Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Biochemistry and Economic Systems


“I feel good”. “I fee bad”—What exactly do those expressions mean? What is the mechanism of feeling anything, good or bad? There must be a link between what we think, how we act and resulting feelings. We’re an integrated package of body, mind and spirit so what starts off as a thought somehow gets transmitted to our biology which moves us to do things, and this doing is then sensed by others and ourselves in either a positive or negative way.

We live in a pretty amazing time and now have the technology to understand these biochemical links and thus understand the dynamics that join thoughts, actions and resulting feelings. Positive thoughts and actions produce one class of biochemicals and negative thoughts and actions produce an opposite class of biochemicals. And certain actions serve as precipitants that stimulate the release of these chemicals, thus “feelings”.

We know that stress, fear and a whole litany of related actions precipitate stress hormones such as cortisol, GH and norepinephrine. Hormones are the body’s way of signaling feelings, which are regulated through the endocrine system. We also know that the counter experience of tranquility and equanimity produces such hormones as oxytocin sometimes called “the love drug”. This oscillation between one experience and the opposite goes under the handle of fight or flight and is mediated through our sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Fear immobilizes (by turning on biochemical switches) and calm returns (by turning on the opposite biochemical switches) when the crisis passes.

The drug industry has taken advantage of this knowledge and produced a drug known as oxycodone, which has now become a major drug addiction problem. People who experience anxiety and stress find relief by taking this drug and find that feeling bad converts into feeling good. The drug is synthetically delivering the same experience as oxytocin. What the body does naturally by thinking positive thoughts and taking positive actions is now being supplanted with synthetic drugs with no winners (except the drug industry).  Meditation is a powerful mental technology of precipitating positive hormones to counteract the impact of stress and fear. It also stimulates the growth of that part of our brain that contributes to compassion and love while decreasing the part of our brain that contributes to stress and anxiety. It’s a win-win activity!

Then we come to the matter of social engineering and economic systems. How can we apply this knowledge to our everyday lives, in the work place? It’s actually not all that mystifying: Just be nice and avoid doing harm. Being nice feels good and doing harm feels bad. Now we know why, and armed with this knowledge tells us what sort of economic system produces the best result. A system that stimulates growing greed and selfishness feels bad (for everybody) while a system that stimulates compassion and sharing feels good (for everybody). Being rewarded for our efforts feels good and the means of acknowledgement doesn’t always translate into money (although it doesn’t hurt).

But the curious thing about this means of exchanging action and response is that getting the rewards (economic and otherwise) is multiplied when we then pass it on to others. Here’s a simple test to discover how this works: The next time you’re feeling blue or under stress, get out of your house and go help someone. When you do, not only does the person being helped win, but so do you. It’s all about the chemistry of kindness. In fact if you want to keep this feeling good rolling, arrange your life to do it routinely.

We always seem surprised when we discover that science and matters of the spirit are in harmony. Perhaps this is because we’ve been reared in a world where we’ve been told that spiritual and secular matters are oil and water. What we believe has very little to do with reality but having said that it must be added that we create our reality based on what we believe and do. A long time ago a man said, “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.” The man was the apostle Paul. But Buddhists have been saying the same thing for much longer than that. When we hear such words we may start thinking about some external source who delivers the goods, but amazingly we now know that the source is in us.

So what does this mean for constructing a win-win economic engine? Earn a lot of money and give a lot away. Everyone wins and nobody loses. It turns out that “What’s in it for me?” is best realized by recognizing there is no difference or separation between you and me. Passing on rewards wins every time. 

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