Are human beings biologically designed to be good?

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Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why and Leaders Eat Last, was on radio for the full three hours today. He and Glenn were able to dive into a long list of topics, but perhaps the most fascinating was Simon’s explanation on how the human brain is chemically wired to do good.

So in our brains, in our bodies, there is a system of chemical rewards so when we do things we get a feeling of doing those things that is designed to reward behavior that is in our best interest.  There’s four chemicals that are mainly responsible for all the good feelings that we would have,” Simon explained. “So any kinds of feelings of happiness, joy, success, friendship, trust, love, loyalty can basically be boiled down to endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.”

So how does it work?

Simon explained, “Dopamine is something you get when you accomplish something you set out do accomplish so that feeling when you get when you cross off something off your to do list the feeling find something on Google or eBay.  Nobody goes to Google and types in things you’re not looking for.  We have something in mind.  We type it in and the feeling of there it is, that’s dopamine.  Dopamine is also the feeling you get when you win the game.  Yes, that sort of fantastic, we did it.  Or when you feel like you’re making progress.  So that’s why they put mile-markers — if you ran a race without mile-markers it’s actually unnerving so dopamine helps us feel like we’re making progress.  It’s the reason we’re achievement machines.”

“The problem with dopamine is it doesn’t last.  It comes in hits,” he said. 

While dopamine doesn’t last and leave people with strong feelings of accomplishment, the chemicals serotonin and oxytocin are what do last and are what Simon calls “social chemicals”.

“This is the importance — what you’re talking about is the solution to the imbalance of dopamine.  Right?  Which is these other beautiful, beautiful chemicals called serotonin and oxytocin.  Broadly speaking these two chemicals are the selfless chemicals.  They are the social chemicals.  These are the chemicals that reward us — it’s the feeling of trust.  It’s the feeling of friendship.  It’s the reason we like spending time with our friends.  It’s the reason we’d rather sit next to someone that we know and we leave a blank space at the movies because we don’t want to sit next to somebody we don’t know.  That feeling of safety.  That comes from these other two beautiful chemicals and the most important thing about those chemicals is they last.  They take a while to build up.  It takes time to build up trust, but they last,” he said. 

Now the great thing about serotonin — one of the ways in which we get oxytocin — and there’s a whole bunch.  Oxytocin is the warm and fuzzies.  One of the ways we get it is generosity.  Acts of kindness.  Giving of your time and energy with no expectation of return.  Money doesn’t count.  Time and energy,” he explained.

Simon explained that if he goes online and donates a $1,000 to charity, he gets a very different feeling than if he spent a whole weekend afternoon painting a school. While a $1,000 may go further than his physical labor, it is a different mental reward.

“As human beings we put a premium on those who are willing to spend a nonredeemable commodity.  It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor.  We all have 24 hours in a day and once that is spent, you never get it back,” he said. “The human body is trying desperately to get us to look after each other.  And reason is very simple.  By ourselves, we’re junk.  Right?  But in groups, we are remarkable.”

It is what Benjamin Franklin said, was the American religion,” Glenn added. “They were trying to trap him into pick one religion, and he said finally the American religion is 1) There is a God 2) He’s going to judge us 3) The best way to serve him is to serve your fellow man.”

“Our Creator is trying to tell us is serve one another.  You want to serve me?  Serve one another.  So you’ll feel good,” Glenn said.