Neurology professor Paul Zak is known as “Dr. Love” because of his pioneering research at Claremont Graduate School on the importance of oxytocin for human attachment and “pro social” behavior. Oxytocin, also know as the “love molecule”, is the chemical neurotransmitter that is released by our parasympathetic nervous system when we are feeling deep love and connection with another human being…or a beloved pet for that matter. Oxytocin is like a “gift” that we offer to one another when we “touch” each other with kind words, or with the human “touch” of a hug, or a similar loving gesture. Hugs are especially efficient, when you think about it, because of the reciprocity of giving and receiving the hug simultaneously. Dr. Zak has done the scientific research necessary to actually measure oxytocin release before and after a human hug, and he was able to find a significant increase afterwards. As an additional benefit to “feeling good”, the release of oxytocin into our nervous systems, protects our mind/brain from the overload of the stress hormones of adrenaline and cortisol. (see my previous blog). So, daily “hugging” is the first on the list of easy ways to increase your oxytocin release. Dr. Zak recommends a minimum of 9 hugs a day. What are some other “practices” we can incorporate into our daily routine?
2. Actively connect with good friends everyday..and always find kind and supportive things to say. New research on “kindness” from Stanford University teaches us that it is often the smallest gesture, or simplest words of kindness that are the most effective.
3. Find Opportunities to connect with groups of people to share stories, listen to and play music, and laugh. Unbelievably enough, Dr. Zak measured oxytocin levels before and after all of these activites and found significant increases afterwards.
4. If at all possible… get a pet….preferably of the variety that can be held and cuddled, such as a cat or dog. I don’t know this for sure, but I swear that my cat is radiating oxytocin when he purrs. When I feel that purr resonate up through my hand as I pet my cat…I know oxytocin is released.
5. Self compassion is extremely important. Research is starting to point to this more and more. Find ways to hold your hand over your heart during prayer, meditation, or simple reflective contemplation. Even gently putting one hand on your other arm can be effective. Such a simple practice!
So, does all of this seem like obvious kitchen table wisdom? Of course it does! Science is just beginning to catch up to what poets, philosophers, spiritual leaders, mothers, fathers, grandmothers…ect ect…have known forever. It seems important just to remind ourselves from time to time.