23. Serotonin, Gratefulness, and Cooperation

Competition, Defeat and Brain Chemicals

For the last 60 million years the dominance hierarchy has been the primary regulator of primate life. Monkeys and apes 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 make these sorting predictions reliably? As this chapter will explain, it has much to do with the level of the brain chemical serotonin. Animals that win fights or spats unconsciously experience increases in their levels of serotonin. Animals that lose lower their levels.

Serotonin contributes to the feelings of wellbeing, happiness, relaxation, and self-confidence. It increases the expectation of social dominance, and causes subordinate animals to stand up for themselves. Serotonin is produced by serotonergic cells in the raphe nuclei of the brainstem. These nuclei exhibit reduced production of serotonin in disorders like panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and depression. Low serotonin causes us to be terrorized by the trivialities of life.

When a dominant primate is overthrown his serotonin levels plunge and his replacement’s serotonin surges. Researchers have found that dominant male monkeys have up to twice as much serotonin in their blood as non-dominant ones. Similarly, humans individuals in leadership positions have higher serotonin that their subordinates. One study found that fraternity officers have, on average, 25% higher serotonin levels than other frat members. Research evinces that in adult primates serotonin levels are more directly related to dominance than are body size or testosterone levels (Raleigh et al., 1980).

Every primate in a troop knows its status relationship with every other animal, just as high school students give remarkably consistent rankings for popularity at their school. One of the biggest factors influencing the amount of serotonin in the brain is whether you think others perceive you as having high status. Does your self-worth derive from external validation and the positive evaluations of others? It shouldn’t.

During most interchanges between people there are few overt hostilities. The relative status of each person is determined by more covert factors such as level of relaxation and verbal fluency. If you come across as more tense than the other person, chances are you both perceive this. Your serotonin may lower, and theirs will likely rise. Serotonin is released after successful social assertion. Being snubbed or getting negative feedback almost always causes serotonin to drop. And unfortunately, to your brain’s limbic system, everything is a status contest.

Many species of social insects are born into a caste, either the aristocracy or the working class. But a mammal is constantly renegotiating its status. Do you want to be renegotiating your status every day for the rest of your life? If not you will have to change your mindset.

Serotonin and the Ego

The human ego is actually a specialized neurological system found in all primate brains that causes us to analyze if we should be more or less insecure; if 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. This is why the ego is sometimes referred to as the monkey mind.

In primates serotonin level is a fertility indicator. The most dominant males have the most offspring. Individuals that excel in status seeking contribute more to the genepool. We are self-conscious and ego obsessed today because it was good for the reproductive success of our ancestors. 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 ego. So again, we are at odds with our biology.

Status is most people’s hypergoal, meaning 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 your own goals rather than the one that evolution selected for you.

Unfortunately most people in corporate jobs must submit significantly to higherups to advance their career and make good money. There are many reasons that you should treat your boss as a dominant individual. In fact, it is likely best for you, your boss, and the business for you to allow them to act superior in some ways. But don’t hurt yourself to let the boss be the boss. Acquiesce appropriately to your employer, law enforcement, judges, and other authority figures without diminishing your posture, shortening your breath, or surrendering your pride.

Serotonin Activity # 1: Imagine Extreme Inferiority
Imagine being the weakest, most poorly composed person on the planet. Imagine that you have been jumped and beaten by a gang of people more than 10 times in your life. Imagine that you have been rejected by every friend and romantic partner. Imagine having a job where the patrons and clients treat you in a haughty and cavalier way. They treat you like you are less than a person. Imagine being a servant without a chip on your shoulder, a whipping boy with optimal posture, or a cheerful golden retriever. Put yourself through the fire by imagining the most denigrating scenarios you can and in so doing inure yourself against even the harshest flames. Imagine retaining complete cool in these kinds of situations and not letting them ignite your pain.

Our Brain Rations Serotonin

If animals are self-interested survival machines why don’t they simply maximize the level of serotonin in their brains? Because it would be dangerous to be a nondominant monkey with a dominant mindset. If you are a losing animal it is actually beneficial to lower your serotonin because this makes you act submissive and thus shields you from further harm and retaliation. If a researcher artificially raises serotonin in a non-dominant ape, it will act dominant. Merely acting dominant convinces the others that it is dominant, at least for a few days. However, before long though it will be tested, exposed as a pretender, and likely injured in the process.

Our mammal brains do not release serotonin and other happiness chemicals (serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins) whenever we want them to. It uses them to reward us when we accomplish specific survival criteria. They are only released in temporary spurts when our behavior satisfies specific conditions, when the unconscious brain perceives an improvement in survival and reproductive prospects. Most people are frustrated by their inability to fulfil the stringent conditions used by their neurochemical guidance system. The conditions and criteria for attaining happiness chemicals are usually beyond our reach. They have made it 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.

A signal that is on all of the time has no informational value. This is why our serotonin levels have evolved to fluctuate so dramatically and subside so quickly. All humans spend their entire day trying to get happiness chemicals from a brain that is trying to ration them for the proper circumstances. To transcend this we need to learn to feel satisfied with precisely the amount of status that we already have. We need healthy status-seeking that doesn’t involve putting others down. By simply being fully content with whatever level of dominance you have now, you give your unconscious the same level of security that comes with being an alpha. When other people see this healthy, nondominating self-satisfaction they will instantly respect you.  

Serotonin Activity # 2: Imagine Extreme Superiority
What would it take for you to feel triumphant? How would you feel if you just saved the lives of every person on the planet and are now taking interviews on international television? Imagine that you have been the most charismatic person on earth your entire life and everyone already expects effortless magnetism from you. Imagine being the world’s most popular superstar, or the emperor of the galaxy. Imagine being the undisputed boss gorilla in a jungle full of tiny monkey friends. You are the oldest soul, the wisest, most centered person on the planet. Imagine not being corrupted by absolute power, and being a calm, measured, beneficent leader and protector. How would you hold your body? How would this make you feel deep down? Can’t you live your life feeling this way all the time without needing these absurd scenarios?

Serotonin, Abundance and Gratitude

Low serotonin is associated with fleeing and fear 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 many invertebrates increases in serotonin convince the animal that it is experiencing abundant resources. In the microscopic roundworm C elegans, serotonin acts as a signal that follows positive life events such as uncovering a new grazing area. 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 and also to suppress mating and egg-laying. These actions of serotonin in invertebrates 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 this is just a special  case of serotonin’s broader significance. This is because dominant primates have priority over mating and food. In that sense we are just worms whose social lives have grown more complex. Low serotonin causes primates to approach food and potential sexual partners hesitantly and cautiously. So self subordination is really just the strategy of a worm that has become convinced that resource availability in its current environment is low. Serotonin brings a sense of security and convinces the animal that it is ok to relax and to take advantage of opportunities.

This knowledge enables us to easily sidestep status as a means for attaining serotonin and 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 is cultivating gratitude by focusing on the resources that are available to you. Scientists have found that gratitude stimulates the pathways in your brain involved in reward, social bonding, and positive appraisals. It facilitates the saving and retrieving of positive memories. It has been shown to counteract tendencies toward social comparison, narcissism, cynicism, and materialism. Let’s do these things by expressing thankfulness in the following exercise.

Serotonin Activity # 3: Practice Feeling Grateful
What can you feel glad about right now? What about the last year, yesterday, today, or the present moment can you savor? Fill any sense of scarcity or deficit. Change your mindset from one of deprivation and neediness to one of abundance, fulfillment, and plenty. Reminisce on past achievements. Cherish moments of joy and connectedness. Treasure your friends and family. Feel appreciative for everyone in your life. Imagine that you are a content microscopic worm with all of its needs met, and not a worry in the world.

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 have been embraced as some of the most effective happiness enhancers known to psychology (Emmons, 2009). When you do this give yourself permission to feel starry eyed, enthusiastic, and naively idealistic.

Keeping a gratitude journal has shown significant benefits. Simply writing down five to 10 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 (Hanson, 2013). Numerous studies have shown that journaling for just a few weeks can create dramatic positive changes in brain activity that can remain months after ending. If you start gratitude journaling now you will soon have your own book filled with the best things in your life.

Serotonin Exercise #1: Make Entries in a Gratitude Journal
Locate a journal, pad of paper, or create a new file on your computer’s desktop. Start making entries where you write about what you have to be grateful for. Answer the following questions: What are you grateful for today? This could be a moment, a conversation, a meal, or the weather. Name some people you are grateful for and explain why. What places are special to you? What have you learned recently that you value? What can you do to make tomorrow awesome? What activities make your life better? What fills you with wonder? What have you accomplished recently that you are proud of? Has someone done something nice for you recently? Have you had the opportunity to help someone else? What happened today that was good? What has happened recently that makes you feel happy? What is something that you usually ignore that you can appreciate right now? Allow the gratitude to permeate your body.
Duration: Ten minutes. Proficiency: One session per week for six weeks. Maintenance: Once per month.

As a few examples you can find yourself grateful for: the earth, the moon, the stars, the sun, rain, the ocean, 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, the proliferation of technology, the kind souls out there, and the generations of people that made sacrifices for our rights and freedoms.

Changing your outlook on your wins and losses is essential because if you don’t, no number of victories will satisfy your serotonin system for long. Focus your attention on the small triumphs you have every day. Once you learn to celebrate each win for a little longer you will not find yourself hurried into the next risky scheme for serotonin. Rather than focusing on the worst case scenarios, or the brief moments of embarrassment (something our brain is wired to do) focus on the laurels that stick out in your mind, no matter how small. We need to take responsibility for coaxing our brain’s happiness chemicals to change, rather than waiting on the world to change.

Raise Your Serotonin Through Cooperation and Creating Value

We need to be creative in thinking of positive ways to interact with others that stimulate our serotonin centers and theirs as well. In fact, there are many healthy alternative ways to get a boost from others without bringing them down. Our biological past made it so that camaraderie, teamwork, and solidarity help to boost serotonin.

In primates domination is not the only way up. Brute physical strength and fighting prowess are only partial factors in determining dominance relationships. Social bonds, friendships, past feats, and examples of helping others count too. During an open conflict between two primates usually the one with the most allies wins. Most primates will risk fighting for those that helped them recently. It is also important to note that dominance is not equal to influence. The dominant ape is not always the most liked, or even the most influential politically. The dominant has 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, to make decisions, or just to seek comfort.

It is usually the youngest and most immature adult primates that are preoccupied with establishing dominance. Senior group members are less nervous when they greet each other, and are more concerned with confirming partnership and cooperation than in confirming dominance. We love people that 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. Offer valid complements, help them argue their point, align your goals with theirs, stand up for them, laugh at their jokes, and beam zygomatic smiles at them. Individuals that are dominant 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 then you must promote positivity in the lives of those that allow you to remain so. 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.

Increasing serotonin causes you to have compassion for and side with the underdog. In fact, dominant apes routinely break up fights, often intervening on the side of the weaker party. They especially defend the young and old. The higher a chimp’s rank, the more likely they are to side with and support weaker parties during disputes. 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 somehow in adulthood we lose sight of. Don’t lose sight. Side with and protect the underdogs.

In primates grooming and sharing food also earns one increased status. In fact, the best way for low-status individuals to increase their status is by proving that they are valuable to the group. Similarly, humans can gain status by developing a skill that benefits the community. This is why we should try to be useful, rather that pretentious and entitled. Don’t be the person working on his biceps or her tan, be the person working on humanity’s problems. Don’t focus on status threats, instead focus on expanding your influence and significance to your community. Gain status not from physicality, offensives, and violations, but from collaboration, contribution, and earned esteem.

Serotonin Inhibits Aggression

Serotonin makes many animals, from a range of different taxonomic groups, less aggressive 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). The cells of the amygdala are consistently quieted by the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA. This makes the panic button of the brain hard to press by default. This inhibition has been called the “GABA guard.” It is why something surprising must happen for you to become scared. Serotonin excites GABA cells in the amygdala increasing this tonic inhibition and increasing your threshold for getting scared. This is why Prozac, a drug that increases the level of serotonin at the synapse, decreases amygdala highjacks. This is also one of the reasons that dominant animals are not aggressive. Their amygdala and sympathetic system are difficult to highjack. The stress hormone cortisol acts in way that is opposite serotonin. It inhibits GABA cells in the amygdala and disables the ability of serotonin to calm the amygdala (LeDoux, 2002).

As discussed in Chapter 2 the alpha individual is not aggressive, it is friendly. The alpha chimp grooms others more, shares more of its food, and patrols the perimeter in an effort to keep its friends safe. As you might expect, injecting monkeys with serotonin makes them groom and share more. It is capable of this because its amygdala has been bound and gagged. Being stuck in survival mode seems to be the only thing that keeps us from acting altruistically and from engaging in reciprocity.

When levels of serotonin are low, animals are more aggressive and depressed (Gothard & Hoffman, 2010). The threshold for taking offense drops and fatigue and crankiness rise. Low serotonin chimps also pick fights and take unnecessary risks. For instance monkeys with low serotonin are more likely to jump between distant tree branches, and more likely to lash out in anger. Similarly, studies have shown that low-status men are much more likely to aggress by yelling, insulting, or using violence. When you find yourself being aggressive, acknowledge that you probably wouldn’t be as aggressive if your serotonin were higher, and that if you keep it up others will come to resent you, and your status will ultimately decrease over time.

Now you know the neurological mechanism for why serotonin depleted animals are more aggressive. It is because their amygdala over reacts to anxiety provoking stimuli. Their heart speeds up, they start breathing shallowly, and they feel cornered, and impulsive. Low serotonin is one of the best predictors of impulsive aggression in mammals (Herman, 2017). Antisocial behavior in humans also increases with decreasing serotonin. This is why feeling rejected often leads to aggression (Brainerd et al., 2003). I think that the take home message is clear. People should focus on retaining their composure and avoiding rank games. We should comport ourselves with the grace and composure of an alpha monkey, with nothing to prove, in the company of equals. Adopting this as a lifestyle may be the most sustainable long-lasting way to increase serotonin.

A baboon that ignores the status hierarchy will be killed by the others. Similarly if you flout the status hierarchy you could alienate yourself from others. So I am not recommending that you completely ignore or go against it. But I do recommend that you reinvent yourself as a cool-headed alpha. That can start with a little imagination.

I have borrowed much in my life, including a philosophical mindset, from urban culture and hip hop music. A revered phrase in rap music is “these other cats are my sons.” This translates to: “do you see these people around me? Everyone from my entourage, to my detractors are learning from me. I am the father to their style.” In mentioning this I am asking you to internalize this mindset of being everyone’s parent. Parents usually feel like they don’t owe their kids submissive displays. I’m not asking you to patronize people, just be as relaxed as you would be if everyone was a 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 are inherently obdurate (at times at least) but this is best countered by persistence and patience. 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 difficult and act as immature as children, but rather than aggress against them, patiently mold them. Like a good parent, act permissive yet authoritative, but not authoritarian.

Let me share another mindset that has helped me retain my composure. 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 saving the world, or resting. When you are with friends you can be an ancient god that has just slayed the minotaur, medusa, the jabberwocky, cerberus, and fenris. Now that you, the gladiator, are resting between feats you don’t have the time or energy to raise your eyebrows, hyperventilate, or smile nervously. None of your friends know that you didn’t just save the world an hour ago, or that you won’t save it again in an hour. Feel free to rest between your heroic efforts. Take the hero’s poise and grace for yourself right now.  

My Experience with Serotonin Supplements

I used to be depressed. Blood panels documented that my serotonin was very low throughout my twenties. As a preteen I would cut myself with knives. 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. I would tell myself that there were a few more loose ends I wanted to tie up in my life before I fully committed.

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. There are other, similar supplements available at most drug stores including 5-HTP and Saint John’s wort. 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 ideal happiness for a few weeks so that I could understand it and attempt to recreate it later after going off the drug. Without a question, it made me a happier, more composed person for a time.

Like an antidepressant (e.g. Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa etc.), SAM-e increases the availability of serotonin at the synapse. It also fortifies the GABA guard mentioned earlier, inhibiting the amygdala. It takes two weeks for SAM-e to appreciably elevate mood, but I felt that I noticed the changes with the first few doses. I felt lighter on my feet, happy-go-lucky, and less stymied by social concerns. After exactly 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 my childhood, but now all of a sudden 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 shadows and reveling in my fearlessness. I stayed awake for two hours just walking around outside in the shadows feeling intensely happy. I have not been afraid of the dark since. It 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 of my social status concerns disappeared and were replaced by pure excitement for the things that were going on in my life at the time. I didn’t realize it that night, but I was filled with pure gratitude.

For the next six weeks 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. I could feel the tension in my face slowly evaporate. The stiffness in my brow, jaw, and sneer would melt away. This was the first clear indication to me 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 if the serotonin had healed them.

Interestingly, serotonin reduces the threshold for trigger point activation. In so doing, it eases the chakra-like modules in the body, and makes you feel soothed. Its role in muscular relaxation is why low serotonin is thought to be a major player in fatigue, headaches, gut and heart problems, nightmares, panic attacks, muscle pain, joint pain, and diffuse discomfort. Increased levels of serotonin are also known to curb unhealthy and binge eating and I noticed this as an additional side effect. Taking SAM-e taught me what feeling great is like.

Even a single course of antidepressants can end lifelong bad habits, negative quirks, and antisocial behaviors. I was less abusive, but more authoritative, insistent, and decisive. I was demanding of people, but it was direct rather than passive aggressive so people complied. I would say exactly what was on my mind without trying to sugarcoat 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, for the first time in my life, I started making natural eye contact with people. I actually sought out eye contact. It came easily and my eyes didn’t dart away. I was more extroverted, and started assuming the position of the undisputed leader in group projects. People also started laughing at my attempts at humor. The type of jokes I told hadn’t changed, confident delivery made all the difference. When I was on SAM-e I didn’t even want to talk or think about negative things. I didn’t trash talk others, even in my own head. Most of my previous insecurities felt like faint memories. I felt so different on SAM-e that I asked myself, “why were you so absurdly afraid of your friends and coworkers before?”

A couple of months passed by and a fledgling business venture that I had initiated with some acquaintances turned sour. So sour that it left me trembling. Within a month my hairline receded by at least an inch. I realized that my underlying biological trauma had surfaced from beneath the artificially elevated serotonin. I felt a type of manic anxiety for hours on end, and had significant trouble sleeping. I knew that mania was one of the side effects of SAM-e and combined with my preexisting anxiety it was unbearable. I went off of the drug, the mania went away, the depression crept back in, and the muscular tension was again palpable. 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 behavior to be less affected by them. When I went off SAM-e I noticed for the first time that my body was trembling. It was substantial and I realized that 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 introduced me to a small kitten that she played roughly with. She would squeeze it, and tease it, and swing it around. Some aspect of this form of play were pleasant to watch at times, but other elements of it bordered on abuse. At one point, she asked me if I thought she played too roughly with it. The kitten’s constant trembling answered her question for me. This little furball with beautiful but pained eyes shuddered as it glanced around fearfully. It 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 with her.

Muscle tremor and trembling are a signal that an animal is under duress. It is a shaking, quaking, shuddering motion that causes you to feel weak in the knees. Chronic distress and social defeat often cause trembling to become permanent. It is very common for the runt of the litter to tremble. This happens because it rarely feels like it wins in competitive play and thus has the lowest serotonin of the group. Trembling destroys fluid, measured movement as well as timing and rhythm. I believe it also increases with dormant muscle. It doesn’t just occur in the voice and hands, but all over the body. Some people drink alcohol to suppress trembling but over time alcoholism increases trembling.

We are all shaky Chihuahuas. The ones with less serotonin are simply more susceptible to shaking than others. Trembling always goes on in the background and is usually unnoticeable but becomes apparent under threat, by old age, or after a heavy workout. You may think that you do not tremble, but after an hour of intense, full-body exercise you should be able to notice it. This is why especially after exercise you should spend time focusing awareness on trembling in an attempt to “get ahold of yourself.” Working out with light weights (Chapter 15) while slow breathing and being mindful of trembling will help you get a firm grip.

The slower you move, the easier it is to iron out trembling, flinching, and startling. Moshe Feldenkrais founder of the Feldenkrais exercise method propounded that practicing slow movement is essential to grace and psychological wellbeing. This general philosophy of course dates back hundreds of years to Taoist and Buddhist monasteries, and to the art of Tai Chi. Tai Chi is a fantastic practice that will help your movements become smoother, and help you tremble less. Some forms encourage you to move mindfully, as a “needle in cotton,” and to develop the ability to leverage joints using coordination and relaxation rather than tension. I strongly encourage you to take a class in Tai Chi, even if you do it from home using free internet tutorials. Do these while paced breathing.

Serotonin Exercise #2: Take a Class in Tai Chi
Sign up for a class in Tai Chi, or simply follow a beginners instructional tutorial on the internet. Practice the movements and motions while trying to move as smoothly as you possibly can. Just as with the “smooth” breath exercises ensure that the motion created by your muscles occurs at a completely constant rate with no discontinuities. You must activate very primitive brain structures to do this, and every second teaches them that slow, steady movement is safe. While you practice use the four tenets of diaphragmatic breathing. Also use the five tenets of proper posture.
Duration: Ten minutes. Proficiency: One session per week for six weeks. Maintenance: Once per month.

As you become better at diaphragmatic breathing you will become more aware of your preexisting tendency to tremble. Focus selectively on any shivering that you notice, and try your best to stop it. Certainly don’t incorporate the tremble into purposive movement. Don’t allow your fingers to fumble as you button down your shirt, fix your tie, or zip shut your purse. Slow everything down, and engineer it out. Hurried, hasty movements require bracing, and ruin composure and finesse. It takes patience to eliminate trembling from dexterity. Imagine moving like a sloth: slowly, deliberately, and mistake-free. Just like paced breathing irons the trembling, discontinuity, and 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 dominant gestures. Simply learning and practicing these gestures will increase your serotonin and level of dominance. Dominance is conveyed peremptorily by actions indicating strength, comfort, and fearlessness. 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. Dominant people initiate more hand shaking, and engage in higher frequency of touching (Carney, Hall and LeBeau, 2005). So put your arm around people, touch their arms, slap their knees, rest your arm on their shoulders, and strike their backs when you embrace them.

Other dominant forms of body language include standing still, firmly planting the feet, folding the hands behind the back, and placing the hands on the hips. We have already discussed retracting the neck, flexing the glutes, pressing the hips forward, looking upward and many others. Subordinating body language includes folding the hands in front of the body, using them to cover the genitals, or placing them in the pockets. Submission is also conveyed by the lack of hand movements and hidden hands. Plan to gradually work more hand gesticulation into your speech, bring your hands into full view, and never worry that the position of your elbows, wrists, or fingers will be taken as offensive.

Reduce nonverbal reassurances such as excessive nodding. Don’t stop nodding altogether, but reduce how quickly and how often you do it. Similarly, excessive laughter directed at another’s efforts at humor is considered to be submissive. If you want someone to admire you, laugh at their jokes, and nod when they speak, just not too quickly. Touching the back of your neck, coughing imaginary coughs, scratching imaginary itches, and wringing the hands are all nervous behaviors meant as filler when don’t know what to do with your body.

Televised athletes that suffer anything from a crushing defeat to a narrow loss take on stereotypically submissive body language immediately after losing (Tracy & Matsumoto, 2008). Their eyes are cast down, their head lowers, they untuck their chin, and their entire back curves forward into the characteristic “C” shape. Most of us will take on these postures after somebody else makes a good point in a conversation. No one and nothing should be able to make you feel like a failure.

Submissive displays that keep our muscles from refreshing hurt us in the long run. But there are some displays that 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 they would have an advantage if they decided to attack you. If you walk in to a room and sit in the lowest chair you are making a strong statement, showing that you are not in active competition. I will often sit, kneel, or lie down next to people that are standing. It catches people off guard and some find it refreshing. I often do this either to stretch, or to allow my muscles to refresh.

In chimpanzees, submissive individuals greet dominant individuals. This involves a sequence of short, shallow pant grunts that are probably indicative of 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. The submissive ape ducks and puts his arms up to protect his head. Greeting is a confirmation of the dominance relationship. 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. So what should we take from this? I think it is gracious to be the one that initiates a greeting but be aware of your posture and composure when you do so, and remember that you don’t ever have to be the one that initiates a greeting.

Dominance and submission are the fundamental concepts in social science, in the same way that mass and energy are the fundamental concepts in physics (Dunbar & Burgoon, 2005). They are also the key concepts in most relationships, especially close relationships, where individuals rely on one another to achieve their goals. As such, it is important to be able to identify and effectively navigate dominance games.


I used to often feel like prey. Walks in metropolitan areas would trigger fears of being followed by human assailants. Being in nature would trigger fears of being stalked by wild animals. Swimming in a lake, ocean, or even a pool would trigger visions of sharks and prehistoric marine predators. I would have frequent nightmares. I would often wake up yelling. Every other night in bed I would give myself the chills from playing out a home invasion scenario in my mind. This is all a distant memory to me now and I am convinced that this is so because my serotonin levels are higher thanks to Program Peace.

Besides gratefulness, massage, exercise, and cooperation how else can we raise our serotonin? Every exercise in this book is aimed at increasing serotonin levels. After you have 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,” and “ma’am.” Even a subtle increase in the tokens of respect that 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 it in a separate room where it could watch the other monkeys. They placed a one-way mirror between the alpha and its 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, but because the other monkeys could not see him they did not make their submissive gestures in response. When this is done 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 stoke his ego. If you replace this one-way mirror with a piece of glass, his friends submit, and his serotonin levels rise. The trouble with our brain circuitry is we crave submissive displays from others just to be happy and prosocial. Many find it impossible to retain a sense of self-worth if others withhold signs of respect. But you shouldn’t. Accept serotonin when others exalt you, but retain serotonin when others ignore you.

Before I entered my thirties and started this reprogramming journey my eye-related body language 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 say 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 I come out of social interactions feeling like a weirdo and a loser? Now I end a social encounter with more serotonin rather than less.

Take a moment to imagine how other exercises in this book will make additional contributions to your level of confidence. And remember that this is not a zero sum game. As long as you are not combining your confidence with aggression your improved body language will not detract from the body language of others. In fact, if you use your optimal demeanor equitably you will become a role model helping others to be more like you.

There are many ways to increase your serotonin without drugs. But I think that the most powerful way to increase your serotonin is to have faith in your skills to mitigate conflict. The next chapter will tackle this topic.

Chapter 22: Bullet Points

  • Alpha is a state of mind that you can create with time by raising your serotonin.
  • Increasing serotonin makes you feel less aware of other people’s expectations of your subordination displays.
  • We want to increase our serotonin but this brings us into conflict with others.
  • Any wins garnered through aggression or hostility are temporary and unsustainable.
  • Increase your confidence not through 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.
  • Camaraderie, gratefulness, and a mindset that is not attached to status, and not dependent on the signals or regard of others will help us transcend serotonin blows.
  • Your body language telegraphs your internal state to those around you whether you want it to or not.
  • Get your confidence boosts from competing with yourself and aiming to beat your personal bests.
  • Talk to homeless and developmentally disabled people like they are your equals.
  • Master the belief that no matter what you will be just fine.
  • It shouldn’t feel socially awkward to have dominant body language.