How Consumerism Tricks Our Biology

How does consumer culture manipulate the pro-social chemicals in our brain to lead us to unhappy lives?

Those clever marketeers have found a way to trick our biology into consuming more. The only known cure is awareness.

Inside our bodies are chemicals that are trying to get us to do things that are in the best interest of us. They are endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. 

Endorphins. Endorphins are designed to do one thing and one thing only. Mask physical pain. If you’re a runner, you’ve heard of a runner’s high. Basically what’s happening is when that runner’s out there, pushing their bodies harder than they’ve ever pushed before, they feel good. And then an hour later, they’re in pain for damage they caused to their muscles an hour before. 

This is what endorphins are designed to do. They’re designed to mask physical pain.

Dopamine. Dopamine is the feeling that you’ve found something you’re looking for, or that you accomplished something you set out to accomplish. The whole purpose of dopamine is to make sure that we get stuff done. This is is why you must write down your goals. 

There’s a biological reason for that. We’re very, very visually-oriented animals. You have to be able to see the goal for it to biologically stay focused. And every time we achieve a goal that makes us feel like we’re making progress to the vision we can see, we keep going and going and going until we achieve something remarkable. You have to be able to see it. Dopamine.

Dopamine comes with a warning. Dopamine is highly, highly, highly addictive. Here are some other things that release dopamine. Alcohol, nicotine, gambling, your cell phone. We can also get addicted to performance in our companies when all they do is give us numbers to hit, numbers to hit, numbers to hit. And a bonus you get, and a bonus you get, a bonus you get. All they’re doing is feeding us with dopamine, and we can’t help ourselves. 

All we do is want more, more, and more. One of the things we know about a dopamine addict is they will do anything to get another hit, sometimes at the sacrifice of their own resources and their relationships. Dopamine is dangerous if it is unbalanced.

Serotonin is responsible for feelings of pride and status. This is why public recognition is very important. We are social animals, and we need the recognition of others. 

This is why we have commencement for graduation. You could get an email that says, congratulations. You’ve fulfilled all the requirements for graduation. Enclosed, please print out the PDF of your diploma. Wouldn’t feel so good, right? So instead, we have a big ceremony to recognize the accomplishment. And in the audience, we put our family and our friends and our teachers, all of those in our tribe who have supported us and watched our backs as we’ve made it through. And then we show up on that day, and we go up on that stage, and we take our diploma. It feels great. We feel our status rise. We feel our pride go up. And here’s the best part about serotonin. At the exact moment that you took your diploma and you felt that surge of serotonin go through your body, your parents sitting in the audience also got a surge of serotonin, and also felt an intense pride watching you graduate. And this is what serotonin is trying to do. It is trying to reinforce the relationship between parent and child, coach and player, the caregiver and the one who is grateful for the support they are given. 

The problem is, you can trick serotonin. We live in a materialist society, so we judge status very often in our country based on how much money you make. So any conspicuous display of wealth raises your status. This is why they put the logos on the outside. No good on the inside. Nobody can see them. You can actually feel your confidence rise when you put on the stuff because it’s showing this display of status. It feels great. The problem is, there was no relationship that was reinforced because of it. You tricked the system. That’s why we keep trying to accomplish things and accumulate more and more material goods, and yet we never feel successful, because there was no relationship. We tricked it. We gamed it. 

Oxytocin. This is the best chemical of all. Oxytocin is the feeling of love and trust and friendship. 

Oxytocin is that intense feeling of safety that someone’s got your back. There are multiple ways you can get oxytocin. One way to get it is physical contact. Hugging feels wonderful. When women give birth to children, huge surge of oxytocin in their body. This is what’s responsible for the mother-child bond. 

Another way you can get oxytocin is through acts of human generosity. doing nice things for people that require that you sacrifice a little bit of time, a little bit of energy, something you will never get back. 

Remember, our bodies are trying to get us to repeat behaviors that are in our best interest. And it’s making us feel good when we see or do acts of human generosity so that we will do them. In fact, the more oxytocin you have in your body, the more generous you actually become. It gets better than that. Lots of oxytocin in your body inhibits addiction. It boosts your immune system. It makes you healthier. That’s why happy people live longer. It’s why couples live longer. It increases our ability to solve problems. It increases our creativity. It’s really good for us. And it’s not addictive. It just feels great.

There’s one more chemical I haven’t told you about. Cortisol. Cortisol is the feeling of stress and the feeling of anxiety. Cortisol is designed to keep us alive. It is the first stage of fight or flight. It makes us paranoid. It makes all of our senses hyper attuned to look for danger. It injects glucose into our muscles to make us stiff and ready to go in case we need to fight or flight. It increases our heart rate like crazy. 

Cortisol, to get all of that extra energy, it needs to shut down non essential systems so it shuts off things like growth. You don’t need your fingernails to grow at that moment. Shuts it off. The other thing it shuts off is our immune system. Don’t need it in that moment. The problem is, you’re not supposed to have cortisol in your system all the time.

One of the things cortisol does, it inhibits the release of oxytocin. Biologically, if you work in a high-stress environment where you don’t feel safe, you are biologically less empathetic and less generous. 

Alcoholics Anonymous has been highly effective for decades. Alcoholics Anonymous knows that if you master all 11 steps, but not the 12th, you will drink again.The 12th step is the commitment to help another alcoholic.

Service. Service to another. Oxytocin wins. Serotonin wins. The more we look after each other, the safer we feel, the more we feel like we belong, and the more we will work together to confront the dangers outside.


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