The “hug drug” may be the key to changing the world for the better

I am a fortunate person. I get to steward a fast-growing software company that boasts more than 300 of the most iconic companies in the world as clients. I have deep-pocketed private equity firm partners that enthusiastically support our business and social mission. And, I get to work with our more than 400 passionate, mostly Millennial employees every day in a business that provides purpose, meaning and impact to most everyone it touches. Kinda cool, really.

But all that said, when people ask me what my best day at work has been in the past couple of years, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t any of that. Rather, it is a tough choice between a day I volunteered with a few co-workers at Inn from the Cold, a local shelter just a block away from our Benevity office, or when our team sponsored refugee families in a hands-on way and helped with their transition to our country. Giving back feels good—really good. And while I don’t do as much of it as many people do, the “glow” from doing so is intense and carries over into other aspects of one’s life and work. With all that is going on in the world these days that can bring someone down, I’ve been trying to figure out why giving, volunteering and other prosocial behaviors make people feel so good (and how we can infuse more of that ethos into the world).

It turns out the explanation may reside mostly in neuroscience…

We are hardwired for Goodness

Emerging research indicates that the good feeling I got from volunteering is not some strange quirk of mine (although I have more than a few of those!). It is, instead, a perfectly normal response to helping others.

Anthropologists tell us that humanity’s secret to success as a species has been our ability to collaborate and cooperate to ensure the survival of the family, the tribe, the nation or whatever group we are closely affiliated with. Contrary to what many would have us believe, we’ve evolved to cooperate, not compete. In other words, we’re hardwired to help others.

"We’ve evolved to cooperate, not compete. We’re hardwired to help others."

Recent studies in the areas of behavioral science, behavioral economics and neuroscience chalk a lot of this up to a powerful hormone called oxytocin, playfully known as the “hug drug” or the “moral molecule”. Oxytocin was discovered in 1906 and is commonly associated with the biological processes involved in childbirth. It has long been thought to play a pivotal role in the bonding of mothers and children, and is often associated with feelings of tranquility, serenity or inner peace.

Neuroscientists think that prosocial behaviors, like donating money to strangers in need, volunteering, or taking other actions that make a positive impact on others can boost our oxytocin levels by up to 50%. Studies have shown that when people give willingly, the pleasure center of the brain lights up and releases oxytocin. Performing charitable acts of our choosing causes our bodies to release several different “happiness chemicals,” including oxytocin. This creates a reaction, similar to a runner’s high, that has become known as the warm glow of giving.

The tie that binds: oxytocin and engagement

So, what does all this have to do with engagement? It appears that oxytocin—or behaviors that result in its release—may help form social bonds that underlie the authentic, lasting engagement of employees and customers. Just as the so-called hug drug helps to create a bond between mother and baby, oxytocin may strengthen the connection between employee and company. Sound too far-fetched? Research shows that oxytocin plays a role in forming the social bonds that create the strong sense of affiliation or connectedness that is key to employee engagement. Another recent study confirmed that when a product’s provider was recognized as being authentically connected to benevolence, the quality of the product was perceived (and rated) by the consumer as higher.

"Oxytocin may create a powerful emotional connection between employee and employer, with numerous positive benefits for business."

Oxytocin helps to create the trust that is required for us to work cooperatively in important social groups, like companies and teams. A good illustration of this is volunteering, which is renowned for its team-building qualities. Colleagues who volunteer together to create Goodness in their community form a bond that strengthens the team as a whole, which is how most high-value work is conducted in companies these days. With what we know about neuroscience, it’s not a stretch to say that the warm glow that volunteering together creates may be the tie that binds the team members together. The fact that they are also using their skills in doing so is a bonus!

Workplace giving and matching may also trigger the hug drug. For instance, if I willingly donate to a cause that matters to me through my workplace giving program, I get a good dose of that warm glow of giving. And if the company matches my gift, the glow I get is even warmer. That’s not the only affiliative benefit of matching. If I see my company matching the donations that I make—including through its community grant programs—my affinity for the company will be even stronger, because I know that it values the same things I do. This can’t help but create a stronger bond of trust and cooperation, which in turn strengthens the bond between me and the company.

It is worth noting that research also indicates caution in this approach because the opposite can also be true: if I’m giving or volunteering out of a sense of peer or management pressure rather than a personally resonant choice, or if I perceive my company’s efforts as lip service rather than an authentic investment, the likelihood of oxytocin being emitted and positive benefits inuring to the employer are much lower, neuroscientifically speaking. Could that simple distinction be why many corporate giving programs fail to create desired business impacts, and why open-choice programs with corporate matching are so much more compelling?

Employee perks: the race to the bottom

As I’ve written previously, many believe that the current approach to ever-evolving employee perks constitutes a “race to the bottom.” (I read recently that a tech company was proudly announcing their latest employee benefit: a slipper allowance. Really?).

Like a child’s toys at Christmas or Hanukah—glee-creating at first, but gathering dust by New Year’s Eve—the allure of these perks fades quickly and fosters a “what have you done for me lately” mindset. Why? Because authentic employee engagement really isn’t about shiny objects and kitschy gimmicks. Rather, it has to do with creating a real emotional connection involving a person, their peers and the company that they work for. It is intended to create a relationship in which people don’t just work for a paycheck or a promotion (obviously, these are relevant, but rarely sufficient), but for a sense of higher purpose that includes the attainment of the company’s missions and goals, which—ideally—are in alignment with those of the employee.

"Authentic employee engagement isn’t about shiny objects and kitschy gimmicks."

Give your employees what they really want

This is incredibly helpful for companies to understand. Their employees want to be engaged. After all, no one wants to feel like an insignificant cog in a machine, no matter how well compensated or perked-up. Ample psychological research demonstrates that happiness and fulfilment—both personal and professional—derive from having a sense of meaning, purpose or connection.

So, it makes sense that if an employee sees their company helping them attain a sense of meaning by doing good in a way that resonates with them, they will form a deeper emotional connection to their company and their team.

"If an employee sees that their company is helping them attain a sense of meaning, they will form a deep emotional connection to their company and team."

With a better understanding of neuroscience, companies have a fantastic opportunity to truly engage their employees (and to attract and retain other valued folks!). By offering their employees integrated corporate “Goodness” programs, they can get the oxytocin—and the engagement—flowing, with incredible knock-on effects for the business, its customers, its employees and society at large. Easy peasy!

Want to learn more about how to engage your employees? Read about how the right culture is crucial for employee engagement.