Can a thing that makes you happy become too much? Find out what dopamine (the “feel good hormone”) is and why today we’re all addicts to some degree.
How many times have you checked your phone today? What about social media? How many times did you open the fridge even if you weren’t hungry – just out of habit, boredom, anxiety? How many times? If it’s too many to keep track of, you’re not alone.
We live in an overstimulating world, subject to stimuli triggering us to constantly eat, drink, buy… do anything to feel good, to be happy all the time.
We have lost the capacity to be uncomfortable, to be bored, to be alone with ourselves and our thoughts – and we will resort to anything to avoid that. So we reach for the phone, or the fridge, or the bottle.
We have all become addicts to a certain degree.
Instinctively, we know these behaviors are not good for us. That’s why social media breaks and meditation retreats have become so popular.
But why are we so addicted? Why can’t we just… stop?
The answer lies partially in the way your brain is designed and the substances it releases in response to stimulation from the environment. Contrary to what you may be thinking right now, the reason we can’t stop is related to a chemical that makes you… happy. And we don’t want to let it go.
You see, when we have positive experiences, the brain releases what is known in popular culture as “feel-good chemicals” or “happy chemicals” – neurotransmitters and hormones that trigger positive emotions.
Let’s take a look at them.
Aka the “love hormone”, oxytocin is secreted when we show affection to each other (hug, have sex), or when we’re involved in maternal behavior. It produces feelings of love and connection, boosts empathy, and helps create strong social bonds.
Acting in combination with dopamine, noradrenaline helps regulate learning, memory, and our sense of reward. It’s also a mood booster, with direct effects on our motivation and energy levels (low noradrenaline levels are linked to depression).
Ever heard of the “runner’s high”? That’s endorphins! Endorphins are natural painkillers, which also make us feel energized and euphoric. They are released when exercising, laughing, listening to music, and even taking cold showers.
The “happy hormone”, as it is widely known, serotonin helps balance our mood and promotes emotional well-being. It’s directly related to feelings of satisfaction and happiness, and low levels are linked to depression.
And last but definitely not least…
Advertised as the “pleasure molecule” or the “feel-good hormone”, dopamine is actually more related to craving and motivation. Dopamine moves us to seek pleasure and rewards, and it’s released by the brain when we anticipate pleasure, complete a task, or do something that feels good.
You’ve probably heard about dopamine in the media at some point, most likely for its connection with pleasure and addiction (if you’ve seen The Social Dilemma, this will resonate).
So what is all the hype about?
What is Dopamine & How Does it Work in the Brain?
As is the case with all neurotransmitters, dopamine’s functions are plenty and varied, but it has become notorious in recent years for its connection to pleasure and addiction.
Dubbed by clinical psychologist Vaughan Bell as “the Kim Kardashian of molecules” because of its widespread presence in the media and popular culture, dopamine is a bit misunderstood: it is indeed related to pleasure, but it’s not directly responsible for it.
Rather than producing pleasure, what dopamine does is motivate us to pursue pleasure. It is the thing that moves you to go get ice cream when you’re craving sugar or to watch another episode of that series you’ve been binging.
When we do something pleasurable like that, the brain thinks “oh, this feels nice”, and it releases dopamine, causing you to go seek more of that feeling.
So far so good: dopamine makes you look for things that feel good, so what’s the problem?
Dopamine, Addiction, and Quick Fixes
Nobody explains the brain dynamics of dopamine better than dopamine expert Dr. Anne Lambke: “Pleasure and pain are co-located”, she says, meaning that “the same parts of the brain that process pleasure also process pain.”
For us to feel at our best, these two sides need to be in balance, and the brain doesn’t like it when it tips too much on either side.
When the scale tilts to the pleasure side, the brain needs to generate pain (anxiety, stress, craving, even actual physical pain) to restore balance.
But here’s the thing: we don’t like experiencing pain, so we reach for what we call “quick fixes”: the phone, a muffin, a beer, sex, online shopping – whatever will make you feel good again. All these activities/substances give you a hit of dopamine, which, in turn, makes you go seek more of them, starting a loop of dependency that is hard to break.
It gets even trickier: when you’re exposed to the same stimuli over and over, your brain becomes less sensitive to them, so you need larger amounts of a stimulus to produce the same effect as before. At the same time, the craving for more gets stronger and lasts longer.
Eventually, you become dependent on those stimuli to keep functioning. This is why dopamine and addiction are related.
It’s also the reason why change is so difficult: motivation, discipline, and willpower disappear when we get our “quick fixes.” It’s easier to reach for your quick fix than to sit through the pain and discomfort you experience when you don’t get them.
Dopamine Addiction: the Real Problem
Dopamine itself is not the problem. It is a substance produced naturally in the brain and it has many vital functions. We need it to lead normal, healthy lives.
The problem is that, in modern life, we have too many pleasurable substances and behaviors. Not only that: they are everywhere and are easily accessible at all times – all you need to do is reach for your phone to get a dopamine hit.
Social media, in particular, is extremely addictive (it’s designed to be). Comments, likes, and retweets have become our go-to quick fix. That’s why Lambke has called the smartphone “the modern-day hypodermic needle, delivering digital dopamine 24/7.”
The result is that “we are bombarding our brains with more dopamine than our primitive brain can handle, so the pain response is constantly active.” In that state, “it becomes really hard to experience pleasure. And when you’re not using, you’re in a constant state of anxiety, irritability, insomnia, and craving,” all typical withdrawal symptoms.
This is what society looks like right now.
How do we break the loop?
We’ll talk about this in the next article, but, as a heads-up, the first step is to cut out all the feel-good substances and behaviors that have become your quick fixes for long enough so balance can be restored (what many call “dopamine fast” or “dopamine detox,” but we’ll deal with that later).