A summer of oxytocin

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And so the summer comes to an end. We all return to work or school. I take up the blogging spirit once more. And the UK newspapers continue to proclaim: ‘What a summer of sport it has been!’ Indeed it was — a glorious summer of Olympic and Paralympic Games, which was invigorating whether or not one considers one’s self to be sporty.

And yet here is my strongest memory of the Games: the amount of oxytocin being flung around the country.

What is oxytocin, you ask? It is a hormone that, as many who have attended my seminars will have heard, is generated when you are in the presence of people with whom you feel safe and secure. It produces a sense of calm and relaxation; it makes you feel friendlier and more empathic; it boosts your health. Oxytocin can be enhanced through any sensory system of connection, including eye gaze, smell, and hearing, but its strongest boost comes through touch.

Throughout the Games, what we witnessed on television were images of people hugging one another: competitors, supporters, even media commentators hugging interviewees. Yes, I know that we also witnessed ‘the agony of defeat’ for many athletes, but what struck me, all the way down to the Olympics Victory Parade on 10 September, was the sense of sharing that was present throughout these Games. Perhaps this is often the case for the host country, that the sense of emotional communion is enhanced, because you feel part of a shared whole.

But this is Britain! We don’t see ourselves as huggers; we don’t like speaking to strangers uninvited; and we frequently experience a sense of social suspicion even in innocuous places. This is perhaps best illustrated by the comments of Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, who quipped in his Victory Parade speech that the Olympics had done the unimaginable: for the first time in living memory, it had caused commuters on the Underground Tube to break into spontaneous conversation with their fellow passengers! Cheeky but spot on: the London crowd burst into laughing applause.

Oxytocin had to have been boosted across the country through those continuing hugs, through the chatting, and even through simple expressions of ‘Thank You’. The television coverage of the Victory Parade showed image after image of people holding up handwritten signs, penned by crowd members saying to the athletes, passing by on their floats: ‘Thank you. We are so proud of you’. The athletes, in turn, and especially the Paralympic athletes, held up signs saying things like: ‘Thank you for your support, Gamesmakers”. This is the job of oxytocin molecules – to help us feel the joy of safety within emotional connection.

So the Olympics helped to transform the UK not just into a sportier nation, but into a kinder one. I know that the costs of Games reached controversial levels, somewhere in the region of £9bn, leading many commentators to ask questions, both before and after the Games, along the lines of ‘What Price for Fleeting Joy‘.

But here’s one point: it needn’t be fleeting. An increasing number of economic analyses are being carried out that show the financial benefits for a country whose mental and emotional well-being is bouyant.

It is genuinely possible to experience continuing benefits from the Games, not only though neighbourhood renovation plans and anti-obesity drives (valuable as they may be), but merely through engaging with our neighbours. Emotional connection — as simple as acts of kindness, smiling acknowledgements of people passing on the street, and thank yous — have real physiological consequences. They reduce stress and boost a sense of safety. So, although it may sound as even more cheeky than Boris Johnson’s comments, encouraging acts of kindness is one way to help generate reductions in another astoundingly high budget: that of the NHS.

And before I am teased as sounding too much like all those overly-cheery Mary Poppins figures who drifted down from the skies during the Opening Ceremony, I draw strength from the fact that I am not the only one blogging about oxytocin. The Daily Mail published a piece about it this very week, in their Sunday Supplement. This led one of my own friends to quip: ‘When even the Daily Mail is publishing pieces called ‘Why it really is good to hug‘, then you really do get the sense that something has shifted around here!’.

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