Status and Happiness: Review of “I, Mammal”

I, Mammal: Why Your Brain Links Status and Happiness“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.

The Author

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.”

More Resources

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.


Sarah Kirkish Sarah Kirkish, owner of Work Life Organization, is a Certified Coach and Professional Organizer with over 18 years of project management experience in corporate America. She helps busy professionals simplify their lives from the inside out with her down-to-earth coaching and interactive workshops.

8 Reactions
  1. It would be interested to hear Sarah Kirkish’s thoughts on Aristotle’s concept of tabula rasa (clean slate / scraped tablet) and how you evolve from that state.

    As a former student of organizational leadership (Business Administration) and international project management (professional training as a project coordinator), I am interested to learn more about Work Life Organization.

    • Martin,
      Thanks for the comment on my first book review!

      Other than loud noises and falling, all other fears are learned. So in one sense we do start with a clean slate. Unfortunately by the time we are aware of our personal definitions of threats to our success they are well ingrained.

      Instead what I find is that you can’t go back to a clean slate, but you can acknowledge old unwanted behaviors and then with awareness adjust to the new preferred behavior. I use this with my clients to help them make lasting changes in their work habits.

  2. With the sub-head of “Why Happiness Doesn’t Last” you identify the writer or the reviewer’s view of the world. That a person’s happiness, and basically all else, too, is externally determined and therefore circumstantial. Like the weather. To equate us with animal and plant life is forgetting Creation has endowed humans with the ability to create in turn. I hear you, we can create books, book reviews, iPads and washing machines, but not sadness and happiness, too, which are chemicals in our bodies. Would you willing to embrace an empowering view instead?

  3. Sarah,

    The topic for this awesome review is helpful, because it touches upon a trap many small business owners face – comparing their business, and thus themselves, against others in a manner that takes focus off of what’s important. It also makes for a good gut-check that many business owners need when in their private thoughts. Thanks for sharing this with the Small Business Trends community, and congrats on your first review.

  4. Sarah,

    I believe in the practice of introspection. You should check your premises on a regular basis and spend time on reflection. Do you put your ideas in action?

    I am interested to hear about how you came up with the name of your organization, Work Life Organization. I have named one of the sections of my EGO Sole Trader site, with “Worklife”. I know that this is not really a word according to the traditional dictionary, but it is a play with the word, work. Here are the other categories on my site: Works, WorkFlow, WorkShop, WorkOut and WorkBook.

    I have placed a Google calendar under the link, Work In Progress. I am interested to find a more interactive calendar in the future. Do you you have tips on social tools for meetings, events, trips and other activities you want to display on your site?

  5. Thanks everyone for the great comments and thought starters. Here are my responses.

    Anita – Thanks for the warm welcome!

    Beat – We do create our own happiness with memories and savoring the moment. The book cautions us that with our mammal brain chemical happiness, we often feel like there’s something wrong, when in fact we’re just returning to a baseline state.

    Pierre – Thanks again for encouraging me!

    Martin – Work Life Organization was my inspiration because while I was interested in helping my clients achieve Work Life Balance, I knew that had to come about through getting organized. So there you have it. As for calendars, I am a big fan of color coding to catch your eye when you are scanning for events.