How to Use the Hidden Power of Serotonin

Imagine two people. One is confident, calm, and planning for the future. The other is worried, stressed, and impulsive. What causes these differences?

One cause is serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that powerfully affects your life.

The more serotonin you have, the more confident, calm, and safe you feel. The less serotonin you have, the more worried and stressed you feel and the more likely you are to jump on impulsive pleasures. Worse, if your serotonin remains low, you enter a state of constant alertness that depletes the resources of your body and can eventually wear you down completely.

The release of serotonin is governed by what Jordan Peterson calls “a primordial calculator”1) inside your brain. Depending on how you and others perceive your standing in the social hierarchy, it releases more or less serotonin. If you perceive your own status as high, more serotonin is released; if you perceive it as low, the release of serotonin is restricted.

This calculator, however, can malfunction. When it does, it wrongly assumes that you have less status than you truly have. Consequently, it restricts the release of serotonin with all the negative consequences of that restriction mentioned above. This often happens as a result of detrimental lifestyle-choices like erratic eating or sleeping habits. Thus, one of the best ways to stabilize your serotonin levels is to establish routines for the tasks that you do every day as well as the things that are most important to you. This will increase the likelihood that your serotonin levels remain stable. Then you can work to increase them.

To heighten your serotonin levels Peterson suggests the use of positive feedback loops. Put simply, a positive feedback loop is a situation in which A causes B which causes more A and so on. Positive feedback loops can be initiated and sustained by thoughts and behaviors. Despite its name, positive feedback loops can work against or for you. If they work against you, they amplify something negative. If they work for you, they amplify something positive.2)

Rule 1 in 12 Rules for Life, standing up straight with your shoulders back, is an example of a positive feedback loop that works for you. If you stand up straight with your shoulders back, others will assume that you are competent. This decreases your anxiety, which allows you to pay more attention to subtle social clues which improves the flow of conversations. As a result, you’ll be more likely to meet new people, interact with them, and impress them. This increases the probability that good things will happen to you. When they do, you’ll feel happier. This increases your confidence and the release of serotonin, which makes it more likely that you stand up straight with your shoulders back.3)

You’ve established a positive feedback loop that increases the release of serotonin. This makes you calmer, more confident, and stronger.

Equipped with the knowledge of how positive feedback loops that work for you increase your serotonin, you can now apply this knowledge to other areas of your life. You can create new positive feedback loops that benefit you.

You can begin to work out, which increases the chance that you eat healthy to not ruin your workout-progress. Eating healthy provides you with more energy which increases the likelihood that you’ll workout. You can get into the habit of journaling which increases your self-awareness, which increases the likelihood of journaling. Or, you can read, which stimulates your mind, which makes it more likely that you’ll read.

In the end, you can use positive feedback loops to improve almost all areas of your life.