charismatic. I was more personable, more outspoken, and I craved interaction instead of shrinking away from it.
While on SAM-e, I started making natural eye contact with people for the first time in my life. I even sought out eye contact. It came easily, and my eyes didn’t dart away. I was more extroverted and started assuming leadership positions in group projects. People also started laughing at my attempts at humor, despite my jokes not changing. Confident delivery made all the difference.
When I was on SAM-e, I didn’t talk or think negatively. Bad experiences were very short lived, and I didn’t keep them active in my mind. I didn’t trash talk others, even in my head. Most of my previous insecurities felt like faint memories. I felt like such a different person on SAM-e that at one point, I asked myself, “Why were you so afraid of your friends and coworkers before?”
I would take one pill in the morning and then come home in the evening needing another. Sometimes I would take one and then lie down on the couch and wait for it to kick in. As the stiffness in my brow, jaw, and sneer melted away I could feel the tension in my mind slowly evaporate. This was my first clear indication that facial tension, negative emotion, and serotonin all hold hands. But the relief was not just in my face. My whole body felt light and easy, as if all my trigger points had been excised. I wondered whether having increased serotonin levels had healed them.
Interestingly, serotonin increases the threshold of activation for latent trigger points. In so doing, it eases the chakra-like modules in the body, soothing you. Its role in muscular relaxation is why low serotonin is thought to be a major player in fatigue, headaches, gut tension, heart problems, muscle pain, joint pain, and diffuse discomfort. Now that I couldn’t feel the tension, I was less neurotic. For example, increased serotonin levels are also known to curb nightmares, panic attacks, and unhealthy eating, and I noticed these as additional side effects.
A couple of months passed by, and a fledgling business venture initiated with some acquaintances turned sour. So sour that I felt gutted. Within a month, my hairline receded by at least an inch. I realized that my underlying biological trauma had resurfaced from beneath the artificially elevated serotonin. I felt manic anxiety for hours on end and had significant trouble sleeping. I knew that mania was one of the listed side effects of SAM-e, and combined with my preexisting anxiety, it was unbearable. I went off the drug. As the mania went away, the depression crept back in, along with all the previous muscular tension. The experience showed me that serotonin does not fix or heal the brain. It just alters it temporarily. Similarly, it does not fix trigger points or heal chakras. It merely subdues them, allowing our behavior to be less affected. When I went off SAM-e, I noticed my body trembled. It was substantial, and I realized I had to do something about it.

Don’t Let Yourself Tremble

In the last chapter, I mentioned a friend of mine who was a drug addict. She had a small kitten that she played roughly with. She would squeeze it, and tease it, and swing it around. Some aspects of this play were pleasant to watch at times, but other elements bordered on abuse. At one point, she asked whether I thought she played too roughly with it. The kitten’s interminable trembling answered her question for me. With beautiful, pained eyes, this little furball was constantly glancing around skittishly. It shuddered even when standing still, startled at every sound, and grew into the most nervous cat I have ever seen. The truth is, the owner herself trembled and probably wanted her small friend to share her weakness.
Muscle trembling is a sign that an animal is under duress. It is related to the startle response discussed in Chapter 2 and similarly signals submission. It results in a shaking, quaking, and shuddering that makes us feel weak in the knees. Chronic distress and social defeat cause trembling to become more pronounced. It is quite common for the runt of the litter to tremble because it rarely wins in competitive play and often has the lowest serotonin of the group. Trembling destroys fluid, measured movement as well as timing and rhythm. It occurs all over the body, not just in the voice and hands. Dormant or partially contracted muscles frequently tremble because those muscles can neither relax nor fully contract, making them susceptible to shaking involuntarily between these extremes.
When a poorly-socialized Chihuahua is placed among bigger dogs, it tends to tremble more than usual. We are all shaky Chihuahuas, whether it is perceptible or not. Also, we tremble for the same reason: to keep others from being threatened by us. Trembling goes on in the background and usually becomes apparent under duress, by old age, or after a heavy workout. You may think you don’t tremble but may notice it when performing small, fluid movements like knitting. This is why I urge you to spend time focusing your awareness on trembling in an attempt to “get ahold of yourself.” Working out with light weights (Chapter 15) and performing anti-laxity while slow breathing will firm your grip.
The slower you move, the easier it is to iron out trembling, flinching, and startling. Moshé Feldenkrais, the founder of the Feldenkrais exercise method, propounded the idea that practicing slow movement is essential to grace and psychological wellbeing. This general philosophy dates back hundreds of years to Taoist and Buddhist monasteries and the art of tai chi. Tai chi is a superb practice that will smooth your movements and help you tremble less. Some forms encourage you to move mindfully, as a “needle in cotton,” and develop the ability to leverage joints using coordination and relaxation rather than tension. I strongly encourage you to take a tai chi class, even if you do it from home using free internet tutorials.

As you become better at diaphragmatic breathing, you will become more aware of your pre-existing tendency to tremble. Focus selectively on each tremor you notice and try to soothe it. Certainly, don’t incorporate trembling into purposive movement. Don’t allow your fingers to fumble as you use your phone, button down your shirt, or zip your purse. Slow down every movement and engineer it for precision. Hurried, hasty movements require bracing, ruining composure and finesse. It takes patience to eliminate trembling and establish flowing dexterity. Imagine moving like a sloth: slowly, deliberately, and mistake-free. Just like paced breathing irons the apneic disturbances out of your diaphragm’s tidal range, slow, purposive movement will iron the discontinuities out of your actions.

Use Dominant Gestures

Dominant people with high serotonin naturally use commanding gestures. Dominance is conveyed preemptively by actions indicating strength, comfort, and fearlessness. Simply practicing and automating these gestures will increase your nonverbal dominance, thereby increasing your serotonin. Let’s get into the specifics. Dominant people have towering posture, whereas submissive ones try to hide their height. Dominant people lean toward others and approach others directly rather than haltingly and uncertainly. Dominant people initiate increased proximity, more handshaking, and a higher frequency of touching.12 So, put your arm around people, touch their hands, slap their knees, rest your arm on their shoulders, and strike their backs when you embrace them.
As far as general posture, we have already discussed retracting the neck, flexing the glutes, pressing the hips forward, and looking upward, among many others. When standing, place your feet at least shoulder length apart and don’t fidget. Refrain from folding your hands in front of you, placing them in pockets, or using them to cover your genitals. Because submission is conveyed by the lack of hand movements and hidden hands, gradually work more hand gesticulation into your speech.
Bring your hands into full view, don’t brace them in contorted ways, and never worry that the position of your elbows, wrists, or fingers will be taken as offensive. Finding a comfortable place for your hands can be difficult. The key is not thinking about it, or whether people will perceive it as uppity or proud. They are your hands. If other people don’t like how you are holding them, that’s their problem.

 Illustration 18.1: Positions for the hands while standing. A. Holding the fist; B. Holding the hand; C. Hands on the hips; D. Hands supporting neck retraction; E. Hands behind the back; F. Hands simply dangling at the sides; G. Kelly Starrett’s position to train pulling the shoulder blades together (scapular retraction/shoulder packing).

Another technique to increase your nonverbal dominance is reducing reassurances such as excessive nodding. Don’t stop nodding altogether but reduce how quickly and how often you do it. Definitely smile at people and laugh at their jokes, just don’t do it too much. Excessive smiling and laughter directed at another’s efforts at humor are submissive. And use the optimal smile and laugh discussed in previous chapters. Nonverbal tics, rapid blinking, prolonged tilting of the head, touching the back of your neck, wringing the hands, coughing artificially, and scratching imaginary itches are all nervous behaviors meant to fill space when you don’t know what to do with your body.13 Omit all of that.

Televised athletes that suffer anything from a crushing defeat to a narrow loss immediately take on stereotypically submissive body language.14 Their eyes are downcast, their head lowers, they untuck their chin, and their entire back curves forward into the characteristic “C” shape. Most of us take on these postures after somebody else makes a good point in a conversation. No one and nothing should be able to crush your posture. Instead, think of your favorite Olympic sport and imagine what stance you would take on if you just won a gold medal in that event in front of a cheering crowd. Use that hourly.
As we have seen, many submissive displays keep our muscles tense and prevent them from refreshing, hurting us in the long run. However, some displays communicate modesty without doing this. These include feeling comfortable turning your back to another individual, sitting lower than another, or placing yourself in any such position where someone else would have an advantage if they decided to attack you. If you walk into a room and sit in the lowest chair, you make a strong statement, showing that being physically lower doesn’t make you feel lower. I frequently sit, kneel, or lie down next to people that are standing. It gets people to lower their guard. When I do it, it is usually to stretch or allow my muscles to refresh. If you do this, other people will get the point and see that you have no fear that others will attack you.

In chimpanzees, submissive individuals greet dominant ones. This involves a sequence of short, shallow pant grunts that probably represent a form of handicapped breathing. The subordinate will assume a position whereby he looks up at the individual he is greeting. He makes a series of deep bows known as bobbing. In the words of primatologist Frans de Waal, he practically “grovels in the dust.” The dominant individual will stand up higher and may step over the individual greeting him. When this happens, the submissive chimp ducks and puts his arms up to protect his head. Thus, even greetings can confirm the dominance relationship, explaining why the alpha is greeted by everyone in the group but greets no one. Adults never greet youngsters, and dominants never greet subordinates. Ceasing to greet is a direct challenge. What should we take from this? I think it is gracious to be the one who initiates a greeting, but be aware of your posture and composure when you do so, and keep in mind that you never have to be the one who initiates a hello.


I used to often feel like prey. Walks in metropolitan areas would trigger concerns of being followed by assailants. Being in nature would trigger fears of being stalked by wild animals. Swimming in an ocean, lake, or even a pool would trigger visions of sharks and prehistoric marine predators. I would have frequent nightmares, causing me to wake up yelling. Every other night in bed, I would give myself chills by imagining a home invasion scenario. This is all a distant memory to me now. I believe that I am utterly free of these fears today because my confidence and serotonin levels are constitutionally higher, thanks to Program Peace.
Besides massage, exercise, gratefulness, cooperation, and assertiveness, how else can we raise our serotonin? Every exercise in this book aims to increase serotonin levels. After you have thoroughly practiced walking while breathing deeply, with wide eyes above the eye line, shoulders down, and a retracted neck, it will be legitimate. And here is the key: Other people’s inevitable recognition of this legitimacy will cause them to respect you. Strangers will see your posture and address you as “boss,” “chief,” “sir,” or “ma’am.” Even a subtle increase in the tokens of respect you receive from your social environment, relative to what your serotonergic system was previously accustomed to, will be enough to boost your serotonin.
Researcher Michael McGuire and colleagues performed an illuminating experiment. They took a monkey troop’s alpha member and placed him in a separate room where he could watch the other monkeys. They placed a one-way mirror between the alpha and his subordinate troopmates so that he could see them, but they could not see him. Because the alpha could see his mates, he made his ordinary dominance gestures. However, because they were oblivious to him, they did not make their submissive gestures in response. Even though the alpha had far higher serotonin levels than the other monkeys, his serotonin levels fell each day of the experiment. He needed visual signals of their submission to stroke his ego. When the experimenters replaced this one-way mirror with a piece of glass, his friends submitted and his serotonin levels rose again.
The trouble with our brain circuitry is that we necessitate submissive displays from others just to feel normal. Many find it impossible to retain a sense of self-worth if others withhold signs of deference. But you shouldn’t. Accept a confidence boost when others exalt you but retain your confidence when others ignore you. There is a deeper lesson to take from this: Your social interactions are not fights but sparring sessions. They are not wrestling matches but wrestling practice. Don’t see interactions as a competition; see them as cooperation. You are working together to help each other become more and more ascendant. When people fail to show you the esteem you feel you deserve, think of it as part of the game, and let it make you tougher, not weaker.
Before I started this reprogramming journey, my eye-related body language (see Chapter 4) was worse than most of the human population. If I had to ascribe numerical values, I would say that I was in the bottom 10% for having open eyes, the bottom 5% for looking upward, and the bottom 2% for capability for eye contact. I would guess that just around 10 hours in total of using the exercises from Chapter 4 placed me at least 60% higher in each of these categories. Can you imagine how much less frequently social interactions leave me feeling like a weirdo and a loser? Now, I come out of them with more serotonin rather than less.        
Take a moment to consider how other exercises in this book will make additional contributions to your confidence. Once you get the excessive tension out of your face, neck, and diaphragm this will be apparent. But remember this is not a zero-sum game. As long as you are not combining your confidence with aggression, your improved body language should not detract from the body language of others. In fact, if you use your optimal demeanor equitably, and show others the respect they deserve (and perhaps more than they deserve), you will become a role model helping and training others to be more like you.
We have seen that there are many ways to increase your serotonin without drugs. However, I think the most powerful way to increase your confidence is to have faith in your skills to mitigate conflict. The next chapter will tackle this topic.

Chapter Twenty-Three: Bullet Points  

  • Dominant or alpha primates have higher serotonin levels in the blood and brain than the other members of their group. If they are deposed, their serotonin plunges, and the new alpha’s serotonin will soar.
  • Being an alpha with high serotonin that can never be deposed is a state of mind you can create with time.
  • Increased serotonin makes you feel less stressed in response to threats and less concerned with other people’s expectations regarding your subordination displays.
  • We act in ways to increase our serotonin, but this often brings us into conflict with others and can lead to self-destructive behavior.
  • Any wins garnered through aggression or hostility are temporary and unsustainable.
  • Increase your confidence not through pitting yourself against or comparing yourself to others but through appreciating the abundance you already have.
  • You don’t have to be a high-energy extrovert to be assertive and high in status.
  • You have reached ego dissolution once your breathing is no longer controlled by pride or prestige.
  • The same boost you used to get from pulling others down, you can double it by being successful at building rapport or making a new friend.
  • Your nervous system supports a mode of operation in which all movements are fluid and unwavering, as in tai chi.
  • Social submission interferes with fluid movement. Your gesticulations at a party should be as smooth and effortless as your motions in tai chi.
  • Camaraderie, gratefulness, and a mindset that is not attached to status and not dependent on the regard of others will help us transcend serotonin blows.
  • It shouldn’t feel socially awkward to have dominant body language.
  • Get your confidence boosts by competing with yourself and aiming to beat your personal bests.
  • Master the belief that no matter what, you will be just fine.


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