Does Competency-Awareness Drive Serotonin Levels?

Back in 2013, I wrote what I didn’t know would become my all-time most popular blog post, Serotonin and Social Status. In that post, I posed this question:

“Are there mindfulness strategies that might moderate against ‘societal’ influence on serotonin? Meditation? Yoga? Is there such a thing as self-confidence that does not peg its worth to external factors, and might that help? Such strategies would put me at greater command of my serotonin levels, rather than being solely at the mercy of others regard for me.”

Well, I think I finally have an answer to that question, and the answer comes from Jordan Peterson. Over the past month, I’ve binge-watched close to two dozen hours of him on YouTube, and it has taken me a while to come to terms with what he has to say and how it relates to my question.  I don’t have a quote or a clip from him that sums it up, so I’ll try my best to formulate a cogent thought.

If you haven’t yet, go ahead and read my previous article, then come back here and see if you think serotonin is correlated with dominance. That’s what I thought, until recently. After hearing Jordan’s distinction betweeen dominance hierarchies and competence hierarchies, serotonin seems to me to be a biochemical marker of awareness of one’s own competence. Consider Matt Ridley’s description of high-ranking vervet monkeys:

“The high-ranking individuals are not especially large, fierce or violent. They are good at things like reconciliation and recruiting allies. They are notable for their calm demeanor.”

A vervet mother & child

Does that sound like their high rank is the result of their dominance? Or their competence?

Conversely, awareness of one’s own incompetence reduces serotonin levels. Matt Ridley again:

“In university fraternities, the leading figures are blessed with rich serotonin concentrations which fall if they are deposed.”

Simon Sinek calls serotonin “the leadership chemical.” Is leadership a synonym for competence? Do incompetent leaders have the same favorable serotonin regulation as incompetent ones?

Are words like leadership and dominance inaccurately articulating why our bodies produce serotonin? Is competence a more accurate term, and therefore more instructive?

The lesson serotonin tries to teach us may be: become competent at the various things you do. Willful incompetence metes out its own punishment via poor serotonin regulation.

Of course, this is a theory. I’d be interested to see a study that tested if competency-awareness protected against reduced social status that is not due to lack of competency. What if percipients were shamed for getting a problem wrong when they know they got it right? What would happen to their serotonin?

Moving on slightly, if I attempt to follow Jordan’s lines of reasoning further, we may add another natural serotonin booster over which we have control. It looks something like this:

When our life hews to fundamental shared human values, the sum total of those values becomes a buttress against those two factors that influence serotonin levels: how you are perceived by your social community, and how you regard yourself. Hewing to highest order principles gives your life a sense of meaning and purpose, and is its own deep form of competence: competence at life.

To quote Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” I suspect Nietzsche’s insight might then lead to, “He who leads a purpose-driven life will boost his own serotonin levels.”

At this point, you may be sympathetic to the notion that competency has biochemical ramifications and a can yield a favorable biochemical profile. So the question that follows is, what things should I focus on as I strive to become more competent? To that end, I’ve put together a Competency Matrix.

Super Human

Shameless Plug:
I love Jordan Peterson, partly because I love long-form discussion, I love psychological interpretations of religious precepts, and I love lectures. For plenty of people, one or more of those may be an obstacle to checking Jordan out in depth. Plenty of people like their insights to be fed to them through entertainment (I do too!) To that end, I’ve written my first Science Fiction Novella (Young Adult/New Adult): Super Human. In this book, I attempt to convey ancient truths to a modern audience. If you are a fan Steven Spielberg’s style, you might like Super Human.

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