You know your sex life is in the toilet when the Citibank ATM starts talking dirty to you. “Please dip your card all the way in the slot and remove it smoothly,” the computer screen flirted with me yesterday morning. I read the instruction three times before I was able to regain my composure and realize, “Holy sh*t, I’m losing my mind.” But the truth is too many boyfriend-free months and the loss (which really is no loss) of an occasional hope-filled casual rendezvous with my friend with benefits to fill in the gaps has made me into somewhat of a caged animal (don’t you dare say cougar), ready to pounce. So, how’s a girl to bide her time until the right relationship develops?
I can tell you the answer isn’t in the boxes of cookies and tubs of ice cream I bought at Trader Joe’s after I left my short-lived tryst at the bank. No, the answer lies in what makes sex so delectable.
Oxytocin is the naturally occurring hormone released in the brain during male and female orgasm. It’s the hormone responsible for bonding lovers, for creating a sense of trust, and for producing feelings of empathy. All good stuff, no doubt. That is unless you’re bonding with someone who is unreceptive. In that case, oxytocin is not your friend.
In his book, “The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity,” Dr. Paul J. Zak asserts that people who release more oxytocin, people he calls “oxytocin-adepts,” behave more empathetically, causing them to engage more frequently in moral (generous) behavior. Moral behavior, in turn, creates a perception of trust, and, as a result, people feel happier. Zak further claims the more animals release oxytocin, the easier it becomes, creating a veritable feedback loop. Through simple behaviors, he suggests, people can “hack” their oxytocin and lead better lives.
So, how can we best naturally boost our oxytocin? Zak offers 10 sure-fire ways:
1. Touch. When you see a friend, or someone you know, give them a hug. Zak recommends giving at least eight hugs daily. I’m already up to five today and the day is only half over. If you’re not comfortable hugging an acquaintance, Zak suggests a friendly handshake, with one hand placed firmly over the other.
2. Look. Look directly into people’s eyes when you speak to them. So many of us, myself included, are guilty of giving less than our full attention to others, dividing it with the electronic device we are holding or with whatever else momentarily distracts us.
3. Meditate. But don’t just think about yourself when you do it. Focus on others. I always say wish people well. Be happy for them.
4. Give. Give a gift. There doesn’t have to be a reason. Just do it. But don’t expect one in return. In the same vein, pick up the tab or host someone in your home. Sharing food is another great option, according to Zak. My kids often pack extra cookies in their lunch to share with friends. Looks like they’re onto something.
5. Soak. I was so happy to see this on Zak’s “to do” list. My nightly bath has been one of my guilty pleasures for years. Every night, I retreat to my bathroom, fill up my tub, and just relax. It’s the one time of day I know belongs to me and I eagerly look forward to it.
6. Pet. Pet your dog. Or whatever animal you have. I have a cat. I often forget he’s there. But now I’m definitely going to pay more attention to him. Not just for him but for me.
7. Thrill. Jump out of a plane (with a parachute, of course), ride a rollercoaster, or watch a scary movie. Even better, do it with someone you can hold onto. My kids and I recently watched “Poltergeist” together. It still scares me even though I first saw the movie when I was in the fourth grade. Zak says watching an emotional movie will likewise raise oxytocin levels.
8. Move. Move your body. Dance. Walk. Sing. In my case, walk and sing. Throughout my separation, and to this day, I power walk. Outside or on my treadmill for hours each day. My walks are even better with friends or family. My son and I also frequently belt out the words in a cacophonic duet to “You’re So Vain,” “Reunited,” and “Watching the Wheels.” The worse we sound, the better. My kids and I dance together, too. On our first family vacation after my separation, my kids were so bummed because their dad wasn’t there. I popped in the iPod and we danced away the sadness. Best therapy ever.
9. Facebook. Like. Comment. Message. Do whatever it is you do with social media that keeps you connected with the people in your life. No, it’s not a substitute for seeing family and friends in the “real world,” but Zak’s studies showed oxytocin increased in 100 percent of the people he tested when they used social media. I’m a believer. I read anecdotes and look at pictures of my friends and their families on Facebook throughout the day and it always brings a smile to my face. Like!
10. Love. Do it. Say it. Mean it. I used to tell my husband I loved him every time we spoke on the phone or he left the house. Until the day he told me he didn’t want to say it back because he didn’t mean it anymore. For a while, I stopped saying it — to anyone. It hurt too much. But guess what? I’m back! So, if I throw my arms around you and tell you I love you, know that I mean it.
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix, no “happy pill,” to make sadness spontaneously combust and disappear. Although prescription use of synthetic oxytocin has been successful in the treatment of schizophrenic and autistic patients to overcome social issues, its off-label use (prescription medication used to achieve a goal other than its intended purpose) in patients without a disorder has been shown to have a negative effect. A recent study by researchers at Concordia’s Centre for Research in Human Development found that young healthy adults who received too much oxytocin via measured doses exhibited oversensitivity to other’s emotions.
Finding happiness the old-fashioned way requires conscious effort. But that’s what rebuilding after loss is all about. Hard work feeds our strength so we can go out to face the world again, this time better, stronger, and more prepared than before.
As I reflect on the past two years since my separation and subsequent divorce, I recognize the love and support my family and friends, from strangers and casual acquaintances to close confidantes sent my way. For those who doubt the inherent goodness of people, I must disagree.
Whether you believe a rise in oxytocin induces morality or, conversely, that morality induces a rise in oxytocin, is a mere argument of which came first, the chicken or the egg. The point is moot.
So, while the sex-crazed Quagmire of “Family Guy” would excitedly say, “Giggity giggity goo,” I simply say I’m utterly and completely grateful to all of you.
Written with much love. And oxytocin.
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