Last weekend, I was honored to celebrate a friend who was diagnosed with cancer 20 years ago—and is cancer-free today. I sat at a table with other women business owners who “knew her when” during those first dark days and stayed around through the setbacks and scares.

We all felt lucky and grateful to be gathered for a happy event.

This made me think about what goes on in our brains when we celebrate: particularly at work.

Your Brain on Good Conversations at Office Celebrations

Here’s what the research shows is going on.

Two neuropeptides are released in your brain: oxytocin and endorphins. These “feel good” chemicals do more than give us a sense of wellbeing. They make it feel safer for us to take risks, experiment, and step up to challenges at work.

Having an interesting conversation at a party, or cheering, also boost a neurotransmitter called serotonin. This improves focus, increases motivation, enhances innovative thinking, and moves us from a preoccupation with stress to a greater interest in success.

We also experience an increase in another neurotransmitter: dopamine. This stimulates our prefrontal cortex, helping us pay attention to important activities, ignore distractions, and focus on updating only the key information in our working memory as we solve problems.

All of this is the brain’s equivalent to eating your favorite dessert: it’s a reward that you want more of!

Reducing the Stress Signals in Your Head

While these good things are happening, the amount of cortisol in your brain is going down. Called the “stress hormone,” this chemical can damage your hippocampus (responsible for short-term memory), shut down learning, create anxiety and cause depression.

In addition, when people acknowledge, encourage and support you, this calms your amygdala. That’s the part of your brain in charge of your fight, flight or freeze response. This means you can be calmer and more thoughtful rather than reactive.

Create a Culture of Celebration

Here’s a bonus: moods are contagious. All these rewarding feelings (and reduction of stress/fear/aggression) flow from one person to the next.

When we give others sincere public praise, our people feel trusted and supported. This makes them more likely to try new things, speak up more, push back when they see something that doesn’t look right, and be more confident.

Nowhere in here is anything about speeches from management accompanied by boring PowerPoints. Make these celebrations about recognizing your people and their achievements rather than you and your messages.

Look for more ways to create meaningful celebrations. Be sincere in recognizing people’s efforts in front of others. Find ways to help your teams to speak with each other, get to know each other and share ideas. Let those feel-good chemicals flow—and reap the benefits of happier, more innovative and collaborative employees.

Want to know more about what’s happening in your teams’ heads? Let’s talk.

(Highway Unicorn Cake Photo: