Serotonin is the pleasure of social power. We hate to acknowledge this urge in ourselves, though we easily see it in others. Your brain rewards you with the good feeling of serotonin when you find an opportunity to assert and prevail. It’s not aggression but the nice calm feeling that you have the strength necessary to meet your needs. Brains that rewarded assertion were good at spreading their genes, and our genes are inherited from them.
Serotonin is soon metabolized so a mammals has to do more to get more. But the brain chooses its opportunities carefully because a misguided assertion can become a survival threat.
This is not what you’ve heard about serotonin, or about animals. We are taught a romanticized view of nature, and we learn to blame conflict on “our society.” In the past, people knew the truth about wild animals because they lived near them. In 20th-century, research in ethology documented the social rivalry in nature. My book, I, Mammal: How to Make Peace With the Animal Urge for Social Power explains this in depth. For research, see my page on empirical research, and my reading list. Here’s a fun monkey video to bring it all home. And an amazing video of kangaroo conflict. And a great one about social hierarchy in monkeys. And another.
I am not saying we should seek social dominance. I am saying we do, and we can manage this impulse if we are honest about it. We have inherited a brain that compares itself to others to promote its survival. It creates has a sense of urgency about how it measures up. If you don’t know you are creating this feeling yourself, you think the world is doing it to you. You feel bitter, resentful, and victimized. Instead, you can accept that the people around you are mammals, and you are a mammal too.
Mammals live in groups for protection from predators, but group life is frustrating. Every time a mammal sees a resource, a group mate sees it too. Natural selection built a brain that constantly compares itself to others. It withdraws to avoid conflict when it sees itself in the inferior position and it asserts to meet its needs when it sees itself in the position of strength. Cortisol creates that feeling that withdrawal is the path to survival in this moment, and serotonin creates the feeling that it’s a moment for assertion.
We humans have many words for the serotonin feeling because it is so important to us. We call it pride, ego, confidence, assertiveness, competitiveness, arrogance, one-upping, status, power, importance, prestige, dominance, manipulativeness, being special, winning, feeling superior, dignity, saving face, and getting recognition, respect, approval, or attention. We favor the negative words when we see this urge in others, especially those we don’t like. When we seek social dominance ourselves, we justify it as a response to the dominance-seeking of others, we use positive language, or we simply refuse to acknowledge this impulse in ourselves.
Small-brained mammals have simple social rivalries. Large-brained primates often have complex social hierarchies. Animals like baboons and chimpanzees invest heavily in efforts to rise in their social hierarchy, and this helps to spread their genes. Our genes are inherited from individuals who asserted themselves successfully. We do it in individual ways, but we all crave social advancement because our brain makes it feel good.
Serotonin evolved to motive survival behavior, not to make you feel good all the time for no reason. There is no royal road to serotonin. The more social power a mammal has, the more it is challenged by rivals. Finding healthy ways to stimulate it is the challenge that comes with the gift of life.
The blog posts below give you a brief introduction to these facts about human nature. My 5-day Happy Chemical jumpstart has a great introduction to serotonin – it comes in your email when you sign up for my newsletter. (see sidebar). And my book Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin levels helps you design and build the new serotonin pathways that you want.