Holidays and the Mystery of Happiness

Yes skiing in Aspen is nice, and July on the Amalfi is lovely darling, but is there anything better than a few weeks spent knocking about by the beach with your family?



Australians do January well. It seems, to me, that we all get so caught up in the festive whirlwind that is December that, by New Year’s Eve, we have run ourselves into energy and enthusiasm deficit. If the number of pasty office workers and flawless 4WDs that descend upon every coastal town in January is anything to go by, it seems that two weeks horizontal by the sea is the only remedy. Last month I was one of those weary city-folk, heading south to cure my end-of-year malaise.

Despite my Boxing Day exodus being far more complicated than it used to be (an hour in an overpacked station wagon is now two flights and a road trip), I made it home to country South Australia to commence phase 1 of a 3-part summer holiday. A few days at our family shack gave me a chance to rest, recharge and of course read (oh, and out-fish my father and boyfriend on 3 separate occasions).

I started gently with a little Liane Moriarty, ‘What Alice Forgot’, and moved on to two memoirs, ‘Reckoning’ by Magda Szubanski (a good WW2 refresher and insight into the darker side of Sharon Strzelecki) and ‘Year of Yes’ by Shonda Rhimes (a positive story but essentially a 300-page humble brag, let down by the author’s rapid and neurotic dialogue that works well in her show, Grey’s Anatomy, but does not make for pleasant reading).

By phase 2, a few days in Adelaide to see my Mum and boarding school girlfriends (heaven), I was finally ready to return to some work-related non-fiction. I chose ‘Leaders Eat Last’ by Simon Sinek, having heard good things about the book and the man himself. You may know either from his TED talk ‘Why good leaders make you feel safe‘.


Row 24 eats last too #hangry

This book took me into phase 3 of my holiday, Jindabyne via Canberra for a few days by the lake with my boyfriend’s family. It was here that I finally learnt a lesson worth noting, thanks to Sinek.

Leaders Eat Last applies case studies from business and the military to explain why some leaders get the most from their teams, and others do not. Sinek’s submissions rely on the evidence-based proposition that the modern day workplace bears a close resemblance to the hunter gatherer communities of our past. He says that Saba suits aside, we are very similar to our Neanderthal ancestors, particularly in terms of our neurochemical makeup.

As it turns out, our “feelings”, “emotions” and things like “motivation” are not quite the intangible mystery I believed them to be. Feelings of happiness, love, trust and fulfilment are all just the result of a neurochemical hit, stimulated by certain behaviours. The thrill of a hit incentivises us to take action, and the pleasure of a release rewards us when we do.

Sinek says that the challenge for leaders is to understand the chemical factors that make their people tick, and to work with them to their advantage.

Human beings exist as individuals and as members of groups at all times. This creates inherent conflicts of interest. When making decisions, we will find ourselves weighing the benefits to us personally against the benefits to our tribe. That is, in our worlds, our family or our work team. As Sinek says, ‘working exclusively to advance ourselves may hurt the group, while working exclusively to advance the group may come at a cost to us as individuals’. Dealing with conflicts of interest, such as these, is literally in our bones.

There are four primary chemical incentives in our bodies. Two evolved primarily to help us find food and get things done, while the other two are there to help us socialise and cooperate. The selfish chemicals, endorphins and dopamine, keep us striving forward, and the selfless chemicals, serotonin and oxytocin, ensure we have a soft place to land should we fall back. Leadership experts call this bundle of feel-good chemicals ‘E.D.S.O.’.


‘Exercise gives you endorphins, endorphins make you happy.’ – Elle Woods, Legally Blonde (2001)

E is for Endorphins

So I was mountain biking in the snowy mountains during my holidays. It was my second consecutive day of riding. Being the inexperienced rider that I am, and lacking the padded pants that I need, I felt predictably sore in the saddle and achy in the legs. I was battling, crashing into rocks, huffing and puffing, feeling the burn. Yet, through it all and afterwards, definitely afterwards, I felt amazing. I was a bona fide goddess. Why? How? Well we all know this one. Endorphins.

Sinek says that ‘endorphins serve one purpose and one purpose only: to mask physical pain’. But endorphins aren’t there to reward you for completing the Mother’s Day Classic. No, their purpose is to secure our survival. Back in the day, in order to eat, people had to track animals over great distances, and retain the energy to make it home again. If the hunters gave up at any time simply because they were tired, then they, and their tribe, would not eat very often and would eventually die off. Our biology is designed such that endorphins mask physical pain with pleasure, encouraging us to keep going.

Now of course, endorphins are triggered for different reasons these days. Our ability to work hard, both at the gym and the office, is thanks to endorphins. It’s endorphins that keep us working on a document at 11pm on a Monday night. It’s hard, but admit it, when we finally hit save and hit the sheets, we do feel pretty bloody good.


Eating triggers dopamine

D is for Dopamine

Another thing I was doing on holidays was puzzling. Puzzling late into the night, chasing that glorious feeling of the right piece soft clicking into just the right spot. Such an accomplishment. Such a high. So addictive. What is it? Dopamine.

Dopamine is the reason for the good feeling we get when we find something we’re looking for, or do something that needs to get done. When we finish a puzzle, reach a project milestone, or cross a task off our to-do list, we feel a sense of progress and accomplishment. That’s thanks to dopamine.

Dopamine makes us a goal-oriented species. When we have a clear task to complete, or metric to reach, we get a little burst of dopamine to get us on our way. As we get closer to our goals, further dopamine is release, urging us to keep going. Without clear goals, we risk losing sight of the end-game and the energy to keep progressing towards it.

Endorphins and dopamine are essential to our survival. They ensure that we have food and shelter, and hit our KPIs at work. But, accomplishment is not everything. And it’s hard to do all things alone. We need each other. Feelings of trust and loyalty don’t come from the selfish chemicals. They come from a different place.

A team full of single-minded goal kickers won’t work in the long term. Yes there’ll be a heady supply of dopamine, but without trust and loyalty, there will be instability. What we need is to feel supported by those around us. To feel secure and fulfilled. And that comes from the selfless chemicals.

Serotonin and oxytocin ‘grease the social machine’. Good leaders create a culture that facilitates the release of these chemicals. When the culture is right, we pull together and we are happy. The strength of an organisation’s culture determines how well it can adapt to the times, overcome adversity and innovate.


What trout

S is for Serotonin

Serotonin is responsible for the pride we feel when those we care about do well, and the pride we feel when we make other people feel proud of us.

I thought about this a bit in the holidays, when I was trout fishing with my boyfriend and his siblings. There is, it seems, fewer than 10 trout in all of Lake Jindabyne. So I knew there would only be one successful fisher person (if we were lucky). With four lines in the water, one of them mine, I began to think about who I wanted to see catch that trout.  I really didn’t know. You’d think it would be me, seeking that dopamine rush. But I genuinely wanted it to be my boyfriend, as least as much as me anyway. I can only assume that was because I care about him, and the pride I would have felt if he caught one would have brought me just as much pleasure. Thanks to serotonin.

In a team scenario, serotonin encourages us to serve those for whom we are responsible. It also encourages us to work hard to make our leaders proud. Those who work the hardest to help others succeed will be seen by the group as the leaders (or the ‘alpha’). Alpha traits at the hallmarks of good leaders – supportive and strong, and willing to sacrifice their time, energy and ego so that others may gain.


Bonds of love and trust take time

O is for Oxytocin

And finally, the best feeling of all. Oxytocin. Oxytocin is the feeling we get when we do something nice for someone, or someone does something nice for us. Even observing a stranger in the street doing something nice for another stranger can give us the warm fuzzies, thanks to oxytocin.

Oxytocin encourages us to perform acts of generosity. It’s the reason we stay up late to bake a cake for a colleague, or take an oversupply of wine to a friends’ house. Because we want to show them that they are important to us. To stimulate that oxytocin, for them and for ourselves.

Going back to our biology, you would think that generosity and selflessness may be counterproductive, or at least neutral, to our survival. Our biology says otherwise. Oxtocin encourages acts of kindness and generosity because, over time, oxytocin builds bonds of trust, friendship and love. And such relationships are vital to our prosperity.

Personally and professionally, the same rules of relationship building apply. At first, the excitement and novelty or a new job or new relationship stimulates dopamine, making us happy. However, as time goes on, and we experience acts of kindness and generosity, a more relaxed, stable and oxytocin-driven relationship will settle in. Sinek says that this is a far more valuable state if we are to rely on someone to help us achieve goals, watch our backs and help us grow.

What I’ve learnt is that humans, the ones we live and work with, are less of a mystery than we may think. I’ve also learnt that leadership is a choice. And that if we make a choice to spend time and energy understanding people, we can build a positive culture founded upon trust, loyalty and mutual gain. Though his concepts are neither new nor novel, Sinek has unlocked, for me, a formula for cohesion and happiness. And that is a handy tool to take in to the new year.

By the way…

No, we didn’t catch any trout. If only there was a formula for that.

Thought Leader(s): Simon Sinek

Book(s): Sinek, S (2015) ‘Leaders Eat Last’, Penguin. 



One thought on “Holidays and the Mystery of Happiness

  1. Pingback: Top Reads 2016 | thingsilearnt

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