“You can’t be mad at the world when you understand the mammal brain,” says Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning, author of I, Mammal: Why Your Brain Links Status and Happiness.
All mammals, including humans, have social behaviors to help increase their chances of survival. As a bonus, there are parts of the brain, called the limbic system, that reward us for these behaviors by releasing chemicals that feel good.
Before you think that you’re more evolved than other mammals, though, think again. These social behaviors and their chemical rewards do apply to everyday human behavior. When a customer calls to complain, you feel threatened. I, Mammal explains what is actually happening in your brain and why your heart is still racing even after the customer hangs up.
How We Evolved
In a group setting, the mammal brain must constantly decide when to grab something to meet its needs and when to hold back for fear of being injured. The mammal brain rewards successful survival behaviors with happy chemicals and releases unhappy chemicals when our survival is threatened.
You mammal brain doesn’t care if you have a full pantry at home. It works moment to moment. Say you and a friend both grab for the last piece of chocolate. If you get the chocolate, your mammal brain will reward you with happy chemicals. If your friend gets the chocolate instead, your mammal brain will react as if your very survival is at stake, and unhappy chemicals will be released.
These reactions go beyond food, though. Humans also have a large cortex that handles abstract concepts of what success and achievement mean to us. The limbic system still reacts though as if situations were life or death. Let’s say your business is competing against an archrival on a bid. If a competitor gets the bid instead of you, the limbic system reacts with the same level of unhappy chemicals as if your life were threatened.
The mammal brain doesn’t deal in the grey areas of modern society, only in the black and white of our ancestors. That is why next time you may lower your prices to get the bid, which feels good, but in the long run may hamper your success if you can’t cover your costs.
Why Happiness Doesn’t Last
It would be fantastic if we could get our happy chemicals to be released all the time, but that’s not how our mammal brains work. We get our “reward” when we win, but the chemicals fade quickly after that so we can go back to taking care of our survival.
When these happy chemicals fade we feel less happy, and our cortex interprets this as a sign that something is wrong. So we start looking for a reason, and often we find a problem where one doesn’t exist. When we become more aware of our feelings and what is driving them, we can save ourselves fruitless searches for nonexistent problems and ultimately be able to savor the times when we do experience happiness.
Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning is Professor Emerita of International Business at California State University, East Bay. She has a background in international trade and worked for the United Nations in Africa. Her prior book was “Greaseless: How to Thrive Without Bribes in Developing Countries” and she has lectured in many countries on preventing bribery.
Growing up she witnessed firsthand how status worked in her Mafia-controlled neighborhood. She says:
“Your brain longs for status the way it longs for rich food, attractive mates and the safety of the herd.”
Dr. Granizano Bruening has a regular blog through Psychology Today. She also has many resources listed on the I, Mammal website. There is even a recommended list of movies to watch where you can see mammal brain behavior in action.
Who Will Benefit from I, Mammal
If you have ever been frustrated it is probably because you are comparing yourself to others. Consider your next business networking event. Observe how people talk to one another and see how they try to trump the other person. Realize that everyone is doing this unconsciously to help themselves feel good. Even cows have social rivalries!
I, Mammal helps you to become more aware of these comparisons and get past them. Instead consider appreciating our brains, which have evolved over 200 million years and helped our ancestors to stay strong, mate and protect their children. Next time, let the other person brag. They will feel better about themselves, and you can focus on building an alliance that helps you in the long run and feels good in a different way.
The Bottom Line
While we can’t fight our mammal brain, we can work with to find ways to stimulate our happy chemicals without resorting to behaviors our cortex knows are bad for us. The solution is actually within you, not “out there” in society.