Here's Why Bringing Your Dog To Work Could Make You A Better Person

Meet oxytocin, AKA the 'love hormone.'

What do hugging, petting a dog, getting a massage, and receiving an unexpected reward at a store all have in common? Well, according to Dr. Paul J. Zak, they prompt the release of oxytocin, an ancient hormone that strengthens social bonding by boosting feelings of well-being, trust, empathy and intimacy. Since a hit of oxytocin can give you such a lift, those who have more of it flowing in their brains tend to be happier, most likely because they have better relationships. It also provides a window into the neurology of human behavior.

For over a decade, Dr. Zak, the founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, has been investigating precisely how oxytocin works, a journey of discovery he recounted in his 2012 book,The Moral Molecule. In his latest clinical study, conducted last month in partnership with American Express, which sought insight into its Plenti rewards program, he looked at the role that unexpected rewards can play in affecting customers' store loyalty, stress level, and happiness.

For the study, he had 104 "shoppers" spend $30 in three minutes, after which they received a gift of money or chocolate, or nothing. Then his team measured their levels of oxytocin and ACTH, a stress hormone, and had them report their feelings on a questionnaire. The subjects who received $40 at checkout reported a 14 percent increase in happiness, while those given $40 worth of chocolate said they felt only 4 percent happier, with a decrease in happiness reported by shoppers who received no gift, likely the result of the slight stress brought on by the time and budget constraints.

Study summary.
Study summary. Courtesy Dr. Zak

This tracked with their brain activity, with a 67 percent oxytocin surge for those who got money versus 12 percent for recipients of chocolate. Such unexpected rewards not only increase store loyalty by making customers feel valuable and more connected, but one week later those who received money reported a 20 percent increase in their feeling of happiness.

"The rewards actually make you a better person and a healthier person in a very tangible way," says Dr. Zak. They do this, he explains, by triggering the release of oxytocin, which reduces stress and creates a desire to interact with people in a more caring way, which in turn causes an oxytocin release in others, and so on, with its effects lasting about 30 minutes.

"Oxytocin starts this virtuous cycle of positive social behaviors," he says, which the mere joy of shopping would not, despite the undeniable pleasure humans get from buying stuff. (In that case, they are enjoying what Dr. Zak calls a "selfish reward.") For oxytocin to kick in, you have to have a caring interaction that gets processed in your brain as a social reward, which makes you a nicer person, for a while at least. A hug does the same thing, but would release about two-thirds less oxytocin than the financial reward in the study, while sex boosts it 100 percent, earlier research showed.

"Oxytocin is the biological basis for the Golden Rule," he says. "You treat me nice, then my brain makes oxytocin and I'll treat you nice in return."

Dr. Paul J. Zak.
Dr. Paul J. Zak. Courtesy Dr. Zak

If retailers can figure out how to harness this by creating positive experiences for their customers, it will make them happier, healthier, and will help build store loyalty. The next step, says Dr. Zak, is to "design cultures in which you get this constant oxytocin release." Whether a three-person startup, a giant corporation or some other type of organization, he goes on, "If we can build in the sense of social connection, care, and compassion, then they will be very healthy and productive organizations, and the world will be a better place."

One way to engineer such experiences at the workplace, for instance, would be to put policies in place that create engaging everyday experiences that make oxytocin flow.

So if you could, say, bring your dog to work and pet it every 30 minutes, you – and those whose path you cross – could wind up calmer, kinder, and more connected. Everyone wins, including your dog.

Cover image by Daniel Krieger