In this series of articles based on the Lab’s 100 Urban Trends glossaries, our writers are focusing on “trends” that are meaningful to them, and sharing insights on urban issues that shape our lives. Today’s trend: Oxytocin.
If there’s one molecule out there to which we can give credit for the very existence of cities, it may just be oxytocin. OK, so O2 and H2O are pretty critical to life, full stop, and hydrocarbons like those in oil have been pretty key in shaping the cities we know today. But it is thanks to oxytocin that we are able to live together in such massive numbers at all in the first place.
As Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and author of The Moral Molecule, put it to me in a recent interview, “It’s a very unnatural thing for almost all animals to be living amongst strangers. You know, chimpanzees, our closest genetic relatives, if they run into a stranger in the rainforest, they kill it. We sometimes do that, but more likely, we say ‘hi’ to it.” This, he says, is oxytocin at work. Most commonly known as the love-and-bonding hormone that mothers release when they breastfeed, and that we all release when we have sex, oxytocin also acts as the social radar that gives humans the unique ability to determine who is safe and trustworthy, and who is not, which enables us to live peacefully amongst strangers all the time. While other mammals have oxytocin, it has evolved much more strongly in humans than any other species, which is why we are the ones able to live in “communities” of thousands, even millions.
Not only are we able to do so: quite a few of us actually enjoy it. “Most of us find it exciting to live in cities, and one reason for that is that when we interact with strangers and have a positive interaction, we actually get a little reward hit in our brains,” says Zak. When we engage in trusting or generous encounters with others, our bodies become awash in oxytocin, which gives us what can best be described at the warm-and-fuzzies. It brightens our day and makes us feel connected to something larger. But it also does something even more powerful that that: it makes us want to be more generous and trusting toward others as well. In other words, it makes us pay kindness forward, kickstarting what you might call a virtuous cycle.
We’ve written about oxytocin here on the blog before, when Zak teamed up with with Lab Team member Charles Montgomery and psychologist Emanuele Castano to design Love Night. The event was a radically experimental evening at the New York Lab that used science and design to (successfully!) nudge New Yorkers toward the friendlier, more trusting, generous, and altruistic behavior that could help make our cities happier places. So when it came time to revisit the term as part of this 100 Trends series, I came back to Zak with a tough question: sure, it was easy to do this at the Lab, and get people’s oxytocin flowing in a relatively controlled environment. But how do you do it on a day-to-day basis in a city? In response, Zak offered up seven easy tips. Here they are:
1. Eight hugs a day
You can’t meet Zak without hearing, and likely personally experiencing, this mantra. While the exact number of hugs isn’t essential, the science of the hug is solid: laboratory tests have shown that touch rapidly enables the release of oxytocin, and a big ol’ bear hug is a sure-fire way to get that heavy dose. “It sounds really hard, particularly in big cities,” Zak admits. “But the easy way to do that, which is what I do, is to tell people when you meet them: ‘I don’t shake hands, I hug everybody.’ But remember: those hugs are not for you, they’re for other people. You’re starting this cycle and giving them that gift of having their brains release oxytocin. Now they may hug you back and smile and yours may release it too, but think of this as giving a gift.”
2. The two-handed shake
Oxytocin-heavy or not, Zak understands that hugs aren’t for everybody. But a little touch goes a long way. If an embrace seems a little too intimate, he instead suggests the two-handed handshake, clasping the person’s hand on both sides, and making eye contact while you do it.
3. Give an anonymous gift
Laboratory experiments have shown that giving gifts to strangers induces the release of oxytocin. No, this doesn’t mean walking along the Bowery handing out little wrapped packages to perfect strangers, but it does mean engaging in random acts of generosity. “On a bridge with a toll, pay for the person behind you so that they get a little happy surprise, and that will probably propagate down the line for quite a while—the next toll is paid, the next toll is paid. You can do the same thing at a restaurant or a coffee shop and pick up a coffee for the person behind you in line, and see if you can start that process going,” Zak says. The same could go for paying someone’s fare on the bus or train, or anything of the sort. But remember: the anonymous aspect is important. That way, instead of feeling that they need to pay you back, the receiver will instead be more inclined to pay it forward.
4. Take your dog for more walks, and let strangers pet it
Petting a dog equals oxytocin release. Simple as that—and Spot will probably enjoy it, too.
5. Join a group
It could be anything: a book club, a softball team, or even a meditation group—nearly any activity can induce oxytocin release if it’s something we’re doing together. Though group activities involving movement and especially play tend to have a slightly stronger effect, “the key is that you’re all doing the same activity,” says Zak.
6. Do something that scares you
Studies have shown that revealing our vulnerability in acts like confessing secrets, seeking help, or even experiencing situations of moderate danger together, all induce oxytocin release that helps us bond with each other. So while Zak would hardly suggest doing something crazy, like strapping yourself to a stranger and jumping out of an airplane to measure your before-and-after oxytocin levels (he’ll do this himself for the fourth time next week!), he does recommend taking moderate risks, and making yourself a little vulnerable with strangers. This could mean riding a bike in traffic with friends or other cyclists, or simply reaching out to a stranger and asking for help when you’re lost.
7. Say “hello” to one new person a week
Says Zak, “The punch-line from all the oxytocin research I’ve done is that we need community. We’re so afraid to actually interact with humans. I’m an introvert, and I’m very happy not to talk for 12 hours a day, but I find when I force myself to interact . . . my life is so much richer because of it. Most likely they’ll engage with you. You can build a community of even two by just saying ‘hi’ and introducing yourself. Just try it. It’s not that hard.”
There you have it. Now go do yourself, and your city, a favor, and get that oxytocin flowing.
To learn more from Zak about the science of oxytocin and cities, watch his interview with the Lab here.