Honor Worth Living

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When I think of honor in action today, I think of Malala Yousafzai, who refused to be silenced by a Taliban bullet to the head. In spite of threats to her life, Malala advocated girls’ education and became the youngest Nobel Peace prize winner. While we may not change the world as Malala did, we can witness the super power behind an act of honor, even from a young child.

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At only 10 years of age, Malala stood up against the Taliban in Pakistan, and stood her ground that girls should all be educated, just as boys enjoyed that privilege.

While riding the bus home from school,  October 9th, 2012, Malala survived a point-blank shot to her head by a Taliban gunman. She surprised everybody by pulling through and soon became an international icon of the power of change through peaceful protests.

Malala’s  human rights advocacy work is best summed up in her own words,

“When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.”  ( Malala Yousafzai)

Honor, or the impetus to stand up for something great doesn’t come from smoking weed or inhaling narcotics to break out happier places for ourselves and others. Sure, science affirms that these drugs can definitely lift moods. Cultivate natural chemicals such as serotonin though, and open the brain to develop a growth mindset for change, as Malala did.

Did you know that we can craft neurological shifts that help us act with valor, without side effects of synthetic drugs? First, stimulate and awaken pleasant memories of  heroic possibilities, and we increase the brain’s aha hormone, serotonin. How so?

A growth mindset comes more from chemicals currently coursing through our minds, than most of us realize. We each possess neurotransmitters that become channels into imagination and crack open windows into creativity such as Malala’s curiosity about how girls can become free to learn. We get high on an adrenaline rush to ask better questions, and we listen to answers with the curiosity of a young child’s eagerness to learn for the first time. Gandhi uncovered tools to, “Be the change.” The opposite is also true. If we underestimate the power of our minds to change our world, we can default mentally to downers or anger triggered habits stockpiled in our brain’s warehouse, or basal ganglia.

Honor is rarely found in a fixed mindset that causes us to fear normal mental reactions. Fixed mindsets are fueled by toxins that diminish talents and shut down innovative thinking. In contrast, courage is a decision that opens our minds to build a yes-and-I-can-change-it ethos. I start leadership initiatives with the question, “What about this issue inspires change?”

Why do some of us find more flaws than mindful communication capabilities? Possibly schools or traditional organizations failed to acknowledge a wider array of human competencies. Or maybe we fail to use our brain’s ready-to-roll equipment to cascade imagination and creativity into actions we’re willing to stand for.

It’s no surprise that our three pound brain, fueled by thousands of miles of blood vessels, can also help us stretch our imagination into creative possibilities. But a brain gulps up 21% of our oxygen, so it simply makes sense to exercise and replenish its hundred trillion electrical connections.  Imagine making connections between a problem and winning possibilities that stand equal to the number of stars in a thousand Milky Way galaxies, and you’ve captured the wonder of your mindful capabilities.

Luckily mindfulness, or our focused attention on any moment, also awakens neurotransmitters that can fuel our communication efforts. Mindfulness calls for mental tools such as multiple intelligences illustrated in the diagram below.  Rather than remain prisoner in Plato’s cave in the shadows where we fool ourselves into thinking that place is truth, brain based honor generates new possibilities and reshapes images that ensure our future becomes brighter than our past.


When mind-bending chemicals surge through our brains and shape heroic ideas, we tend to generate mindful alternatives by our natural neurotransmission activity, much as happened to Malala.

I created six characters called namungos for instance, to show how neurotransmitters regulate our moods, motivation, cravings, energy, stress and ability to focus. These little critters take center stage in brain conferences, as fictitious characters with real brain parts to move our mojo out of shadows and into a brain-friendly future, where honor and value take the lead.

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It’s true that no credible ways exist yet to measure exact neurotransmitter levels in our brain, It’s also true however, that we do know how certain symptoms are linked to our brain’s neurotransmitters. In fact we observe tangible benefits they offer, such as Malala’s zest to improve education for all. Honor reaches beyond anger to launch growth.

Recently I encountered the word, “anger-porn.” Just the right word to showcase how we hold onto anger about Taliban antics, or personal obstacles to growth.  Unlike Malala, if we fail to let go of emotional hurts we also increase cortisol, a dangerous stress chemical that shuts down our ability to think, learn or lead change.

Does your well-oiled imagination generate new a growth area to lead with valor? Do you enjoy the mental energy to chase creativity needed to improve a broken area you encountered? Perhaps you are asking, as I am, why drug overdose deaths have skyrocketed among women from ages 30 to 64?  Honor takes it a step further and finds the mental drive needed to rev up serotonin or oxytocin chemicals that provide the boost we crave as heroic leaders headed for change. Not that we can remove every speed-bump we encounter.

Nor should we feel drained or stuck in a slump when we cannot right a wrong.  It helps to consider serotonin’s impact on imagination and creativity’s flow though. Simple reminders of this molecule of wellbeing will help us to fuel peacefulness, confidence, serenity and hopefulness, much like Malala carries into her days. We can learn to pre-empt low levels of serotonin that leave us depressed or feeling hopeless about drug deaths or educational obstructions for many. Sadly, anger hold our brains hostage in its porn-like-grip, and fear covets our focus, until we mentally shift into choices for hormones such as oxytocin that reduces stress, adds feelings of warmth, and spikes our trust in people close to us, who will support us. Such a shift optimizes our courageous ability and generates energy for cathedral insights with increased tryptophan, which is serotonin’s core building block. How so?

Rather than an honorable moment, we can build a lifestyle where heroic actions become as natural to us as they are to honorable people like Malala. Natural shifts to increase serotonin’s happiness molecules include eating protein-rich foods such as meat, eggs, fish, and dairy. Carbohydrates can also boost serotonin levels as we make decisions to lead change. Take a brisk walk before you propose change, start your day refreshed after a good sleep, or you might bring your laptop out to a sunny spot on the patio to increase serotonin levels as you list priorities for the day. Serotonin works with other neurotransmitters such as endorphins that keep us relaxed and euphoric, and works with dopamine, a hero’s reward chemical.

Looking for more drive to tackle a major problem? Change agents like Malala find motivation by accessing their brain’s reward chemicals, associated with pleasure and the ability to take risks. Our brains release dopamine for example, when needs are met and a feeling of satisfaction follows its uptick to hand us energy needed to accomplish an honorable goal with zest.

In similar ways we increase serotonin, we also boost dopamine naturally with the right foods, supplements, and lifestyle activities. Amino acid tyrosine makes dopamine, for instance, and it’s found in avocados, green leafy vegetables, apples, beets, chocolate, oatmeal, nuts, and seeds. Drink coffee or sip green tea as you prioritize your day and you’ll also increase dopamine benefits. Walk before making decisions, or meditate as another way to focus and dopamine also increases naturally. Even a glass of wine works well here. Be careful to limit alcohol though, to avoid slipping from increased serotonin into cortisol’s pit.

Take regulated risks with new challenges as a way to boost dopamine levels far faster. Avoid mental blockers such as stress and dopamine reboots healthy risk-taking. How so? Accept that brain buster challenge much like Malala accepted her call to open schools to girls, and we break down oversized problems into bite sized possibilities, for instance. Check off doable pieces after each is completed and expect small dopamine boosts with each tick. 

By now you’ll likely agree that the brain’s honor-producing neurotransmitters or chemical messengers become the brain cells’ unique way to communicate with each other. They also determine the creativity and imagination our brains enjoy as we attempt to improve a situation.

What may surprise you here, is that people like Malala, who naturally increase serotonin or dopamine chemicals to kick-start their leadership of a worthy cause, also tend to also produce “endogenous” cannabinoids.  That’s of course the same chemicals contained in weed. Expect further benefits, as natural cannabinoids located in our hippocampus will improve memory.  At the same time, cognition or the ability to choose wisely, is impacted by cannabinoids located in our cerebral cortex. And cannabinoids in the amygdala impacts moods to help us regulate emotions that enhance honor-related skills.

This weed-like endocannabinoid system impacts mental functions in the central and peripheral nervous systems and in peripheral organs. It acts as a type of dimmer switch which controls a change-agent’s moods and affects levels of anxiety, by slowing down synaptic firings between neurons.  The jury is still out, however, on what specific actions or conditions will help us to stimulate our endocannabinoid system. 

Innovative leaders share many frustrations on their journeys from raw ideas to polished possibilities. That’s where our unique intelligences become game changers. “It’s not possible,” the cortisol-driven brain will insist. Focus on serotonin-fueled tools and our wider array of intelligences open different views though, for new observations of our issues from within different castle-tower-intelligences.

When we picture our brains as castles we view our talents as mental treasures. Imagination is cultivated consistently as we move from mental tower to tower, and view issues through our unique intelligences, as we see different castle views from many stances! We may even spot a refreshing new view through Einstein’s creed that imagination is more important than knowledge? 

Change that comes with honor, mindfulness and with mental magic takes practice though. Our brain can act a bit like a duck- or turkey-flushing golden retriever on a leash. Gently redirect your brain every time it darts away from key possibilities. Guide it back through a different intelligence, and boost its germane chemical fuels to act with honor in your next challenging situation.

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