Dopamine7 min read

Do not bite at the bait of pleasure till you know there is no hook beneath it.

—Thomas Jefferson

Contrary to popular belief, dopamine is not the “pleasure” chemical; it is the arousal chemical. Your brain releases dopamine whenever it recognizes a reward opportunity, either real or imagined.

Dopamine creates alertness, craving, and arousal, motivating us to get that reward—and until we get it, we feel anxiety, restlessness, stress, and discontentment, often accompanied by a burning desire or sense of urgency. When we achieve the reward, dopamine quiets down, and that relief is perceived as pleasure or satisfaction—more so than the enjoyment of the reward itself.

Even when you know from experience that the reward doesn’t live up to the expectation, dopamine will still show up and tempt you. In The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal, PhD, describes this cycle and concludes, along the same lines as the Buddha and other spiritual masters, that we confuse desire with happiness. We are all addicted to dopamine.

Yet dopamine is not bad. It is not a defect of the brain. It promotes healthy motivation, focus, working memory, and other benefits. If we are low in dopamine, we experience fatigue, poor concentration, low sex drive, apathy, difficulty sleeping, and mental health challenges such as depression, ADHD, and addiction. We need adequate dopamine levels to function well and to successfully pursue our goals.

The problem is the way we seek to experience dopamine. When you can delay the experience of the reward, dopamine motivates you to stay on track; it keeps you focused and resourceful. However, when you seek to experience high but brief bursts of dopamine repeatedly (instant gratification), that wears out your motivation. It can also lead to addiction.

The Trap of Easy Dopamine

Right after the reward we so anxiously sought, dopamine levels—and with it our motivation and focus—often drop considerably. Constant over-exposure to dopamine also makes us less sensitive, as the body down-regulates to protect itself from overstimulation. That is why the tenth scoop of ice cream doesn’t feel as pleasurable as the first.

Psychologist Douglas Lisle, in his TEDx talk on The Pleasure Trap, describes an experiment in which a caged bird could hit a button that flooded its brain with cocaine. The bird hit the button all the time. It skipped eating and mating, and it kept pushing that button until it died, fourteen days later.

Our modern life is not too different from that cage. Every time we get a “like” on our social media post, watch another funny video, play an addictive game, get sexually aroused, drink alcohol, or go for chocolate cake, our brain produces a strong, if temporary, hit of dopamine. It doesn’t take much effort, seems harmless—and easily becomes an addictive habit.

We are surrounded by sources of instant dopamine. In fact, everything around us is designed to distract us, and to lure us in with the power of dopamine. It’s all around us in shopping centers, social media, and in almost every app on our phones. We are being trained to be addicted to easy dopamine, because that is very profitable for most companies.

Lower Dopamine Baselines: Getting repeated, short bursts of dopamine lowers our baseline dopamine levels, thus reducing our self-discipline—our motivation, willpower, energy, and focus. With every small indulgence, we get a bit more indifferent toward our long-term aspirations, and lose energy to pursue our deeper goals.

After a while, seeking the easy dopamine hit is automatic. We hurt ourselves little by little without noticing it, just like the bird in the cage, living a life devoid of deeper meaning. 

Dopamine is what generates energy that drives us to pursue our goals. If you keep bringing that energy back to zero every day by indulging in instant gratification, is it at all surprising that you don’t feel so driven to seek your long-term goals?

Busy Working Memory: Constantly seeking quick bursts of dopamine also hurts your long-term goals by occupying your working memory. Part of your awareness is constantly trapped in pleasure-seeking in the background. Temptations easily come to the front your attention, feeling more tangible than your long-term goals. It’s too easy to indulge—without even noticing. 

Weakened Pre-Frontal Cortex: Habitual instant gratification can hurt your brain. Scans of addicts’ brains show that the prefrontal cortex area—responsible for awareness, conscious thinking, and willpower—gets weakened and less active with overindulgence in the addictive activity. 

The Bottom Line: Quick dopamine makes you indifferent to your aspiration and higher values, because you satisfy part of that thirst for achievement and satisfaction a hundred times each day, through small pleasures that distract you from your goals and disperse your energy. Naturally, when you are able to do that so easily and (apparently) without consequences, you will begin to feel less strongly about the most important goals in your life—which are uncertain and require a lot of effort to achieve.

Managing Your Dopamine

The way to revert this vicious cycle is to see the quick hits happening (awareness), and to refrain from them (willpower), choosing instead the activities that increase your dopamine baseline—such as physical exercise, learning, working on long-term goals, and meditation.

This shift increases motivation and focus, making you less dependent on constant stimulation. When we can delay the experience of the reward, dopamine motivates us to stay on track; it keeps us focused and resourceful.

By developing self-discipline and managing your dopamine, you experience more fulfillment—and more pleasure too, because you are not desensitizing yourself. Such is the paradox of pleasure: seek it, and you will lose it; forsake it, and it will follow you like a shadow. Nothing is more pleasurable than living life on purpose.

The brain is hard-wired first to survive and avoid pain; its second function is pleasure. It will always push you toward the highest perceived reward requiring the least amount of energy, because saving energy supports survival. This ancient mechanism is not so useful in modern life, when we want more than survival.

We want self-actualization, growth, and fulfillment, and those higher rewards are not always what the brain perceives as the highest—besides, they take a lot of energy. The way around this is to increase the perceived reward for your long-term goals, in relation to short-term pleasures (Aspiration Pillar), and to keep this insight top of mind day after day, especially when you find yourself facing self-control challenges (Awareness Pillar).

It Won’t Suck

Even if we see clearly how junk dopamine is harming us, we may still feel resistance to change. Won’t giving up pleasures mean giving up the joys of life, leaving it dull, boring, and dry? Ultimately, no. Self-discipline leads to fulfillment, not self-denial.

You might experience some displeasure during the transition, a few days or weeks, but soon your quality of life increases. Research shows that people with stronger self-control are happier with themselves, experience fewer negative emotions, and actually appreciate pleasure even more, for all the reasons discussed above.

Researcher Wilhelm Hofmann and his colleagues did some studies on this topic, with the purpose of understanding how practicing self-control affects life satisfaction. They found that even though people experienced pleasure when indulging in a temptation, that spike of happiness was short-lived and soon received a “correction”. People felt less happy after indulging.

There are several possible reasons for this. First is that experiencing pleasures, even repeatedly, does not increase your baseline happiness. They may offer temporary relief from feelings of boredom or emotional distress, but they do nothing to change how you feel in the long-run. 

Second is that there is also pleasure and a sense of satisfaction in pursuing long-term goals—you feel good about yourself, and this feeling often lasts much longer than indulging in short-term pleasures. We need to enhance our awareness of this fact by remembering it often.

Third, many of the pleasurable activities we seek come with considerable side effects to our physical or mental health. Think of obesity, alcoholism, social media addiction, and short attention spans.

Finally, as already covered, there is a natural down-regulation of pleasure in our nervous system; the more we have it, the less we appreciate it. Do you want to live a more meaningful and also more pleasant life? Sacrifice thy pleasures at the altar of thy aspiration!

Having more self-control is not only good for your long-term goals and aspirations, but it actually makes you live a better life.

What Sacrifice Are You Making?

Success, growth, and fulfillment require some sacrifice. Otherwise, everybody would be healthy, wealthy, wise, in shape, accomplished and enlightened. Yet, look around you.

Sacrifice is inevitable in life; whenever you choose one thing you say no to a thousand other things. When you say yes to instant gratification in an unconscious way, you say no to your goals, weakening your willpower. 

What are your sources of quick dopamine?

How are you leaking away your will, focus, and motivation?

Reflect on this to understand the problem and its consequences. Then, make a strong resolution to change your relationship to dopamine.

This article is a summary of key ideas taken from Chapter 6 of Mindful Self-Discipline. To dive deeper, get the book or audiobook.


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