Have you ever had that experience where something comes into your field of consciousness from multiple angles at the same time? Something you were aware of but never shone light on before? This happened to me with dopamine.
It all started with a phone call from a friend who told me he realised all of his problems in life stemmed from activities that promote dopamine activity. That week, a waterfall of coincidences happened where a bunch of close friends had similar unrelated epiphanies. Perhaps there was some strange coherence in the collective. Perhaps it’s a product of post-COVID emergence feelings. Or perhaps we are all just getting old and figuring out what matters.
One friend realised he had a dopamine addiction. Another one, on a spiritual path, came to the conclusion that all his suffering came from wanting things. Another realised he had lost the ability to entertain himself through constant pursuit of entertainment by always travelling. Another couple have been exploring tantra sex, withholding the orgasmic release.
The common theme was the pursuit of pleasure and it all boiled down to the brain chemical ‘dopamine’.
Let’s explore dopamine for a hot minute:
Dopamine is a ‘feel-good’ chemical. It’s part of our complex reward centre in our brain. It’s a motivation chemical, helping us move towards things we want. Evolutionarily it helped us go towards food and sex. All animals have dopamine, humans just have the most. Scientists believe it was one of the keys to our evolutionary dominance. Dopamine doesn’t actually produce pleasure; it’s a neurotransmitter of behaviours to sensations. Your body makes it, and your nervous system uses it to send messages between nerve cells. That’s why it’s sometimes called a chemical messenger. Dopamine is the ‘I can get it’ feeling. It’s the rush of pleasure when you know you are about to get something you desire.
But dopamine has a more sinister side. Drugs such as cocaine, nicotine and Adderall cause huge boosts in dopamine. The ‘high’ people feel when they use drugs comes partly from that dopamine spike. And that prompts people to seek out those drugs again and again — even though they are harmful. Indeed, the brain ‘reward’ associated with that high can lead to drug abuse and eventually to addiction.
Dopamine doesn’t just show up when we have drugs. It’s in our everyday life. Social media apps are designed to keep us addicted through dopamine – and as we found out, Facebook knows this. Love is a dopamine drug, and I’m hard pressed to find many people who have escaped that one. Food and sugar is a huge dopamine trigger. Gambling is all dopamine. Control, power, making money, spending money, orgasms, dating apps, watching sports, playing video games, investing, crypto – it’s all dopamine driven.
But here is the thing about humans. We are by our very nature adaptive beings. It’s what helped us evolve to where we are right now. But that adaptation comes at a price, once we get something our brains are extremely good at normalising that thing. When we have a good thing we need more of it to get the same feeling. It’s how we can desire something so badly, then we get there and we aren’t as fulfilled as we thought. The getting it part is actually the problem.
People (including me) drop the line, “it’s the journey not the destination”, all the time. But this is the main point I’m coming to realise – it’s all the fucking journey. The big secret no one tells you? There is no destination, you’re already there. As Jan Blomqvist sings, “Emma wants the secret to be told. That the fucking rainbow has no gold”. The destination is fleeting at best, the journey is perpetual.
This brings me to probably the most important lesson I’ve been learning lately, that a bunch of my close friends all figured out around the same time: Do less. Our twenties revolved around chasing dopamine. From this exciting thing to this exciting thing. With these people. Doing these drugs. Falling in and out of love. Squeezing as much dopamine from life as we could. Then 2020 happened. We slowed our roll a little. We took the foot of the gas. We realized that we were going nowhere fast. Or perhaps we just got old.
So if everything good spikes our dopamine, and dopamine leads to addiction, how do we have a healthy relationship with dopamine? We do less. We surrender preference for the desire. Because once you surrender the preference you have the power. You are not controlled by your chemicals. You are conscious. And when you are conscious the power is back in your hands.
Taking action is as simple as making a list of all the things that give you pleasure. Mark the ones that are driven by dopamine, perhaps the ones you are addicted to. Now pick one and don’t do it for a week. It’s simple but profound.
Take back the power. You are more than your chemicals.