Dopamine is the happiness hormone.
Whenever you do something that your brain enjoys, it rewards you with this hormone.
When you spend time with someone that you love, dopamine is released.
Or when you reach one of your goals and succeed at something, you get a surge of dopamine.
Different situations induce different amounts of dopamine released in your body.
You do something good and your brain rewards you by a considerable amount of dopamine. And you usually become more motivated to get more dopamine by accomplishing more or spending meaningful time with those close to you.
You want the reward but you know that to get the reward you must do a considerable amount of work first. So, you put in the work. You wait. You get the reward. And you usually become more motivated and aim for more.
Up until here, everything is OK.
The dopamine, or the reward system, is doing a great job at keeping you not only motivated but also happier when you achieve your goals.
Troubles happen when our reward system gets hijacked.
How does it get hijacked? By doing the exact opposite of what’s healthy. By getting huge amounts of dopamine with little or no effort at all. Consistently.
When you’re able to get huge amounts of dopamine without having to do a considerable amount of work, you’re screwed!
That’s when it’s said that your reward system got hijacked. And when that happens, you’ll start chasing the highs. In other words, you’ll be chasing instant gratification.
And when you chase instant gratification (the highs), 2 things in your life will suffer: your happiness levels and your motivation levels. Needless to remind you how your life will be when those 2 levels hit rock bottom.
But, here’s the thing: our society nowadays is designed in such a way that chasing those highs is the norm. (Plus, it’s pretty damn easy). The hijacked reward system has become the norm.
To keep your reward system, and dopamine levels, intact, you need a deliberate and a proactive effort. But it’s worth the effort because your happiness and motivation levels might suffer otherwise.
In this article, we want to reclaim our reward system back.
First, we’re going to quickly look at how our society (worldwide, in fact) nowadays has become dopamine-oriented. Then we’re going to explore few possible solutions to help you break free from this crazy cycle of hijacking and conditioning.
Unhealthy dopamine and our culture
Unfortunately, we have many sources that will give your brain a huge amount of dopamine effortlessly.
In general, every activity that gives you instant gratification (reads: dopamine rush with little effort) is an escapement method. We use it to escape our bitter reality for a while. We get the nice feelings of the dopamine rush right away. However, they never last; they fade away as quickly as they came.
The thing is that most of these activities, that are nothing but escapement and distraction methods, have become very accessible, and even acceptable, in our societies.
It’s the norm to get the instant gratification using the escapement methods. You need to be aware of these sources of stimulation. Why? Because they’re going to hijack your reward system, and so affect your happiness and motivation levels (and thus your life quality).
Here’s how our reward system is hijacked nowadays:
- Internet: using the internet in a specific way can trigger dopamine. Browsing internet aimlessly. You know, going from YouTube to Reddit and then twitter. Doing that in the hope of coming across something funny. Some scientists say that dopamine is released also in anticipation of pleasure. When you’re expecting a reward, you’ll get a dopamine surge. So, we scroll down and keep searching while hijacking our brain in the process. (See: The science of how the net affects brainpower, very informative.)
- Social Media: some studies showed that the act of receiving likes, shares, and comments gives the person a false sense of accomplishment. Also, scrolling down through the news feed is nothing but an attempt to come across something that would stimulate dopamine. Again, anticipated pleasure that will release dopamine.
- Smartphones: add the 2 points above together and you have this one. Smartphones have made it very easy and effortless to browse the internet and/or the social media. Let alone other apps and addictive games.
- Junk and fast food: food can stimulate dopamine as well. Junk food is addictive because it can stimulate dopamine lavishly. Plus, it’s easy and fast to get.
- Relationships: dysfunctional ones where one (or both) of partners are trying to fill a void. The highs of being with someone, or being desired by someone, are not only for ego boosts but also for easy-earned dopamine.
- Pornography: the worst! It gives you a huge amount of dopamine by only sitting there and clicking the mouse or tapping a mobile screen. It can kill your motivation to do anything because, after all, you can get an insane amount of dopamine by doing nothing.
- Video games: they’re designed to be addictive. They stimulate a considerable amount of dopamine. Remember the concept: they give you an unearned dopamine by doing nothing but sitting there and playing. A recent article on LifeHackers suggests that some studies found a link between (excessive) gaming and unemployment.
Of course, I’m not advocating against all these activities. Not all of them are bad. For instance, internet, social media, and video games are a part of almost every guy’s life.
All these things are not only tempting but also available for almost anyone. And they’re addictive. And if you’re not careful enough, they can hijack your reward system. They can condition you to seek instant gratification most of the time. They can decrease your ability to delay gratification …
… if they become a normal part of your lifestyle. (Note: men are more prone to adopt this lifestyle. Thus, they’re at a greater risk of seeking instant gratification and screwing their character).
The point is that those activities can cause real damages. Those activities can have dramatic effects on our reward system if done consistently and beyond moderation. They can hijack your reward system if they become a normal part of your lifestyle. (More resources are below in the further reading section.)
Because our lifestyle is based on these stimulations, no wonder why we can find neither happiness nor the motivation to find it.
When unhealthy dopamine beats the healthy dopamine
Think about someone who has an access to a room that’s full of the unhealthy dopamine sources mentioned above.
He goes in there and spends 2 weeks there. He’s isolated. He surfs internet and social media. He watches porn (and masturbates!). He plays video games. And, of course, he eats food to stay alive. He eats junk food.
This is an extreme lifestyle. Many of you won’t be doing something like this, but hear me out.
This person would be high on dopamine. Here’s what would happen to him after a while:
- He would be desensitized. Normal activities with a normal amount of dopamine won’t feel good anymore. What would feel good is the huge amount he gets to have inside this crazy room.
- Motivation level would hit rock bottom. After all, if he could stimulate a huge amount of “happiness” with little effort, why would he go out there and try to get “happiness” with much effort. Much more like a shortcut. But in reality, it’ll lead to nowhere but misery.
- Happiness levels would suffer a great deal. Scientifically, because the dopamine rush won’t last for long. It’ll fade away quickly and then you have to stimulate it again. This cycle would make you miserable. Logically, you would have no motivation to accomplish your goals because your reward system is screwed up. Those are escapement and distraction methods that you use to feel good for a while. And when you spend a lot of time escaping, your life quality will suffer.
We can sum this up by saying that many of us want an escapement and a distraction from life. It’s a human’s instinct to want the easy road, but it’s an instinct that we should resist in order to become better.
The problem is that nowadays the escapement and the distraction methods have become dangerous. They’re dangerous because they miss up with your reward system more powerfully than anything in the human’s history.
They screw up your character by making you expect to get a reward without doing much effort. And they make you hooked so you’re always chasing the highs of dopamine that never last and that are unearned and thus unfulfilling.
The first step is awareness. Without awareness, you’ll never change anything.
I mentioned in my book The Art of Change that sometimes we live in our own caves to the point where we deny that there’s a light (and a life) outside those caves.
Awareness is how you leave these caves.
In simple words, you need to become more aware of this problem. You need to become aware of the effects that the things mentioned above have on you.
This article is a good start. Also, you may check the links in this article as it leads to a more thorough research. And in the end of this article, I’ll recommend few books that will help you dive deeper. That’s how you get awareness.
The second step is to learn and unlearn. Here’s exactly what I mean:
- Unlearn the habits of getting a huge amount of dopamine with little effort. The huge amount of dopamine will eventually make you miserable.
- Learn to get a realistic amount of dopamine with a considerable amount of effort. The realistic amount of dopamine will eventually make you more fulfilled.
But as simple as that sounds, it’s not going to be easy.
For instance, when you start cutting out the sources of huge-dopamine-with-little-effort, you’re going to feel really bad.
Simply because your reward system is used to getting a certain amount of dopamine. Now it’s gone. Now you have a lower amount of dopamine and it’s scaring. Your mind is going to adopt, but it’s going to take its time.
Also, you’re going to undo years of conditioning if you’ve been doing any of the above activities (especially porn and video games) for years. That’s going to be painful and hard.
Then you have to start getting healthy amounts of dopamine by healthy means.
That, too, is not easy. Especially if you’re used to the opposite.
You need to put in the effort and wait until you get your reward. No instant gratification anymore. This is delayed gratification.
As you can see, this is a long-term process. Reclaiming your reward system is not going to be easy. But it’s going to be very rewarding.
Your motivation levels will skyrocket. You will want to do something with your life. Since you no longer get instant gratification, you have no other choice than getting that delayed gratification.
And remember, instant gratification will never make you happy. You’ll be stuck in a cycle where you’re chasing a high after high, with every “high” making you emptier and more miserable.
Delayed gratification is what will make you happier. You’ll be motivated to work. You’ll be (you have to be) patient until you make it. And when you make it, it’s going to feel way better than any instant gratification you’ve ever gotten in your life.
Reclaim your happiness. Reclaim your character and motivation levels. Reclaim your life back. Say no to instant gratification and distraction. Living a life where you’re chasing unearned dopamine rushes is meaningless. Delayed gratification, though painful, will eventually make you happier and improve the quality of your life, let alone strength your character. So, which route do you choose?
These are not affiliate links. I get nothing if you buy any of these books.
- Man Interrupted: Why young men are suffering and what we can do about it By Nikita Coulombe and Philip Zimbardo
- The Shallows: What the internet is doing to your brain By Nicholas Carr
- Your Brain on Porn: Internet pornography and the emerging science of addiction By Gary Wilson
The Willpower Instinct By Kelly McGonigal